DAVID RAKSIN – Fathers of Film Music, Part 10
Article by Craig Lysy
Born: 4 August 1912, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Died: 9 August 2004.
David Raksin was of Russian Jewish heritage; the eldest of three sons born in Philadelphia after his parents had emigrated to America. He was blessed with a musical family as his father Isidore played the clarinet professionally while also writing and conducting music for silent films. Isidore encouraged his son’s nascent talents and instructed him in both the piano and woodwinds. Well, young David was a quick study and by age twelve he had formed his own dance band, which he later expanded for broadcasting on the local CBS radio station, WCAU. During high school his talent earned him steady employment playing the clarinet for professional dance bands. Remarkably, he taught himself orchestration and received a bona fide Bachelors of Fine Arts degree. Upon graduation he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania to study composition under Harl McDonald. He paid for his education by playing in society bands and radio orchestras. He also both arranged and conducted the first programs of improvised jazz at football games, for which he won several prizes.
Having secured a degree in Music, he continued his education under the tutelage of Isadore Freed in New York. During his New York years he paid for his lessons by working with various bands, as well as an arranger for radio and recording orchestras. He got a break when Benny Goodman hired him for his band. Goodman’s pianist Oscar Levant admired Raksin’s talent and alerted his friend George Gershwin to an upcoming broadcast, which featured a remarkable arrangement of “I Got Rhythm.” Gershwin was so pleased with Raksin’s arrangement that he recommended his hiring by the famous Harms/Chappell publishing company that at the time arranged the music of nearly every Broadway show. Raksin’s career and notoriety was now gaining steady momentum, little did he know that a trip to Boston to tryout for a musical would forever change his destiny. It came to pass that during the competition he made a very favorable impression and so received an invitation to join 20th Century Fox and work with Charlie Chaplin on his upcoming film. This career opportunity was a godsend that served to bring Raksin at last to what would become his greatest love – film score art.
Raksin, who was now twenty-three, packed his belongings and moved to Hollywood in 1935 to begin his new life. His first project would be to collaborate with Chaplin on the score for his film Modern Times (1936), later joining Edward Powell in orchestrating the music. In a 1998 interview Raksin related that Chaplin was an amateur composer who could not write music, but went on to say that Chaplin nevertheless did have musical ideas. He said that he was credited as co-arranger, and was tasked with the job of fleshing out Chaplin’s tunes and enlarging them for orchestra. This job, however, turned out to be a roller-coaster ride. Even at an early age Raksin was headstrong and when he insisted on his improvements to Chaplin’s ideas, Chaplin fired him for insubordination. His career was saved when Alfred Newman himself interceded and restored him to the project, although Chaplin never forgot and made sure he was not provided credit for his work. The following year he served as assistant to legendary conductor, Leopold Stokowski, who premiered his concert piece, “Montage” with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Worth noting is that during this time Raksin would finally complete his studies under the renowned avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles.
His early days in the Hollywood of the 1930s was challenging in that the studio culture was to team multiple composers on a movie, to not provide them formal recognition, with the head of the music department getting on screen credit. Although he finally secured a coveted contract with Universal Pictures in 1936, his antagonism and feuds with music director Charles Previn resulted in him being let go in 1938. Herbert Spencer brought him to 20th Century Fox, but he was soon fired again when they discovered that he was moonlighting as a composer/arranger for Alfred Newman at United Artists. But Raksin had made a strong friendship with Newman, and so when in 1939 Darryl Zanuck hired Newman to be director of music at 20th Century Fox, Newman brought Raksin along with him. Remarkably, Raksin worked without credit on 48 films before finally achieving shared screen credit on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1939. He continued to struggle to gain recognition while relegated to B horror films like The Undying Monster (1942) and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942), although occasionally he got an opportunity to shine as with the “Polka Dot Ballet”, which he composed for the film The Gang’s All Here (1943).
