Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE NUN’S STORY – Franz Waxman

THE NUN’S STORY – Franz Waxman


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Fred Zinnemann was intrigued by Kathryn Hulme’s best-selling novel “The Nun’s Story (1956) and purchased the film rights. To his dismay, he could not obtain financial backing from any studio as they all felt that the lack of action would not resonate with audiences. All this changed dramatically when Audrey Hepburn decided she wanted to take on the role of Gaby Van der Mal. A bidding war ensued with Warner Brothers prevailing. Henry Blanke was hired to produce the film with a 3.5 million budget. Robert Anderson was tasked with adapting the novel and writing the screenplay. Zinnemann would direct and he assembled a fine cast. Joining Hepburn would be Peter Finch as Dr. Fortunati, Dame Edith Evans as Mother Emmanuel and Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Mother Mathilde.

The story is set in Belgium in the late 1920s. Gaby Van der Mal is the daughter of a prominent surgeon who decides to commit her life to God by joining a sect of sisters that specialize in nursing. Troubles begin immediately as she has problems with pride and obedience to her superiors in the highly structured life of the convent. She successfully passes her curriculum at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, but is punished for her disobedience in not obeying an order from mother superior to flunk the final exam to prove her humility. As such, instead of being sent to the Belgian Congo, which she desired, she is instead sent to a European mental hospital for the violently insane. Eventually she takes her final vows and is assigned to the Belgian Congo, but to her dismay, it is not to treat the indigenous people, but instead their elite European overlords. She overworks, is not happy, and becomes ill with tuberculosis that is successfully treated by Dr. Fortunati. Eventually she is sent back to Belgium accompanying a VIP patient, and once there denied return to the Congo because of the imminent start of WWII. She is reassigned to a local hospital, where she becomes spiritually discontent with her work, her vocation and the German occupation when news reaches her that her father was murdered by the Nazis. She asks for spiritual dispensation, which is granted and she leaves the sisterhood never to return. The film was a commercial success, earning a profit of $9.3 million, as well as a critical success, earning eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Writing, Best Film Editing, Best Actress, Best Sound and Best Film Score.

Zinnemann selected Franz Waxman to score the film as his usual collaborator Dimitri Tiomkin was not available. Waxman was very happy to take on the assignment and understood that this was an intimate story that delt with a young woman’s struggle to achieve the humility and unconditional obedience demanded of her vows. In her quest Sister Luke is beset by feelings of willfulness, pride, unhappiness, disillusionment, and failure, all of which impede her efforts to achieve spiritual tranquility and perfection. He also understood that he would have to speak to the depressing and hazardous conditions of a mental institution and the bodily injuries suffered on the battlefield. In regard to his approach to scoring the film he relates in an interview;

“In 1958 I went to Rome for Warner Brothers and worked on the picture “The Nun’s Story” with Audrey Hepburn. I very much enjoyed working on the picture with producer Henry Blanke and director Fred Zinnemann because the musical opportunities were many. The entire score was based on Gregorian chants and thematic material of Gregorian chants, which I had the opportunity to research in the Papal library in Rome. It was recorded in Rome with a few additions added later in Hollywood”.

In terms of themes, Waxman offers four, two of which speak to Gaby’s struggle to reconcile that which cannot be reconciled – ego driven self-realization versus selflessness achieved through obedience and submission. Both themes are kindred in that they are seeking answers. For the Sister Luke Theme, she is seeking the Divine, while with Gaby’s Theme, she is seeking personal fulfilment. Both themes offer repeating patterns of declarative statements, followed by answering statements. For Sister Luke ‘s Theme the repeating aspirational statements are carried by refulgent strings religioso, that are each in turn answered by austere horns and woodwinds, which represent impediments that are not externally imposed, but rather internal barriers borne within herself. The theme’s final glorious and uplifting statement speaks of hope, informing her that the key that opens the door is found within herself through faith, submission and humility. For Gaby’s Theme the declarative statements by thirsting strings speak of her struggle to find her path in life, and for self-realization, that are each in turn answered by statements by plaintive horns and woodwinds, which represent uncertainty, frustration, and confusion. The theme’s uplifting final statement also portends hope, which informs her that to achieve what you seek in life, “To Thine Own Self Be True”. The Convent Theme speaks to it as a sanctuary from the strife of the world, a closed tranquil and serene world where one may contemplate the Divine without external interference or distraction. The reverential theme drapes us in religioso auras and offers repeating seven-note phrasing by either strings or woodwinds solenne. Lastly, we have Father’s Theme, which supports Gaby’s loving and supportive father. Waxman interpolates the melody of Mozart’s aria “Voi Che Sapete” from his opera “The Marriage of Figaro, rendered by piano. With the completion of the film, producer Henry Blanke related that he was very pleased with Waxman’s score;

