Home > Fathers of Film Music > FRANZ WAXMAN – Fathers of Film Music, Part 5

FRANZ WAXMAN – Fathers of Film Music, Part 5

Franz WaxmanArticle by Craig Lysy

Born: 24 December 1906, Königshütte, Germany.
Died: 24 February 1967

Franz Wachsmann was born of Jewish ancestry in the city of Königshütte in Germany (now Chorzów, Poland). He was the youngest of eight children and suffered permanent impairment to his eyes from a scolding water accident in the kitchen at age three. Very early on Franz revealed a natural gift for the piano, but his development was stymied by his father, a salesman in the steel industry, who preferred that he pursue a more traditional career. As such young Franz became a bank teller and used his meager earnings to support his piano lessons.

Waxman was determined to pursue music and so in 1923, at age 16, he enrolled in the Dresden Music Academy where he studied composition and conducting. His success playing popular music on piano allowed him the means further advance his education by later enrolling in the prestigious Berlin Conservatory. During his work as a pianist with a dance band called the Weintraub Syncopaters, he met lifelong friend Frederick Hollander, who introduced him to Bruno Walter, one of the preeminent conductors of the age. Waxman’s career momentum began to build as he gained notoriety as an orchestrator for the German film industry. He got his first break to score Hollander’s film for the Marlene Dietrich “The Blue Angel” (1930). But a dark pall was descending upon German society and later that year Waxman suffered a severe beating by Nazi sympathizers in Berlin that led him to flee Germany with his wife to Paris.

His first dramatic score came in 1934 for the film “Liliom” for which he employed three ondes martenot – a pioneering effort that marked one of the earliest examples of electronica in film. Shortly thereafter a life altering business opportunity arose when he was offered the position of music director on Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Music in the Air” (1934). It was in Hollywood that Waxman met his second wife Alice Pauline Schachmann, whom he married later that year.

In Hollywood Waxman met James Whale who had sought him out after hearing his score to “Liliom”. He was hired to score what many regard as Whale’s finest effort, the Gothic Horror film “The Bride Of Frankenstein” (1935). His score was a critical success and to this day stands as one of the finest scores ever written. His stunning success led Universal Studios to appoint him as Head of Music, where he managed the film scores of their projects, but also continued to write scores. Waxman, however, never saw himself as a manager and so left Universal Studios in 1936 to pursue his first love, composing and conducting at rival MGM. He took the standard seven year studio contract and had a prolific output from 1936 – 1942. Among his successes were the scores for such renowned films as “Captains Courageous” (1937), “The Young In Heart” (1938), which was Oscar-nominated for best score and Best Original Score, A Christmas Carol (1938), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), and “The Philadelphia Story (1940). But it was a fateful assignment for Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film that forever changed his career. Waxman had earned a reputation for the quality of his writing in the Horror Film genre, and it can be argued that “Rebecca” (1940) was the culmination of the genre. His effort secured him a third Academy Award nomination, for Best Score.

Following the success of Rebecca, the early 1940s at MGM proved to be very fruitful for Waxman, earning him two more Academy award nominations. Among his classics are The Philadelphia Story (1940), Flight Command (1940), The Bad Man (1941), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) – nominated for an Oscar, Suspicion (1941) – nominated for an Oscar, Tortilla Flat (1942), and Edge of Darkness (1942). In 1943 Waxman, never one to overstay a welcome, again jumped ship and signed on with Warner Brothers. Though there only four years, he had a very successful run of films, which included classics such as Destination Tokyo (1943), “Mr. Skeffington” (1944), “To Have And Have Not” (1945), Pride of the Marines (1945), God Is My Co-Pilot (1945), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Hotel Berlin (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945), Humoresque (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), and “Dark Passage” (1947).

Upon leaving Warner Brothers in 1947 he created the Los Angeles Music Festival, for which he served as music director and conductor for the rest of his career. Waxman’s vision was to foster “European cultural standards”, while also performing the works of the great contemporary masters. As such, he show cased pieces by Shostakovich, Debussy, William-Walton and Stravinsky. He also fostered the careers of rising U.S. violinists Nathan Milstein and Isaac Stern. Lastly, as a tireless proponent of contemporary music, he conducted many of the U.S premieres of the new generation of American composers including; Arthur Honegger’s ‘Joan of Arc at the Stake’, Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem”.