His big break came in 1944 when Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann both refused to score the film Laura. Newman already had too many assignments on his plate and was overloaded, while the ever cantankerous Herrmann was singularly unimpressed with the script. So Newman assigned Raksin to the film and the rest is history. The film features the story of a detective played by Dana Andrews, who falls in love with a woman (Gene Tierney), who has apparently been murdered. In reminiscing about the film, Raksin relates that time was running out, he had writer’s block, and was desperate as the score was needed the next day. As it turned out his wife left him at this defining moment and the theme for Laura was born from the pathos of his yearning, despair and unrequited love. Worth noting is that the score offers a single haunting, and recurring melody that is never articulated in its entirety. Raksin relates that he did this purposely so as to create a connection between “the ephemeral girl and the interrupted melody.” Yet his efforts almost came to naught as director Otto Preminger initially rejected the theme, preferring instead either Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” or George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. As with Chaplin, Raksin insisted on his creative vision and dug in his heels, arguing that these pieces were unsuitable for the film because “of the accretion of ideas and associations that a song already so well known would evoke in the audience”. Unlike Chaplin, Preminger relented, and Raksin’s masterstroke earned him immortality. Worth noting is that Laura’s theme was also rendered as a song with Johnny Mercer providing the lyrics. The song became an instant success, becoming the second most recorded song of its time following “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmicheal. Indeed, it was an enduring favorite of Cole Porter, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
Remarkably, despite the smash hit popularity of Laura with popular culture, Raksin failed to gain recognition from the Academy, even though the practice at the time was to nominate twenty scores! Despite this apparent slight, Raksin nevertheless pushed on with his usual confidence, gaining new and varied assignments. It was not until three years later in 1947 that he would at last gain the critical recognition his talent rightfully warranted. He composed five diverse scores that year including; the Western Fury at Furnace Creek, the romantic drama Daisy Kenyon, the fantasy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and a documentary, The Homestretch. However, it was for Forever Amber, a lavish costume period piece drama that his star at last became ascendant. Raksin employed a classic leitmotif approach to provide a rich and sweeping romantic score. Worth noting is that the core of his score is a classic passacaglia from which all thematic material is derived. Unlike the monothematic Laura, Forever Amber was a multi-thematic effort, with yet another haunting theme for the lead character Amber, which fully showcased Raksin’s compositional gifts. He was rewarded for this sterling effort with his first Academy Award nomination and although Rozsa’s A Double Life won that year, the critical acclaim would open more doors and propel his career ever upwards. He closed out the decade with the drama Apartment for Peggy (1948), the film noir Whirlpool (1948) and the modernist and expressionistic Force of Evil (1948).
In 1949, the consequences of his too often inflexible and combative nature finally caught up with him, as Newman did not renew his weekly retainer with Fox Studios. In hindsight, it suffices to say that Raksin just burned too many bridges. In his own words he related;
“Largely because of a flaw of character that made it difficult for me to comply with viewpoints less astute than my own, I was not exactly overwhelmed with work.”
However, fortune smiled upon him and he rebounded quickly. Johnny Green, the head of MGM’s music department who had long admired his work, offered him a contract with the studio. Although the road was often rocky, Raksin’s twelve years at MGM were in the final analysis perhaps his finest. For me, the 1950s at MGM was qualitatively the decade that Raksin made his most indelible mark on film score art. Time and time again he would provide outstanding scores, which would elevate their films. 1950 was a banner year of just astounding efforts for Raksin, which included; the film noir A Lady Without Passport where he cleverly used a rumba to animate the film’s Cuban setting, the religious The Next Voice You Hear, for which he expressed the film’s emotional core with a main theme rendered as a stirring hymn; the boxing drama Right Cross, where he captured the film’s pugilistic spirit with an astounding main title piece that featured high woodwinds playing over propulsive horns; The Magnificent Yankee, for which he provided both grandeur and stirring patriotism; and lastly the Victorian era drama Kind Lady, where his very English and cordial score slowly begins an inexorable descent into darkness. In 1951 creative disagreements with the producer and chief editor of the Western epic Across The Wide Missouri almost got him fired; it was felt his music was “too big” for extended mountain trek scene. When Raksin said he could not rewrite the music to meet their three-day deadline, the cue was reassigned to his orchestrator Albert Sendrey. Interestingly enough, despite this standoff, his score stands to this day as one of the best in the genre, and for Raksin, a personal favorite. The Edgar Allan Poe tale The Man With a Cloak (1951) followed and offers one of his most innovative efforts. Given the film’s intimacy, he chose to use a small ensemble of instruments, which included woodwinds, six celli, a bass and a viola d’amore. For his Main Title theme he ingeniously used a 12-tone scale that began with E-D-G-A, which he then added a fifth note Db or “re”, thus spelling Edgar, the film’s subject!
