Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > SYMPHONY OF SIX MILLION – Max Steiner



Original Review by Craig Lysy

In late 1931 legendary David O. Selznick became RKO Studio’s Production Chief. He decided that his inaugural film would be the melodrama “Night Bell”, which would be adapted from the story of the same name by Fannie Hurst. He first changed the film title to “Symphony of Six Million” – a reference to the population of New York City – and then rejected the first screenplay, demanding that it reclaim the cultural sensibilities offered in the original story. He wanted his film to offer a mirror to the life of Jewish immigrants in America and the challenges created by the cultural assimilation of their children. Selznick and Pandro S. Berman would produce the film, Gregory La Cava was hired to direct, and a budget of $270,000 was provided. The cast would include Ricardo Cortez as Dr. Felix Klauber, and his family, Gregory Ratoff as his father Meyer Klauber, Anna Appel as his mother Hannah Klauber, Noel Madison as his brother Magnus Klauber, and Lita Chevret as his sister Birdie Klauber. Irene Dunne would play love interest Jessica, and John St. Polis his colleague Dr. Schifflen.

The story is set in New York City in the early years of the 20th century, and follows the life of Felix “Felixel” Klauber who hails from a tight knit Jewish immigrant family living in the Lower East Side Jewish Ghetto. He studies hard, becomes a physician, and sets up shop in his community where he is loved, happy, and very successful. He is however pressured by his mom, a surrogate at the behest of his older brother Magnus, to better himself and the fortunes of the family. He fulfills his filial duties and makes the fateful choice to set-up an additional practice for elite cliental on Park Avenue. Over time his success results in personal wealth for him and the family, but also an estrangement from his obligations to the neighborhood clinic, childhood friends and community. A young boy actual dies because Felix is late in arriving at the clinic for vital surgery. All comes to a head when he undertakes surgery on his father who suffers from a brain tumor. He is devastated when he dies on his operating table, abandons surgery, and gives up the healing arts to instead treat wealthy hypochondriacs. Personal redemption however beckons when he is once again put to the test when childhood friend Jessica comes to him for needed spinal surgery. The film was commercial success, which established Irene Dunne as an up-and-coming star. It also received critical acclaim but no awards as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was not yet established.

David O. Selznick throughout his career had always championed the musical score, positing that it was the most important element for a film’s success. He more than any other Studio Executive was responsible for the adoption by Hollywood film-makers of using extensive original, non-diegetic music to support their films. Noteworthy is that this was one of the first films with spoken dialogue to have an extensive score, done so at the insistence of RKO Studio’s Production Chief David O. Selznick. Until now Steiner had only been asked to arrange and conduct music for film with minor efforts to compose, such as the Main Title for Cimarron (1931). For this film Selznick wanted more and tasked him to score ten minutes score for the film to see how it affected the dialogue and scene. He did so and Selznick and the creative team were impressed and convinced of the utility and power of Steiner’s music to enhance the film’s narrative. As such Selznick tasked Steiner with scoring the entire film, which opened a new chapter in the history of Hollywood film-making. Steiner related in his memoirs;

“The music in this picture… is handled like opera music. It matches exactly the mood, the action, and situation of the scene on screen. If there is a fight, the music assumes that sort of theme; if the players are in a tender love scene, the music corresponds”.

Steiner understood that he would have to compose music using a Jewish idiom so as to ground the film, infusing its narrative with the necessary cultural sensibilities. As such he interpolates several traditional Jewish songs and hymns, including; “Kol Nidre”, “Auf’n Pripetchok” by Mark Warshawsky, “Hatikva” by Naphtali Herz Imber, and “Eli, Eli” by Jacob K. Sandler.

For his primary themes we have Felix’s Theme, which provides us insight into the story’s protagonist, a kind and decent man. Steiner speaks to his nature with a lyrical, major modal marcia maestoso, whose stately cadence offers a promenade moderato, which emotes with an ascending contour, that speaks of his dignity, confidence and kindness. The Jewish Ghetto Life Theme offers a wonderful scherzando propelled by vibrant, strings and woodwinds energico, which speak to the energy of the busy city streets. Woven into its fabric are Jewish folk music auras, which speaks to the bustling energy of their ghetto. Jessica’s Theme offers a tender but sad melody carried by oboe delicato and harp, which speaks to her gentleness as well as her ailment from a spinal deformity. The Love Theme offers a valzer gentile in the finest Viennese traditions, and speaks to the romance between Jessica and Felix. With the Family Theme Steiner understands the deep bond of the Jewish family, the safe harbor from a too often hostile world, and its string borne melody emotes with the comfort of a warm blanket. The Abandonment Theme speaks to Felix’s estrangement from the clinic, and by extension, his boyhood Jewish community. Steiner interpolates the sad melody of “Eli, Eli”, a musical setting of Psalm 22; “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” For “Papa Klauber’s Theme” Steiner interpolates the “Auf’n Pripetchok” folk song by Mark Warshawsky. The melody is sad and full of nostalgia, and to fully understand it you must also know its words;

“A fire burns on the hearth
and it is warm in the little house.
And the rabbi is teaching little children
the alphabet

Remember, children,
remember, dear ones,
what you learn here.
Repeat and repeat yet again…
When, children, you will grow older
you will understand,
how many tears lie in these letters,
and how much crying.