Waxman, now unshackled as a freelancer, soon reached the zenith of his career in the 1950s, which saw him nominated five times, culminating with unprecedented consecutive Academy Awards for Best Score with Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place In The Sun (1951). For the rest of the decade he continued to provide classic scores across many different genres, among these being; My Cousin Rachel (1952), Stalag 17 (1953), Botany Bay (1953), Prince Valiant (1954), Elephant Walk (1954), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Silver Chalice (1954), Mister Roberts (1955), The Virgin Queen (1955), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), Peyton Place (1957), Sayonara (1957), Run Silent Run Deep (1958), and The Nun’s Story (1959). Of interest is that Waxman resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1954 in protest of the Academy’s inexplicable decision to not nominate Alfred Newman’s “The Robe”.

During the final decades of his life, Waxman asserted a renewed interest in writing classical pieces for the concert hall. Among the most notable works were “Sinfonietta for Strings and Timpani” (1955), the oratorio “Joshua” (1959), composed to commemorate the death of Waxman’s wife and lastly what may be regarded as his greatest work “The Song of Terezin” (1965), which was composed for an ensemble of mixed chorus, children’s chorus, soprano soloist, and orchestra. The genesis of this legacy piece arose from poetry written by children trapped in the Nazi’s Theresienstadt concentration camp. One may discern that Waxman’s Jewish heritage and personal pathos with the Nazi’s inspired this masterwork.

Waxman’s continued to be a creative force well into the 1960s with some arguing that his scores of this decade were some of his finest including; The Story of Ruth (1960), Cimarron (1960), Taras Bulba (1962), My Geisha (1962), Lost Command (1966) as well as the famous television show Gunsmoke (1966). Sadly, Waxman’s career ended far too early in February 1967 when he succumbed to cancer at the early age of 60. Thankfully we are blessed with a legacy of over 150 film scores as well as an impressive canon of concert works.


Waxman believed as a guiding principle of scoring a film that it was essential to capture its mood through the tapestry and colors of his orchestrations. Like present day James Horner, he viewed the instruments of the orchestra as emitters of color through which he established his soundscape. For him this was the fertile earth of the score upon which his melodies blossomed. Waxman firmly believed “in strong themes which are easily recognizable and varied according to the film’s needs but the variations must be expressive and not complicated.” Like Steiner he felt that his music should not dominate the film’s narrative unless absolutely and dramatically necessary.

Department executive and Music editor Bill Stinson of Paramount Pictures music once remarked that, “when Franz would score a picture, he would put the dialogue in his ear and he would conduct to dialogue just to get the nuances in music that he needed.” This graphically provides us with insight as to why his under-dialogue music worked so well, achieving a perfect and balanced synergy with the film’s narrative.

We discern that Waxman made repeated use of traditional classical forms in his film scores, including the fugue, the passacaglia and the Luft Pause. A fine example of fugal writing may be found in his Oscar-nominated Objective Burma! (1945). During the film’s parachute drop and later hill-climbing sequences, the repeating fugal statements emote the men’s struggle as each musical statement builds on the former. A classic use of the passacaglia is seen in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) where its repeating triple metre relentlessly amplifies the tension. An example of Waxman’s use of the Luft Pause occurs in Love In The Afternoon (1957) when Gary Cooper sweeps a running Audrey Hepburn into his arms aboard a train. At the moment of their embrace Waxman provides a pause, which serves to express the drama of the moment.

Like his contemporary Miklós Rózsa, Waxman was meticulous with musical research in his film scores. For Prince Valiant (1954), he created a rich tapestry, which incorporated aspects of the traditional English folk music, early madrigals and classical romantic writing. For The Nun’s Story (1959), which earned him an 11th Oscar nomination, Waxman visited the Papal Institute of Religious Music to research Gregorian chants. He used the liturgical form for his score, which was expertly contrasted with the modernist twelve-tone scale that depicted the insane asylum in the film. Lastly, in 1962 he studied Ukrainian folk music during a historic visit to the Soviet Union where he was afforded the honor of being the first American to conduct Soviet orchestras in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. This folk music animated Taras Bulba (1962) including the tour-de-force ‘The Ride to Dubno’ cue, which helped him earn his 12th and final Academy Award nomination.


I believe that when all is said and done, that Waxman will be seen as a catalyst that ignited transformation changes in how composers scored film. If we examine his four-decade career we observe an evolution of his compositional style. During the pre World War II era of the Golden Age we see within his approach the traditional and classic European influences of composers such as Wagner, Strauss, as well as fellow European émigré composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Following World War II, we begin to see a remarkable transition away from florid melodrama to more modernist sensibilities, with the defining progressive characteristic of dissonant harmonies. I would argue that just as Beethoven provided the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras, so too Waxman provided a bridge between the Classical 19th Century European and Modernist film score eras. Both men I believe were essential to the evolution of music and served as transformational composers. The cataclysm of World War II, its aftermath, and the onset of the Cold War brought about a shift in the societal psyche, which was as expected reflected at Hollywood studios. The nature of film making began to change with explorations of more psychological and morally ambiguous stories, which did not lend themselves well to melodrama and old world classical lyricism. Waxman’s pioneering efforts gave voice to new approaches, new sensibilities and new approaches, which ushered in a new school of composers such as Alex North, David Raksin and Leonard Rosenman whose scores revolutionized the “Hollywood Sound”.