As he prepared for his next assignment, Raksin’s past caught up with him. Like his father who was socialist agitator in Russia, David was an unabashed leftist who in the late 1930’s was briefly a member of the Communist Party, a choice that now came back to haunt him. Like far too many people in Hollywood, he was subpoenaed by McCarthy’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. Under withering cross-examination he succumbed to their intimidation and gave up the names of eleven party members who were either dead or who had already been named by other witnesses. Later, during an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1997, he related that:
‘If you don’t talk, those bastards will put you in jail.’ Gang told me, ‘Don’t hide anything; they know all about you. What I did was a major sin, but I think I did as well as most human beings would’ve done under torture. It wasn’t an abject capitulation. I told the committee they should leave the Communist Party alone, not try to crush it. But there I was, a guy with a family to support and a fairly decent career that was about to go down the drain.’’
For a brief time, Raksin was “gray-listed” by the studios and could not secure a film assignment. He was also a pariah among his peers, yet he persevered and work eventually came his way, although now he was freelancing as the studio had rescinded his contract. After securing work on two unremarkable films, Pat and Mike (1952) and The Girl in White (1952), he rebounded strongly with what some experts argue is his finest score – The Bad and the Beautiful. For the film, which dealt with all aspects of the movie business, he penned what his peers Richard Rodney Bennett, Leonard Rosenman and Stephen Sondheim believe was the finest theme ever written for film, high praise indeed.
It was around this time that post war Hollywood was changing. The studio system was nearing its end; studio orchestras were disbanding as directors shifted away from large orchestral scores to more contemporary sounds by small ensembles. Raksin was able to adapt to the demands of the time and secured enough work to pay the bills and live a comfortable life. Among his more notable successes during these years was the romantic The Vintage (1952), which Raksin believed brought out some of the best music he had ever written, most notably the gorgeous melody that became the hit song, “Song of The Wind”; “Man on Fire (1957), which starred Bing Crosby in a story of a father in a custody battle, and featured an amazing main theme carried by a quintet of saxophones. For the WWII film Until They Sail (1957) Raksin again wrote a main theme for the ages. So beautiful was the melody that Director of Music Johnny Green hired Sammy Cahn to write lyrics so the theme could be rendered as a song. The final result was so impressive that Raksin’s instrumental version for the main title was replaced with the song version. Lastly, we have the romantic drama Separate Tables (1958), which earned Raksin his second and last Academy nomination for Best Score.
The 1960’s saw the collapse of the studio system with producers and directors turning to a new generation of composers. Raksin continued to freelance, but his assignments were becoming less frequent. Notable efforts during the 1960s included the sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful, Two Weeks in Another Town (1961), his modernist blues score for Too Late Blues (1962), and two fine Western scores, A Big Hand For A Little Lady (1966) and Will Penny (1968). Raksin, seeing the handwriting on the wall, transitioned to find safe harbor in the burgeoning arena of television. He was very successful in this new realm and over 300 episodic scores are credited to him including Ben Casey, Father of the Bride, Here’s Eddie, Breaking Point, Lost In Space Medical Center. He continued to write for film and television well into his seventies, but only wrote seven scores between 1970 and 1989. His most important final scores were for the enormously popular TV mini-series The Day After (1983), a disturbing film about the effects of a devastating nuclear holocaust on small-town residents of eastern Kansas; and the biopic Otto Preminger (1989), a director for whom he had scored several films and with whom he was quite familiar.