“The music which Franz Waxman composed and conducted for “The Nun’s Story” bears the same kind of overflowing honesty and womanly emotion that characterize Audrey Hepburn herself in the role of Sister Luke”.

We open with the Warner Brothers Studio logo supported by Max Steiner’s “As Time Goes By” music for Casablanca. “Main Title” offers one of the most stirring film openings ever composed, where Waxman in a masterstroke of conception and execution sets the tone of the film. We open dramatically with a full rendering of the refulgent Sister Luke’s Theme on stirring strings religioso as we see Gaby looking down from a bridge on a river as the roll of the opening credits commences. At 0:44 a twinkling harp bridge ushers in an equally dramatic rendering of Gaby’s Theme, which unfolds with great emotive power that supports her leaving the bridge, and her riverside walk-through town to her mansion residence along its banks. After she enters her house, the camera shifts to the river waters for the remaining credit roll and at 1:53 we are awestruck by a stunning statement of four dramatic chords religioso, which resound powerfully in a stirring testament of faith. We close with a final evocative reprise of Gaby’s Theme by strings reverenziali from which ascend four solemn chords, crowned with resplendent fanfare magnifico. Bravo! At 2:37 we segue into “Gaby and Her Father” atop bell tolls (not on the album), which usher is a solemn Gaby’s Theme as she quotes a New Testament passage Matthew 19:21: “Ye that shall lose his life for me shall find it. If thou were to be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and come follow me”.

Her theme transfers to a solo oboe delicato, as we see on her bed a small open suitcase with some of her clothes and a crucifix. As she gazes out the window, she states that “each sister shall understand that on entering the convent, she has made the sacrifice of her life for God”. Her theme then transfers to clarinet and finally flute as she removes her engagement ring and places it atop a note that says please return to Jean, and then places a heart framed picture of him on the note. She takes however a gold pen given to her by her father as a memento she departs.

“Leaving” reveals her descending the stairs to find her father playing the piano, supported by his theme (not on the album). We see sadness and resignation in his eyes. Her theme blossoms as they embrace, and is sustained when she hugs and says goodbye to her tearful sister Louise. Plaintive, and unresolved strings support her goodbye to her young brother Pierre as she joins her father in the car. In “Gaby enters the Convent” her father walks her to the convent. He has misgivings, saying that he can see her poor, he can see her chaste, but he cannot see, a strong-willed girl obedient to those bells. Yet she is resolute, and so he assures her that if it does not work out, she is welcome to come back home. Music enters as the enter the convent, where Waxman introduces his solemn Convent Theme by woodwinds and strings reverentziali. It supports Mr. Pascin introducing his daughter Simon to them, as well as the greeting by Sister Margharita and Sister William. We are bathed in religioso auras of peace serenity and tranquility in this blessed sanctuary. Yet at 1:47 subtle, almost intangible changes enter on portentous woodwinds as the theme’s articulation shifts to darker hues, as we close on a diminuendo of uncertainty.

“Goodbye” offers a film album discontinuity as Zinnemann inserted different music, believing that Waxman’s conception was too sad. I believe this was a creative misjudgment as the music fits the overt and unspoken emotions perfectly. I review Waxman’s original conception. The hand bell rings to signal families to leave and Gaby and her tearing father say their goodbyes. Waxman bathes us in auras of sadness and regret with the Convent Theme, which clearly emote from the father’s perspective. We see his heartache and as he departs, we have a sublime duet of Gaby’s Theme led by solo oboe delicato and answered by cello tenero, which play over sumptuous strings. At 2:59 muted trumpets support his exit and as she turns, we detect no pain in her eyes, but rather contentment. We close upon a grave chord as she enters and Sister William closes the door. In “Evening Prayers” the nuns, novices and new postulates sing a reverential Gregorian Chant a Capella, which is not on the album. “New Home” reveals the initial briefing and dispensing of clothes to the new postulants by Sister William. We open with four dark chords of uncertainty and phrases of the Convent Theme, which weigh heavily on Gaby as we see her try to take in Sister William’s instructions. The music was dialed out of the film as Zinnemann preferred the scene unscored.