Lastly, I believe that while Waxman’s contribution to film score art ensures his immortality, I also believe that his fervent dedication to fostering and promoting contemporary music was both important and laudable. His Los Angeles Music Festival, for which he served as music director and conductor, brought the works of many until then unknown contemporary Masters to American audiences. I believe these efforts helped to catalyze the transition of film score music from old world lyricism to the less structured, dissonant and free form modernism.


Academy Award Wins:

  • 1951 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Sunset Boulevard
  • 1952 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – A Place in the Sun

Academy Award Nominations:

  • 1939 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – The Young in Heart
  • 1939 Academy Awards – Best Original Song – “The Young in Heart” from The Young in Heart
  • 1941 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Rebecca
  • 1942 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Suspicion
  • 1942 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • 1946 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Objective Burma
  • 1947 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Humoresque
  • 1955 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – The Silver Chalice
  • 1960 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – The Nun’s Story
  • 1963 Academy Awards – Best Original Score – Taras Bulba


Le Cambrioleur (1930), Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1930), Das Lied vom Leben (1931), Der Mann, der Seinen Mörder Sucht (1931) Das Erste Recht des Kindes (1932), Das Mädel vom Montparnasse (1932), Paprika (1932), Scampolo, ein Kind der Straße (1932), Ich und die Kaiserin (1933), The Only Girl (1933), Gruß und Kuß, Veronika! (1933), Music in the Air (1934), La Crise est Finie (1934), Liliom (1934), Mauvaise Graine (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1935), East of Java (1935), Three Kids and a Queen (1935), The Affair of Susan (1935), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Diamond Jim (1935), Remember Last Night (1935), Love on the Run (1936), The Devil-Doll (1936), Fury (1936), Absolute Quiet (1936), Sutter’s Gold (1936), The Invisible Ray (1936), Dangerous Waters (1936), Ace Drummond (1936), Don’t Get Personal (1936), His Brother’s Wife (1936), Love Before Breakfast (1936), Next Time We Love (1936), Trouble for Two (1936), The Bride Wore Red (1937), The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937), Captains Courageous (1937), Personal Property (1937), A Christmas Carol (1938), Dramatic School (1938), The Shining Hour (1938), The Young in Heart (1938), Arsène Lupin Returns (1938), Three Comrades (1938), Test Pilot (1938), Man-Proof (1938), Port of Seven Seas (1938), Too Hot to Handle (1938), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Honolulu (1939), Ice Follies of 1939 (1939), Lady of the Tropics (1939), Lucky Night (1939), On Borrowed Time (1939).

The Philadelphia Story (1940), Florian (1940), Boom Town (1940), I Love You Again (1940), Sporting Blood (1940), Rebecca (1940), Strange Cargo (1940), Flight Command (1940), Unfinished Business (1941), The Bad Man (1941), Design for Scandal (1941), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), The Feminine Touch (1941), Honky Tonk (1941), Kathleen (1941), Suspicion (1941), Journey for Margaret (1942), Tortilla Flat (1942), Woman of the Year (1942), Edge of Darkness (1942), Her Cardboard Lover (1942), Reunion in France (1942), Seven Sweethearts (1942), Destination Tokyo (1943), Old Acquaintance (1943), Air Force (1943), Janie (1944), Mr. Skeffington (1944), In Our Time (1944), The Very Thought of You (1944), Confidential Agent (1945), Pride of the Marines (1945), God Is My Co-Pilot (1945), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Hotel Berlin (1945), Objective, Burma! (1945), Humoresque (1946), Her Kind of Man (1946), Nora Prentiss (1947), Dark Passage (1947), Possessed (1947), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Cry Wolf (1947), The Paradine Case (1947), That Hagen Girl (1947), The Unsuspected (1947), No Minor Vices (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Whiplash (1948), Night Unto Night (1949), Alias Nick Beal (1949), Rope of Sand (1949), Johnny Holiday (1949), Task Force (1949).