Raksin also made contributions outside of his Hollywood career. Many of his concert works, were adapted from his film scores, such as his “Toy Concertino”, “The Serenade” from “The Unicorn in the Garden” and “Hoofloose & Fancy Free” from “Giddyap”, a clarinet and piano version of “Love is for the Very Young” theme of The Bad and the Beautiful, as well as “A Song After Sundown,” which was commissioned by the American Guild of Organists for the inauguration of the Ruffati concert organ at Davies Hall. Raksin is also the first film score composer to have received a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress. His choral composition, “Oedipus Memneitai”, written for bass, baritone, narrator, soloist, six-part mixed chorus and chamber ensemble, was premiered under his baton at a Founder’s Day concert premiere in the Coolidge Auditorium on 30 October 1986. He also conducted programs of his own compositions at Hollywood Bowl four times, as well as at Royce Hall, UCLA, and at Lincoln Center with the American Symphony Orchestra. Often his concerts would feature scenes from his film scores, synchronized with the projected film. Additionally, for the Monday Evening Concerts series in Los Angeles, he often conducted the premieres of several contemporary works. His works for the stage includes three musicals: “If The Shoe Fits”, “Feather in Your Hat” and “The Wind in the Willows”. Lastly, for radio, Raksin wrote, narrated and conducted interviews for a three-year series of 64 hour-long programs, titled “The Subject is Film Music”. Many believe his program, which is now safely stored in the Library of Congress, offers the finest oral history of the film composing profession.
David Raksin died in 2004 at the age of 92 at his home in Van Nuys, California. It is poetic that with his death announcement came word that he had at last completed his autobiography, titled “If I Say So Myself”, which was eventually published under the title “The Bad and the Beautiful: My Life in a Golden Age of Film Music.”
RAKSIN’S COMPOSITIONAL STYLE
Raksin was very detailed in his composing, preferring to provide a full and complete sketch to his orchestrators, unlike Alex North, who would always leave opportunities for his orchestrators. Much of what Raksin learned was self-taught, and unlike his contemporaries Max Stiener, Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin, he was not a product of the 19th century classical European school. His education was instead American, and influenced by modernists such as his mentor Arnold Schoenberg. His did not express his music with the traditional 1930s Hollywood sound, preferring instead to emote with smaller ensembles, which moved to the forefront during the post WWII years. Worth noting is that you will not find the traditional Steineresque string dominated melodies in Raksin’s canon. His music, which often incorporated jazz, was often dominated by horns (including the saxophone), woodwinds and percussion. He is from my perspective therefore better grouped with the next generation of American modernist composers such as Alex North and Leonard Rosenman, who began to assert themselves 1950s, providing a more modern and contemporaneous sound.
Raksin, like James Horner today, often chose to impart with his music auras of color, which speak to the film’s underlying emotions and narrative. Often his music offered a contrapuntal expression in that it was speaking to the hidden emotional drivers of the characters, not their overt dialogue or action on the screen. An example is in his score for Force of Evil (1948), where he eschews providing flight music for the main character, Joe, who has been running figuratively throughout the entire film, is now seen actually running in search of his dead brother’s body. Instead Raksin informs u,s through subtle and slow paced music, of Joe’s inner mental state, which despite his outward actions, is surprising quiet and peaceful. For his triumph in Laura he provided a monothematic score where his theme for Laura is in fact the animation of the dead woman for which the detective played by Dana Andrews is investigating. Elmer Bernstein in commending Raksin’s effort said;
“The film portrayed a man falling in love with a ghost: the mystique was supplied by the insistence of the haunting melody. He (the detective) could not escape it. It was everywhere… We may not remember what Laura was like, but we never forgot that she was the music.”
Lastly, in the film Carrie (1952), he provided an elegant waltz, for when the main characters Hurstwood and Carrie first meet at a restaurant. As the story takes on an increasingly dramatic arc, so too does the waltz assumes a more potent and dramatic articulation. In summation, Raksin, like contemporary Franz Waxman, was in many ways the bridge from which arose the modernist movement in the 1950s.
Raksin was a man of considerable talent who served throughout his long career as a successful composer, lyricist, arranger and film score advocate. He, along with contemporaries Franz Waxman, Alex North and Leonard Rosenman, represented a new generation of film score composers who began to assert themselves in the 1950s by providing a more modern and contemporaneous sound. This transition from the florid melodrama of the classical 19th century European school that dominated Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s is significant and cannot be overstated.
Raksin was also a tireless advocate for film score art, serving an unprecedented eight terms as president of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America (1962-1970). He was also a member of the faculty of the University of Southern California from 1956, where he taught film composition. Also well worth exploring is his insightful commentaries “David Raksin Remembers His Colleagues” a series of artiles in which he provides the reader with a fascinating exploration of his famous contemporaries, including Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rosza, Franz Waxman, Aaron Copland, Hugo Friedhofer, Bernard Herrmann and Dimitri Tiomkin. Over time, his tireless advocacy for film score art earned him the title “Grandfather of Film Music”.
During an interview for University of Southern California magazine in 2000 Raksin was asked a question about the role of film music, which he answered:
”What you can’t do with a camera or dialogue, music has a way of taking care of. It gets at the deeper emotions that aren’t always expressible on film. People who are skeptical about the value of film music should be condemned to watch films without it.”
Well said! I encourage the reader to take the time to explore this underrated and less celebrated composer as you will come to appreciate how talented he was and that he was truly, a master of his craft.
Raksin earned just two Academy Award nominations, but never won
- 1948 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Forever Amber
- 1959 Best Music, Scoring a Dramatic or Comedy Film – Separate Tables
Raksin composed over 100 film scores and 300 TV scores over an amazing six decades.
The Kid Comes Back (1937), Wings Over Honolulu (1937), As Good as Married (1937), She’s Dangerous (1937), The Mighty Treve (1937), Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1938), Suez (1938), Forty Little Mothers (1939), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), Stanley and Livingstone (1939), Frontier Marshal (1939), Second Fiddle (1939), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939).
Western Daze (1940), Two Girls on Broadway (1940), On the Sunny Side (1941), Remember the Day (1941), The Men in Her Life (1941), I’ll Wait for You (1941), Ride on Vaquero (1941), Dipsy Gypsy (1941), Dead Men Tell (1941), City Without Men (1942), Inflation (1942), Time to Kill (1942), The Undying Monster (1942), Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942), Manila Calling (1942), Just Off Broadway (1942), The Postman Didn’t Ring (1942), The Magnificent Dope (1942), Thru Different Eyes (1942), Prelude to War (1942), The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942), Who Is Hope Schuyler? (1942), Main Street Today (1943), I Dood It (1943), He Hired the Boss (1943), Something to Shout About (1943), Where Do We Go from Here? (1944), Attack in the Pacific (1944), Belle of the Yukon (1944), Laura (1944), Greenwich Village (1944), Tampico (1944), Smoky (1945), Fallen Angel (1945), Don Juan Quilligan (1945), The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1946), Fury at Furnace Creek (1947), Daisy Kenyon (1947), Forever Amber (1947), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Homestretch (1947), Whirlpool (1948), Force of Evil (1948), Apartment for Peggy (1948), The Reformer and the Redhead (1949).
Kind Lady (1950), The Magnificent Yankee (1950), Right Cross (1950), A Lady Without Passport (1950), Giddyap (1950), The Next Voice You Hear… (1950), Sloppy Jalopy (1951), The Man with a Cloak (1951), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), The Unicorn in the Garden (1952), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Madeline (1952), Carrie (1952), Pat and Mike (1952), The Girl in White (1952), Apache (1953), The Big Combo (1954), Suddenly (1954), Jubal (1955), The Vintage (1956), Bigger Than Life (1956), Hilda Crane (1956), Seven Wonders of the World (1956), Twilight for the Gods (1957), Until They Sail (1957), Gunsight Ridge (1957), Man on Fire (1957), The Redeemer (1958), Separate Tables (1958), The Wagon Train (1958), Bije Wilcox Story (1958), Pay or Die (1959), Five Fingers (1959), Station Break (1959), Al Capone (1959).
Night Tide (1960), My Three Sons (1960), Ben Casey (1961), Two Weeks in Another Town (1961), Too Late Blues (1961), Father of the Bride (1961), The Patsy (1962), The Soldier (1962), Breaking Point (1963), Here’s Eddie (1963), Sylvia (1964), Scorpio Rising (1964), Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1965), Love Has Many Faces (1965), Will Penny (1966), Lost In Space (1967), The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again (1969), Medical Center (1969), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1970), Glass Houses (1971), The Ghost of Flight 401 (1972), The Suicide’s Wife (1978), Lady in the Corner (1979), The Day After (1983), Otto Preminger (1989)
Raksin, unlike his peers, does not have as many scores commercially available. In fact, there are only three examples that I can offer to you. This is a damn shame and I exhort our film score label executives to please address this truly unacceptable situation. Raksin’s music must find greater voice! I offer the following for your consideration.
RCA has brought us a compilation album, which features David Raksin conducting excerpts from his three greatest film scores. Folks, this is film music at its finest, and offers some of his most memorable melodies. The Album includes excerpts from “The Bad the Beautiful” (which features a unique conclusion for the famous theme music that is breathtakingly melancholy), “Forever Amber”, which many authors feel is Raksin’s masterpiece, and lastly, “Laura”, the score for which he is most remembered. Original liner notes, penned by Raksin himself, outline how he came to compose these scores. This is highly recommended.
This limited edition (1,500) 5 CD box set by Film Score Monthly provides film scores by Raksin in his prime, when he worked for MGM studios. The selections are excellent and this reasonably priced set offers you a wonderful exploration of his finest works from 13 films including; “Across the Wide Missouri” (1951), “Kind Lady” (1951), “The Man With a Cloak” (1951), “The Girl in White” (1952), “The Magnificent Yankee” (1950), “The Next Voice You Hear…” (1950), “Right Cross” (1950), “Grounds for Marriage” (1951) “The Vintage” (1957), “A Lady Without Passport” (1950), “Until They Sail” (1957), “Pat and Mike” (1952) and “The Reformer and the Redhead” (1950). I have this set and I highly recommend it as a wonderful way to experience Raksin at his best.
Many authors believe this to be Raksin’s Magnum Opus, and I am inclined to agree. The score has been digitally restored by Varese Sarabande in 2004 and is offered with full stereophonic sound. The album features four extended suites. “Forever Amber”, was a lavish costume period piece drama that earns Raksin immortality. Raksin employed a classic leitmotif approach to provide a rich and sweeping romantic score. Worth noting is that the core of his score is a classic passacaglia from which all thematic material is derived. Unlike the mono thematic “Laura”, “Forever Amber” was a multi-thematic effort, with yet another haunting theme for the lead character Amber, which fully showcased Raksin’s compositional gifts. He was rewarded for this sterling effort with his first Academy Award nomination. This score is highly recommended.
1. Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. New York: Billboard books, 2000.
2. David Raksin – Wikipedia
3. David Raksin at the Internet Movie Database
4. American Composer Orchestra, David Raksin Remembers His Colleagues: http://www.americancomposers.org
5. David Raksin, The Film Music Society, http://www.filmmusicsociety.org
6. David Raksin Obituary, The New York Times: 2004
7. Roy M. Pendergast, Film Music: a Neglected Art, second edition New York: New York University, 1992
8. David Raksin, Jason Ankeny, http://www.allmusic.com