“First Day” reveals Sister William explaining the meaning of “Inner Silence”, the prohibition of unnecessary speech in the convent. Waxman supports with woodwind lyricism playing over strummed harp. At 0:45 we switch to a corridor where the expression of humility is demonstrated by walking aside the corridor walls. The previous harp and woodwind motif is reprised as we see Gaby arrive late and be silently admonished by Sister William. At 1:10 we segue into “Mother Superior” atop a rendering of the Convent Theme by woodwinds solenne as we see the postulates enter and walk towards the Mother Superior who is seated at the base of the chapel altar. At 1:45 the music swells with stirring religioso power atop celli solenne and kindred strings as they stop, kneel and prostrate themselves before her, with Gaby lifting her head for an inappropriate look. We close with a diminuendo by strummed harp delicato. “Sister Luke” offers a cue meant to support Mother Emmanuel’s speech to the new postulants, which was dialed out of the film. It is a beautiful piece offering a plaintive rendering of the Convent Theme with a counter melody by solo oboe delicato and kindred woodwinds.

“I Accuse Myself” reveals Sister Luke lovingly attending to a sick woman in hospital, which is supported by a wonderful piece borne by strings felici and horn. Sadness enters as she departs late, to the call for penance. At 0:37 the postulates are commanded to document in a personal notebook all their imperfections and transgressions, and to surrender any personal items they have that would remind them of their former life. A wandering woodwind line with secondary woodwinds moving in contrary motion support the book distribution. At 1:07 we descend into deep sadness as she looks at her pen her father gave her and realizes that she must give it up. Regretfully Zinnemann dialed all but the ending bars out of the film. “Investment Ceremony” reveals a priest performing the ceremony that initiates the postulates into the sisterhood. The nuns sing a traditional Catholic hymn a Capella to support the ceremony, which is not on the album. “Hair Cutting” offers a beautiful score highlight. The postulates must have their hair cut before donning the habit of a novitiate. Waxman offers a beautiful passage borne by violins sereni joined by a contrapuntal celli as we see her contented as her hair is cut. At 1:42 Sister Luke’s Theme resounds on strings brilliante as she dons the white wimple. At 2:09 we segue into “Gran Coro” atop organ solenne, which supports a processione sacra as the novices return to be assigned their new names as they shed all vestiges of their former selves.

In “Penance” Sister Luke takes her turn in confessing her sins in front of the sisterhood. As part of her penance, she is ordered to kiss the feet of each of the sisters in an act of humility. A repeating four-note string figure of sadness with harp adornment supports the scene and later, Sister Luke kissing the feet of her fellow nuns. Her eyes reveal her inner struggle to adapt herself to her new life and Waxman’s music speaks to this. The music for the following two scenes is not on the album. “Sister Luke’s Self-Doubt” reveals Sister Luke departing prayers, having confessed to God that she fears she is failing in this life. Plaintive strings and shifting chords religioso support her penitence. In “Simone Says Goodbye” Simone comes to her and again breaks the Great Silence to advise Gaby that she is leaving as she cannot succeed in this life. Plucked harp and strings doloroso support her sadness. As she reaches out to shake her hand as she parts, Sister Luke does not reciprocate, which saddens them both. Forlorn woodwinds carry Simone’s departure. “Happy News” reveals that after taking her vows, Mother Emmanuel informs Sister Luke that she has been enrolled in the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. The scene is unscored.