Dark City (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Furies (1950), Night and the City (1950), Anne of the Indies (1951), A Place in the Sun (1951), He Ran All the Way (1951), Only the Valiant (1951), The Blue Veil (1951), Decision Before Dawn (1951), Red Mountain (1951), Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), Lure of the Wilderness (1952), My Cousin Rachel (1952), Man on a Tightrope (1953), A Lion Is in the Streets (1953), Stalag 17 (1953), Botany Bay (1953), I, the Jury (1953), This Is My Love (1954), Prince Valiant (1954), Elephant Walk (1954), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Silver Chalice (1954), Mister Roberts (1955), The Virgin Queen (1955), Untamed (1955), The Indian Fighter (1955), Crime in the Streets (1956), Miracle in the Rain (1956), Back from Eternity (1956), Love in the Afternoon (1957), The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), Peyton Place (1957), Sayonara (1957), Run Silent Run Deep (1958), Home Before Dark (1958), The Nun’s Story (1959), Beloved Infidel (1959), Career (1959), Count Your Blessings (1959).

The Story of Ruth (1960), Cimarron (1960), Sunrise at Campobello (1960), Return to Peyton Place (1961), King of the Roaring 20’s – The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961), Taras Bulba (1962), Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man (1962), My Geisha (1962), Lost Command (1966), The Longest Hundred Miles (1967).



Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra

If you wish to begin your exploration with a good starter compilation album, then I suggest you consider this album, originally recorded in 1974 as part of the RCA Records/BMG Classics series, and featuring Charles Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra. It provides you with a combination of eight outstanding suites and main themes from some of Waxman’s greatest triumphs including Prince Valiant, A Place in the Sun, The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, Old Aquaintance, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story and Taras Bulba.

sunsetboulevardSUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)

This score many believe is his Magnum Opus and stands as one of the greatest scores of all time. His music is brilliantly conceived and rightfully led to the first of two Academy Awards. We are provided romance, mystery and haunting writing of the highest order. The music is paced quickly, dramatic and powerful and employs techniques such as low pulsing notes, which are designed to speak to the delusion of Norma Desmond. His use of wild trills heard during the final performance of a now insane Desmond drew inspiration from Richard Strauss’s opera Salome. Lastly, his incorporation of Gershwinesque jazz helped to establish a contemporaneous feel to the score. Joel McNeely conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

rebeccaREBECCA (1940)

This was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film and Waxman once again demonstrated his mastery of this genre. The tapestry created by Waxman is pure genius. We have old world elegance with lush and lyrical passages, some of the finest he ever wrote. His chromatic theme for Rebecca was well conceived, and its interplay with the Manderlay Theme, a minor modal triad construct is superb. A later adaptation of Rebecca’s Theme with electric organ and two novachords infused her with a mysterioso, other-worldliness. It suffices to say that within the beauty of his notes Waxman created an eerie and ethereal soundscape that perfectly spoke to the mystery and subconscious underpinnings of this suspenseful psychological thriller. Joel McNeely conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

aplaceinthesunA PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)

Like Sunset Boulevard, many also believe this to be his Magnum Opus. It suffices to say that this score stands as one of the greatest scores of all time. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine A Place in the Sun without its brilliant Franz Waxman score. Vicker’s Theme is a sublime piece of music, one of the most beautiful themes in film score history. It animates the score, appears in many guises and I must say captures the film’s core with sublime perfection. How Waxman slowly incorporates dark and sinister elements as the story descends towards tragedy is pure genius and clearly demonstrates his mastery of his craft. The best release of the score is the 2013 Kritzerland edition, re-released with expanded bonus tracks and cleaned-up sound.

tarasbulbaTARAS BULBA (1962)

This epic film score is a late career gem, a treasure that should be sought by all serious collectors. In preparation of the film, Waxman thoughtfully researched Ukrainian folk music of the steppes during his visit to the Soviet Union in 1962. The score provides a stunning and rich tapestry of ethnic writing of the highest order. Indeed his adapted folk music of the Ukrainian steppes perfectly captured the epic sweep and spirit of this tale of love, heroism and tragedy. It goes without saying that the tour-de-force ‘The Ride to Dubno’ cue stands as one of the greatest ever written in film score art, and was one which helped him earn his 12th and final Academy Award nomination. Nic Raine conducts the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra


1. Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks.
New York: Billboard books, 2000.
2. Franz Waxman Biography, Franz Waxman Official Website
3. Franz Waxman – Wikipedia
4. Franz Waxman the Internet Movie Database
5. Franz Waxman at the Internet Broadway Database
6. Franz Waxman at AmericanComposers.com
7. The Composer in Hollywood by Christopher Palmer, Marion Boyars, London 1993.
8. Music for the Movies (Second Edition) by Tony Thomas, Silman-James Press, CA 1997.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: