Franz Waxman

Franz Waxman ( Wachsmann; 24 December 1906 – 24 February 1967) was a German and American composer of Jewish descent, known primarily for his work in the film music genre. His film scores include Bride of Frankenstein, Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard, A Place in the Sun, Stalag 17, Rear Window, Peyton Place, The Nun's Story, and Taras Bulba. He received twelve Academy Award nominations, and won two Oscars in consecutive years (for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun). He also received a Golden Globe Award for the former film. Bernard Herrmann said that the score for Taras Bulba was "the score of a lifetime."

He also composed concert works, including the oratorio Joshua (1959), and The Song of Terezin (1965), a work for orchestra, chorus, and children's chorus based upon poetry written by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II.[1] Waxman also founded the Los Angeles Music Festival in 1947 with which he conducted a number of West Coast premieres by fellow film composers, and concert composers alike.[2]

Franz Waxman
Franz Waxman
Franz Wachsmann

December 24, 1906
DiedFebruary 24, 1967 (aged 60)
Era20th century


Early life (1906–1934)

Waxman was born Franz Wachsmann (German: [ˈvaksman]) in Königshütte to Jewish parents[3] in the German Empire's Prussian Province of Silesia (now Chorzów, Poland). At the age of three Waxman suffered a serious eye injury involving boiling water tipped from a stove, which left his vision permanently impaired.

In 1923, at age 16, Waxman enrolled in the Dresden Music Academy and studied composition and conducting. Waxman lived from the money he made playing popular music and managed to put himself through school.[4] While working as a pianist with the Weintraub Syncopators, a dance band, Waxman met Frederick Hollander, who eventually introduced Waxman to the eminent conductor Bruno Walter.[5]

Waxman worked as an orchestrator for the German film industry, including on Hollander's score for The Blue Angel (1930). Waxman's first dramatic score was for the film Liliom (1934). That year Waxman suffered a severe beating by Nazi sympathizers in Berlin that led him to leave Germany and move with his wife first to Paris,[6] and soon after to Hollywood.

Film music and the Los Angeles Music Festival (1935–1949)

In Hollywood, Waxman met James Whale, who had been highly impressed by Waxman's score for Liliom. The success of his score for Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) led to the young composer's appointment as Head of Music at Universal Studios.[7] Waxman, however, was more interested in composition than musical direction for film, and in 1936 he left Universal to become a composer at MGM.[8] Waxman scored a number of pictures during the next few years, but the score for Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) made his name. Waxman was frequently called to work on scores of horror or suspense films, and Rebecca was the culmination of the genre for Waxman.[9]

Rebecca was Hitchcock's first Hollywood film as part of his contract with David O. Selznick, and thus it was the first time he was allowed a full symphonic score.[10][11] Selznick financed the film at the same time as he was making Gone With the Wind. Waxman's score for Rebecca is eerie and ethereal, often setting the mood and as Jack Sullivan put it, becoming a "soundboard for the subconscious."[12]

In 1943 Waxman left MGM and moved to Warner Bros., where he worked alongside such great film composers as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. A period of extended composition followed, including such films as Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Objective, Burma! (1945).[13] A climactic scene in Objective, Burma! was scored fugally, and this would become one of Waxman's trademarks, returning in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and Taras Bulba (1962).[14]

In 1947 Waxman formed the Los Angeles Music Festival, for which he served as music director and conductor for the rest of his life.[15] Waxman's goal with the LA Music Festival was to bring the thriving town to "European cultural standards", according to Tony Thomas.[16] In addition to performing the work of great masters such as Stravinsky, he also collaborated with his colleagues, such as Miklós Rózsa, conducting his Violin Concerto.[17]

Post-war film scores (1947–1959)

His time at Warner Brothers did not last long and by 1947 Waxman had left Warner Brothers to become a freelance film composer, taking only the jobs he wanted rather than being appointed by the studio.[18] Waxman scored the film Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), which climaxes with the use of a passacaglia, highlighting Waxman's highly inventive use of unusual musical forms in film.[19] Waxman had used classical forms before: the climactic "Creation" cue from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (as Christopher Palmer puts it) "is in effect a fantasia on one note."[20]

His work on Sunset Boulevard (1950) led to an Academy Award. The score is fast-paced and powerful, utilizing various techniques to highlight the insanity of Norma Desmond, including low pulsing notes (first heard in The Bride of Frankenstein) and frequent trills. According to Mervyn Cooke, Richard Strauss's opera Salome was the inspiration for the wild trills heard during Desmond's insane final performance.[21]

Waxman received a second consecutive Oscar for A Place in the Sun (1951). However, while awards for film music highlighted the beginning of the 1950s, the decade is also the decade during which Waxman began to write serious works for the concert hall. The Sinfonietta for Strings and Timpani came in 1955 and 1959 saw the completion of Waxman's oratorio Joshua.[22] Composed to commemorate the death of Waxman's wife, Joshua with its strong Hebrew influences and extensive use of form is a powerful example of Waxman's compositional powers by the end of the 1950s.[23]

Later life (1960–1967)

Waxman's later life continued to see extreme growth as a composer. Christopher Palmer writes that at the time of his death in 1967, "Waxman was at the zenith of his powers."[24] Waxman's output in the 1960s was perhaps more subdued than that which came before it, however he did write Taras Bulba in 1962. Waxman worked on several television shows, including Gunsmoke, in 1966.

"The Song of Terezin" (1965) was based upon poetry by children trapped in the Nazi's Theresienstadt concentration camp.[25] Perhaps Waxman's deep spiritual connection to the subject came from his own encounters with Nazism on a Berlin street in 1934, but whatever the reason for Waxman's deep commitment to the subject, "The Song of Terezin" stands as the exemplary work of the composer's life.[26] The work is composed for mixed chorus, children's chorus, soprano soloist, and orchestra.

Waxman's career ended with his death from cancer in February 1967, two months after his sixtieth birthday.[27] He leaves a legacy of over 150 film scores and an abundant collection of concert works.


Some of Waxman's music has been featured on commercial recordings, both on LP and CD. Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra played highlights from various Waxman scores for an RCA Victor recording in the early 1970s that utilized Dolby surround sound. The music for Taras Bulba has been recorded by the City of Prague Philharmonic.

The American Film Institute ranked Waxman's score for Sunset Boulevard #16 on their list of the greatest film scores. His scores for the following films were also nominated for the list:


Selected concert works

  • Carmen Fantasie, (1946) for violin and orchestra
  • Tristan and Isolde Fantasy, for violin, piano and orchestra
  • Four Scenes from Childhood (1948), for violin and piano (written for Jascha Heifetz on the occasion of the birth of his son Jay)
  • Auld Lang Syne Variations (1947), for violin and chamber ensemble. Movements: "Eine kleine Nichtmusik," "Moonlight Concerto," "Chaconne a son gout," and "Hommage to Shostakofiev."
  • The Song of Terezín (1964–65), based on poems by children of Theresienstadt concentration camp
  • "Joshua" (1959), Oratorio


  1. ^ Palmer, Christopher. "Franz Waxman", Chapter 4 in The Composer in Hollywood. New York, NY: Marion Boyars, 1990, 96.
  2. ^ Palmer, 96.
  3. ^ the London telegraph: "The music behind Hollywood's golden age - As the Proms pays tribute to Hollywood's golden age, Tim Robey looks at the composers who redefined the film score" By Tim Robey 24 Aug 2013
  4. ^ Thomas, Tony. "Franz Waxman." Chap. 4 in Film Score: The Art & Craft of Movie Music. Burbank, CA: Riverwood Press, 1991, 35.
  5. ^ Thomas, 35.
  6. ^ Thomas, 35.
  7. ^ Thomas, 36.
  8. ^ Palmer, 96.
  9. ^ Palmer, 102.
  10. ^ Sullivan, Jack. Hitchcock's Music Chapter 5, "Rebecca: Music to Raise the Dead." New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006, 60.
  11. ^ Palmer, 102.
  12. ^ Sullivan, 59.
  13. ^ Thomas, 36.
  14. ^ Cooke, 100.
  15. ^ Palmer, 95.
  16. ^ Thomas, 36.
  17. ^ Palmer, 35.
  18. ^ Thomas, 36.
  19. ^ Cooke, Mervyn. A History of Film Music. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 99.
  20. ^ Palmer, 101.
  21. ^ Cooke, 101.
  22. ^ Palmer, 96.
  23. ^ Thomas, 37.
  24. ^ Palmer, 97.
  25. ^ Palmer, 96.
  26. ^
  27. ^ Palmer, 97.

External links

AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores

Part of the AFI 100 Years... series, AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores is a list of the top 25 film scores in American cinema. The list was unveiled by the American Film Institute in 2005.

John Williams has the most scores in the top 25, with three: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, and the top choice, Star Wars. Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, and Max Steiner each have two scores listed.

The most scores by one composer nominated for the top 25 was 11; seven composers accomplished this: Steiner, Bernstein, Alfred Newman, Goldsmith, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, and Williams.

Absolute Quiet

Absolute Quiet is a 1936 American drama film directed by George B. Seitz and written by Harry Clork. The film stars Lionel Atwill, Irene Hervey, Raymond Walburn, Stuart Erwin, Ann Loring and Louis Hayward. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture, it was released on April 24, 1936, and distributed by Loew's Inc.

Alias Nick Beal

Alias Nick Beal is a 1949 film noir mystery film retelling of the Faust myth directed by John Farrow and starring Ray Milland, Audrey Totter and Thomas Mitchell (although third-billed, Mitchell plays the leading role). The picture is also known as Dark Circle, Strange Temptation and Alias Nicky Beal.