Music for the following four scenes is not found on the album. In “Lab Work” the professor praises her repeatedly in class as her father’s daughter for her exceptional skills and asks her to assist her fellow sisters who are struggling. We see in her eyes the struggle between pride and humility. As they arrive home on the trolley, Sister Luke’s Theme resounds, but she is troubled and goes to see Reverend Mother. In “You Must Fail The Exam” a dark chord and the Convent Theme support her arrival to speak with Reverend Mother. She confesses to frustration with Sister Pauline, who Reverend Mother relates feels the same way towards her. She states that Pauline fears she will fail and not be able to return to the Congo. When Sister Luke asks what she should do, she is told to make a supreme sacrifice, an act of true humility, and flunk the exam so Pauline may go. A crescendo of distraught swells as we see in Sister Luke’s eyes conflict. Strings doloroso support her question as to how she can know she is truly humble, to which Reverend Mother answers, when you can willing accept humiliation. We end grimly on strings grave as she leaves, her mind unsettled, unsure and in turmoil. In “The Exam” she struggles with her first answer, but her pride will not allow her to be humiliated, and by extension, her father. She passes holding back tears as her theme sounds with a tortured expression. In the courtyard she is greeted by with news that all four sisters are passed supported by strings of happiness, yet dark stings of devastation sound as Sister Luke is told that she will not be going to the Congo, but instead a sanatorium for the insane. In “The Asylum” dark chords and bleak woodwinds create an ambiance of dread as Mother Christophe begins a tour of the institution. “Letter From Father” reveals the two walking through the gardens discussing the letter, which Waxman supports with a gorgeous woodwind pastorale draped with religioso auras.

“Angel Gabriel” reveals Sister Luke doing night watch in the violent patient ward. She again violates the rules and opens the locked door to give the schizophrenic patient water, and is viciously attacked. Eerie string figures are offset with a clocking ticking motif, which build tension. At 0:47 a solo cello triste enters as she sees her reflection in a desk mirror, a face she has not seen since she left home. She responds to a knock on the door with the angel Gabriel patient asking for a glass of water. The music becomes ghostly as she looks at the wall alarm and proceeds to the door with the keys. Tension builds as she unlocks the door, and explodes with a discordant pizzicato string cacophony of terror buttressed by horns orribile as she is pulled into the cell and viciously assaulted. After a terrible struggle she escapes and relocks the door. The following two cues are not found on the album. In “Ringing The Alarm” she presses the alarm bell as her theme borne by strings affanato resounds in pain, supporting her tearful self-loathing declarations of pride and disobedience to Mother Christophe. Days later as she discusses her imperfections and failings with Mother Christophe, she is comforted and reassured. A renewed and optimistic rendering of her theme, which radiates religioso auras supports the tender moment, crowned with a chord of hope. In “Final Vows” Sister Luke takes her final vows and the bishop places a ring on her finger, which weds her to Jesus Christ as her family looks on. The moment is crowned with a radiant expression of her theme with joyous bells. We end with a kiss from Mother Emmanuel wishing for God to bring her peace supported by woodwinds solenne and organ.

“Departure” reveals her departure for the Congo and thoughts that life will be much easier in the jungle. We are graced by a plaintive rendering of the Convent Theme, embellished with a contrapuntal bass line as she bids farewell to her sisters. At 1:12 her father’s theme enters for a fleeting moment as she thinks of him, replaced by horns solenne as she prays to God to aid her in doing some good. As we gaze astern at the ship’s wake her theme resounds on trumpets brilliante. At 1:38 we segue into “The Congo” where tension rises on nativist drums and anxious strings as we see her traveling by train into the dense jungles of the Congo. At 2:11 forlorn woodwinds of uncertainty support her and Sister Augustine’s preparations to disembark. A native band plays a welcoming tune (not on the album) as they arrive at the train station. In “European Hospital” Mother Mathilde gives Sister Luke a tour and introduces her to Father Andre. Her theme rendered with sympathy and a pizzicato bass pulse carries their progress. The music slowly darkens until 1:20 when Sister Luke is informed that she has been assigned to the European hospital, not the native hospital. We see in her eyes her disappointment, which Waxman supports with her theme expressed as a pathos for strings. At 2:29 Mother Mathilde states that she will assist Dr. Fortunati and she can expect long hours. She is also told to not linger as the doctor is young, a bachelor, and a non-believer. As Mother Mathilde departs, an aggrieved rendering of her theme supports her tears of disappointment.

“Dr. Fortunati” reveals Sister Luke alone in the operating room. A soft rendering of her theme supports her gazing at her image in the door’s glass, which is interrupted by the entry of Dr. Fortunati who admonishes her for her vanity. He tweaks her nose again when he admonishes her for pride when she mentions that she is the daughter of Dr. Van der Mal. She is flummoxed as sardonic strings carry his exit. The music for this scene is not on the album. In “Bad Accident” Dr. Fortunati has left for a weekend of fishing. Sister Luke receives Father Andre who has suffered a severe leg fracture that will require an amputation. Dire strings sow tension. Shifting string figures and plaintive woodwinds support failed efforts to find another doctor. Since there is no surgeon, Sister Luke takes charge and tries her best to save his leg, with a pulsing cadence of uncertainty supporting her efforts. Three days latter Dr. Fortunati returns and congratulates her for her outstanding effort. The music from 1:10 onward was dialed out of the film. Waxman had conceived to crown the moment with a thankful rendering of her theme. “The Leper Colony” reveals Mother Mathilde and Sister Luke’s arrival at the colony where they are greeted by Father Vermeuhlen. A grave rendering of Sister Luke’s theme supports their arrival and entry into the colony. As they tour the village, we see much disfigurement and illness, which Waxman supports with a grim soundscape. When Sister Luke asks Father Vermeuhlen to submit to lab tests, he refuses and shows her his hands. Two dire orchestral chords of doom reveal he is infected with leprosy, with him saying it was just a matter of time. A grieving statement of her theme reveals her sadness. As they depart by canoe a grim wave of despair resounds.

Music for the next six scenes is not on the album. In “Over Worked” we see Sister Luke fatigued from her long hours. A string agitato and distressed oboe support her weariness. As she looks at a slide through a microscope an anguished statement of her theme reflects the horror in her eyes – she has tuberculosis. “Fear of Leaving” reveals her informing Dr. Fortunati of her findings. Waxman supports the revelation with dark foreboding strings. Dr. Fortunati examine her and confirms her suspicions. He feels it is a small lesion, caught early, that he can cure with gold treatments. She feels she has to tell Reverend Mother, but if she does, she will be sent home. All pretenses are dropped when Dr. Fortunati informs her that she is not in the mold and will never be the nun they want her to be as she is too free-thinking and independent. She says she wants to stay and he says he will inform the Reverend Mother in a way that will allow her to stay. Plaintive strings speak of her distress from her illness, and for once again failing her vows. In “Treetops” we see Sister Luke convalescing in a cottage surrounded by trees, which Waxman supports with a soothing pastorale of strings. In “The Monkey” Sister Aurelie visits and brings her Felix, a pet monkey to cheer her spirits. Woodwinds delicato support the happy moment. Playful woodwinds bubble as Felix begins to play with her. “Food” reveals Mother Mathilde bringing her supper supported by a tender Convent Theme. In “Illungo” a solo oboe tenero joined by soothing strings supports his curiosity towards the Christmas Manger Sisters Luke and Aurelie are building.

In “Killing of Aurelie” a native has been told by the witch doctor that if he kills a white woman, he will free himself of the ghost of his dead wife. He walks in and savagely strikes Sister Aurelie several times on the head with a wooden club, which kills her. Woodwinds of alarm and a screeching violin sustain support the assault. At 0:23 a string agitato transforms into a harsh sawing ostinato and then a swelling string furioso, to propel his attempted escape as several men arrive and take him down. At 0:52 plaintive strings and woodwinds support the aftermath as three nuns carry Sister Aurilie away. At 1:21 a solo English horn and nativist drums interplay as Sister Luke seeks understanding from Illungo as to why the man did it. He asks her to explain why they are not angry, to which she responds, that God requires them to forgive. “Christmas Mass” reveals boys choir singing the 18th century carol “Adeste Fidelis” to support the ceremony. Sister Luke is pleased that Illungo has attended and removed his pagan necklace. The music for this scene is not on the album.

“Bad News” reveals Dr. Fortunati informing Sister Luke that she will be returning to Belgium with a very important mentally ill patient as she is the only nun qualified to do so. Grim strings of despair sound as she is stunned. Later as she speaks with Mother Mathilde altruism rises on her theme as she explains the urgency and importance of her mission, of how she is the only qualified nun who could do it. The music darkens as she is then informed that another nurse with her qualifications is being sent as a replacement. As she struggles to take this all in, a sad Convent Theme returns informing us of the confinement that awaits her. Its articulation becomes poignant as Dr. Fortunati expresses his fears that she will, having tasted freedom, not be able to return to a cloistered life. We close with an orchestral surge as she walks out, recognizing the truth of his words. As she walks among the colorful great land birds, she declares to them that she is coming back as a hopeful refrain of her theme rises. “Sister Luke Bids Farewell” offers a supremely moving score highlight where film and music achieve a sublime confluence. The woodwind, harp motif reprises as she kisses her fellow nuns goodbye. The music darkens at 0:36 as she passes the guard of the patient’s room. At 0:54 a soft string tremolo supports her entry into her room, which is adorned with a beautiful array of flowers – a gift from all those who love her. She says to tell them all thank you. As the train departs her theme rises forth full of bittersweet happiness, which brings a smile and a tear. We close with her theme soaring gloriously, crowned by resounding chords dramatico!

“Return to Belgium” reveals a film – album variance. Waxman’s conception was discordant interplay of Sister Luke’s and Gaby’s Themes to inform us of her unhappiness of leaving the Congo to return to the suffocating life of the convent. The rewrite offers an optimistic Gaby’s Theme. I review Waxman’s original conception, which better speaks to what I saw in the film, rather than Zinnemann’s choice, which was incongruous. For the scene, chimes join with a discordant interplay of her two themes to support her return.

In “Letter From Dr. Fortunati” Mother Emmanuel informs her that Dr. Fortunati has a new assistant and that a native sculpture arrived with the letter. Sister Luke decides to gift it to the convent. Eerie tremolo strings and a forlorn flute support the scene. At 0:41 we segue darkly into “Convent Life” as Mother informs her that she will not be returning to the Congo. Sister Luke’s request to work at the local hospital is also denied so she may regain her spiritual health here in the convent. A discordant and aggrieved rendering of her theme supports Mother’s decisions. The music for these three intervening scenes is not found on the album. “Meeting With Father” reveals Sister Luke joining her father who has come to visit. Woodwinds gentile emote Gaby’s Theme, which reflects his perspective as he inquiries into her health and happiness. Harp glissandi usher in Sister Luke’s Theme as he relates how her brother and brother-in-law have both joined the army. At 1:35 drums of discontent take us into “Voices” where we see Sister Luke alone in her quarters as we hear the words of Dr. Fortunati, the Reverend Mother and lastly her own as she struggles to move past her life in the Congo and reacclimate to life in the convent. A drum line and a forlorn oboe support her as she goes to chapel, prays and prostrates herself to God, beseeching him to assist her detach from her memories so she can be a good nun. “Sister Luke’s Discontent” reveals her meeting with Reverend Mother on the grounds of the Convent’s farm supported by plaintive woodwinds emoting her theme. She is unhappy and Mother senses this also. She says she cannot send her back to the Congo because of the danger of war, but that she will assign her as assistant of surgery at a nearby hospital, to which Sister Luke is thankful. At 2:01 we return ominously to the album in “War” atop muted ominous drums as the nuns are informed of the German invasion of Holland and Belgium. The music swells into a harsh marcia militare as we see Sister Luke in the operating room as gun fire and explosions are heard very near, which unnerves some of the nurses. The march supports a montage of scenes where Mother informs the nuns of the fall of Holland, the fall of Belgium, and the retreat of allied forces to Dunkirk.

In “The Underground” a postulant Lisa reveals that she works for the underground and is trying to help by hiding troops, which includes her brother so they may escape to England. After wavering, Sister Luke agrees to let her go and to assist the underground resistance in violation of Mother’s orders to remain neutral. A sad and agitated rendering of her theme supports the scene. Music from 0:20 must be attached to a scene edited from the movie. It offers a wonderful woodwind pastorale. “News of Father’s Death” offers a score highlight with its most emotional cue. It reveals Lisa giving Sister Luke a note and advising her not to let Reverend Mother read it. A plaintive oboe emotes in a sea of darkness borne by bass. A spiritually broken Sister Luke’s Theme enters as she decides to hide it, again disobeying Convent rules. Later she reads it in her quarters supported by a bleak soundscape of dread. It is from her brother who informs her that the German’s murdered their father in cold blood as he was tending to wounded Belgian soldiers along a road. She is stunned, and we see her struggling to absorb it and offer forgiveness as we hear interplay of both her themes. At 2:00 we bear witness to aching interplay of both her themes, which begin a tortured ascent, writhing in agony with the music culminating on an unbearable crescendo of pain as she repeatedly screams – “Father”!