Arsène Lupin Returns

Arsène Lupin Returns is a 1938 American mystery film directed by George Fitzmaurice and written by James Kevin McGuinness, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Harmon Coxe. The film stars Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce, Warren William, John Halliday, Nat Pendleton and Monty Woolley. The film was released on February 25, 1938, by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Beloved Infidel

Beloved Infidel is a 1959 DeLuxe Color biographical drama film made by 20th Century Fox CinemaScope and based on the relationship of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham. The film was directed by Henry King and produced by Jerry Wald from a screenplay by Sy Bartlett, based on the memoir by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank. The music score was by Franz Waxman, the cinematography by Leon Shamroy and the art direction by Lyle R. Wheeler and Maurice Ransford.

The film stars Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr, with Eddie Albert and Philip Ober.

Botany Bay (film)

Botany Bay is a 1953 American drama film directed by John Farrow and starring Alan Ladd, James Mason and Patricia Medina. It was based on a novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.

Count Your Blessings (1959 film)

Count Your Blessings is a 1959 drama film made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was directed by Jean Negulesco, written and produced by Karl Tunberg, based on the 1951 novel The Blessing by Nancy Mitford. The music score was by Franz Waxman and the cinematography by George J. Folsey and Milton R. Krasner. The costume design was by Helen Rose.

The film stars Deborah Kerr, Rossano Brazzi and Maurice Chevalier with Martin Stephens, Ronald Squire, Patricia Medina and Mona Washbourne.

The film was shot in London and Paris.

Design for Scandal

Design for Scandal is a 1941 American romantic comedy film directed by Norman Taurog. Rosalind Russell stars as a judge targeted by a newspaper tycoon unhappy with her decision in his divorce case.

Florian (film)

Florian is a 1940 American romantic drama film directed by Edwin L. Marin, and starring Robert Young and Helen Gilbert.

Greetings and Kisses, Veronika

Greetings and Kisses, Veronika (German: Gruß und Kuß - Veronika) is a 1933 German comedy film directed by Carl Boese and starring Franciska Gaal, Paul Hörbiger and Otto Wallburg. The film's art direction was by Kurt Dürnhöfer and Max Heilbronner. The film's popularity made Gaal an international star. However the rise of the Nazi Party to power meant that the Jewish Gaal had to make her next films in Hungary and Austria.

Franz Waxman's song "Greetings and Kisses, Veronika" written for the film became a major hit and helped boost Waxman's career as a songwriter.

Lady of the Tropics

Lady of the Tropics is a 1939 American drama film directed by Jack Conway, starring Robert Taylor, Hedy Lamarr, and Joseph Schildkraut. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Love Before Breakfast

Love Before Breakfast is a 1936 American romantic comedy film starring Carole Lombard, Preston Foster, and Cesar Romero, based on Faith Baldwin's short story Spinster Dinner, published in International-Cosmopolitan in July 1934. The film was directed by Walter Lang from a screenplay by Herbert Fields assisted by numerous contract writers, including Preston Sturges.


Man-Proof is a 1938 American romantic comedy film directed by Richard Thorpe. The film is based on the 1937 novel The Four Marys written by Fannie Heaslip Lea.

Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss is a 1947 black-and-white drama film noir directed by Vincent Sherman, and starring Ann Sheridan, Kent Smith, Bruce Bennett and Robert Alda. Sherman also directed leading lady Sheridan in another 1947 film noir, The Unfaithful. The cinematography is by cinematographer James Wong Howe, and the music was composed by Franz Waxman.

Red Mountain (film)

Red Mountain is a 1951 Western historical film, starring Alan Ladd, set in the last days of the US Civil War. The plot centers on an attempt by Quantrill's Raiders to stir up rebellion in the West.

Strange Cargo (1940 film)

Strange Cargo is a 1940 American romantic drama film directed by Frank Borzage and starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in a story about a group of fugitive prisoners from a French penal colony. The adapted screenplay by Lawrence Hazard was based upon the 1936 novel, Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep, by Richard Sale. The film was produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, it was the eighth and last film pairing of Crawford and Gable. The supporting cast includes Peter Lorre.

Sutter's Gold

Sutter's Gold is a 1936 fictionalized film version of the aftermath of the discovery of gold on Sutter's property, spurring the California Gold Rush of 1849. Edward Arnold plays John Sutter. The supporting cast includes Lee Tracy, Binnie Barnes, Katherine Alexander, Montagu Love, and Harry Carey as Kit Carson. The film was directed by James Cruze.

The film is based on the novel "L'Or; la merveilleuse histoire du général Johann August Suter" by Blaise Cendrars (Paris, 1925); ISBN 1417910755.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939 film)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film adaptation of Mark Twain's novel of the same name, starring Mickey Rooney in the title role. The supporting cast features Walter Connolly, William Frawley and Rex Ingram. It was remade by MGM in 1960. A musical version was released in 1974.

The Indian Fighter

The Indian Fighter is a 1955 American CinemaScope and Technicolor Western film directed by Andre DeToth and based upon an original story by Robert L. Richards. The film was the first of star Kirk Douglas's Bryna Productions that was released through United Artists. The film co-stars Elsa Martinelli, Walter Matthau, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Kirk Douglas's ex-wife Diana Douglas.

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