In “Leaving the Convent” Sister Luke has reached the end of her struggle and despite efforts to dissuade her by two priests and Mother Emmanuel, signs papers in which she renounces her vows. Music enters as she after a moment of reflection in the now empty office departs. There is an album-film variance. In the film stark repeating single note piano joins with shifting string harmonics. As she enters the corridor, soft woodwinds tristi join and emote Sister Luke’s Theme as the string harmonics reveal distress. As she enters the changing room Gaby’s Theme begins to coalesce as the string harmonics descend in register. On the Album, Sister Luke’s Theme shorn of its refulgent radiance emotes one last time, replaced at 0:15 by a return of Gaby’s Theme on woodwinds as she walks down the corridor. We close upon a crescendo of turmoil as she inwardly reconciles the necessity of her choice.

For the “Finale” Zinnemann rejected Waxman’s music for the scene, save its ending chord, as he insisted that he wanted the scene supported by silence. In the film music stops as she removes her habit. Now dressed, she presses a button, the exit door opens and she leaves. The door remains open and we see her walking into a city street to rejoin humanity and begin her life anew. As she turns and exits view of the camera a radiant refulgent chord of hope resounds, crowned with two bell tolls, and “The End”. On the album Waxman speaks to her feelings and acting. We open with shifting string harmonics and repeating solo piano notes joined by a soft, repeating plaintive statement of Sister Luke’s Theme by woodwinds tristi. At 1:23 Gaby’s Theme joins on xylophone delicato as we see her dressed in civilian clothes, informing us of her return to her former life. At 2:26 a drum pulse and rising string harmonics carry her exit and walk to a new life, ending atop a radiant refulgent chord of hope.

I would like to thank Rod McKuen and Stanyan Records for the remastered issue of Franz Waxman’s masterpiece, “The Nun’s Story”. While the 1991 mastering process does not achieve 21st century audio qualitative standards, and retains some minor imperfections, it does not in the final analysis detract from the compositional brilliance of Waxman’s handiwork. Waxman understood that this was an intimate story of a woman’s effort to seek the Divine. Yet he also had to speak to her struggle to reconcile what ultimately proved to be irreconcilable – her ego driven desire for self-realization by helping humanity through nursing, versus the selflessness, obedience, submission and humility demanded by her religious vocation. Waxman created two themes, which spoke to these competing imperatives. Masterful is how he altered the articulation of each theme and provided interplay that spoke to this struggle, providing a rare and precious compositional eloquence treasured by film score lovers. The Convent Theme was also brilliantly conceived, providing another tense dichotomy. On one hand it spoke of a sanctuary from the strife of the world, a closed tranquil and serene world where one may contemplate the Divine without external interference or distraction, yet on the other hand it also spoke of the confinement, limitation and isolation, which impeded her desire to help humanity. Waxman’s Academy Award nomination was merited by this masterfully conceived and executed score. As good an actress as Audrey Hepburn was, for me it was Waxman’s music which brought home her struggle, soaring heavenward on refulgent highs, as well as descending into a crucible of suffering pathos of despair. I believe this score to be one of the finest in Waxman’s canon, and a gem from the late Golden Age. I highly recommend you obtain this score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the film’s opening cues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETdyeE76E2Y

Buy the Nun’s Story soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Gaby and Her Father (2:45)
  • Leaving (1:19)
  • Gaby enters the Convent (3:02)
  • Goodbye (4:12)
  • New Home (1:37)
  • First Day/Mother Superior (2:45)
  • Sister Luke (1:19)
  • I Accuse Myself (2:00)
  • Hair Cutting/Gran Coro (3:51)
  • Penance (1:45)
  • Angel Gabriel (2:56)
  • Departure and The Congo (3:01)
  • European Hospital (3:35)
  • Bad Accident (1:59)
  • Killing of Aurelie (1:47)
  • Sister Luke Bids Farewell (1:23)
  • Return to Belgium (0:59)
  • Letter from Dr. Fortunati/Convent Life/ War (4:15)
  • The Underground (1:10)
  • News of Father’s Death (2:59)
  • Leaving the Convent (0:54)
  • Finale (3:13)

Running Time: 54 minutes 47 seconds

Stanyan Records STZ-114 (1959/1991)

Music composed and conducted by Franz Waxman. Orchestrations by XXXX. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Franz Waxman. Album produced by Steve Hoffman and Rod McKuen.

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