Lastly, instructive is where Steiner offers no music. Well-conceived and masterfully executed is that Steiner speaks Felix’s estrangement from his family and community by not scoring his life on Park Avenue. The absence of the rich Jewish melodies of his youth, family, and community laid bare the shallowness, and emptiness of his life.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight, which supports the roll of the opening credits. Steiner introduces the string borne Felix’s Theme, which emotes as a lyrical, major modal marcia maestoso with a cadence of a promenade. The ascending contour of its melody speaks of dignity, confidence and hopefulness. At 0:35 a stepped crescendo dramatico supports the on-screen display of the setting: “A city, six million human hearts, each with a dream, a hope, a goal, each soul a vagrant melody in the eternal symphony of life”. At 0:53 we segue into the Ghetto Life Theme, a scherzando festivo carried by vibrant strings and woodwinds energico, which support the dynamism and energy of the busy city streets.

Music for the following two cues is not on the album. “Life in the Ghetto” sustains the scherzando of the Ghetto Life Theme that drapes us in Jewish auras as we see a bustling activity of street shoppers and vendors haggling as people purchase food and other necessities of life. A diminuendo on woodwinds brings us to Felix as a boy sitting on his townhome step reading as Jessica arrives carried by her oboe emoted theme. She sits next to him at his invitation and we feel their friendship. Local boys ask him to come play and he refuses, preferring to read. The Ghetto Life Theme returns atop violins energico as they tease him, calling him a sissy, but he stands up defiant and they back down. A swirling vortex of strings enters to support the arrival of an ambulance, to which Felix runs towards. “Family Life” is supported diegetically by Steiner and reveals the Klauber family spending an evening together with Felix’s sister Birdie playing “Auf’n Pripetchok” by Mark Warshawsky on piano as Felix and his father play chess.[12] We see a close-knit family’s love for their very emotional and excitable father.

“Boyhood To Manhood” reveals onscreen script set against a panorama of the New York City skyline that informs us that years have passed and that Felix is now a man. Steiner supports with Felix’s Theme by solo violin tenero draped with strummed harp adornment and tubular bells. Music for the next three scenes is not on the album. “Felix and Mother” reveals him studying with the Family Theme supporting as his mother enters, insists on giving him money, and then admonishes him for getting up so early to study. We segue into “Felix and Father” as papa joins him carried by a sunny dance-like rendering of his theme, which becomes comic as he too offers him money to help with his studies. After he departs, Felix takes the money supported by a thankful rendering of his theme. Afterwards as he goes out to greet his line of waiting patients his theme soars as we see love and thankfulness in their eyes. “Cherry Street Clinic” reveals Felix’s very crowded Ghetto clinic with an ascent motif carrying us up the packed stairs to his office. As he ministers to a boy with an injured leg we are graced by an extended rendering of Felix’s warm theme. We end on a warm diminuendo of his theme as he ushers out the last patient of the day.

Music for the next four scenes is not on the album. “Braille Institute of the Blind” reveals Jessica teaching blind children to read braille supported by a sunny and happy rendering of her theme. As Felix enters, we have a musical eruption of joy as the kids hear his voice and rush to grasp him as he dispenses candy. As Jessica hobbles to him their Love Theme flows as a Viennese valzer gentile. We end playfully as she accepts his offer for a date at Coney Island. “Coney Island” reveals the two of them having a wonderful time, which Steiner supports with carnivalesque music. As he walks her home later in the evening, their Love Theme waltz carries their progress. She remarks that it appears that all his dreams have come true, and he agrees. When he asks her “Have yours? Her theme enters as she answers dreams are swell, and it is good to have theme. We see in her eyes that Felix remains her one illusive dream. “Magnus’ Discontent” reveals him exhorting his mother to ask Felix to make more money and support the family. When she says he is happy and does not need the money, he turns to his father with the same argument. A tender rendering of Papa’s Theme enters on piano as he too ignores Magnus’ insistence that Felix do more. When Papa’s friend Mo arrives, he departs with him to play chess, carried by his theme. Magnus is relentless, and brow beats his mother into submission, insisting that for his own good, and that of the family that she ask him to open up an uptown office for clients that will pay for his services. A plaintive statement of the Family Theme supports her acquiescence, and Magnus’ departure. In “Felix and Mother” she lays a guilt trip of the family’s hardships on him in quintessential Jewish mother fashion, replete with tears, supported by a plaintive rendering of the Family Theme adorned with Jewish auras. Felix departs sadly prepared to perform his filial duties supported by a dispirited statement of his theme.

“Felix’s Decision” offers a dramatic score highlight. It reveals him in his room contemplating his future. His theme enters with its usual confidence, yet as we see him deciding to perform his filial duties, we begin a stepped crescendo dramatico on his theme which climaxes gloriously. As he opens the window the sounds of the Ghetto flow in, carried by the Ghetto Theme – a sad reminder of the community he loves and now will be leaving. “W 89th Street” reveals Felix’s new upscale uptown office. He sees rich women clients, is making a lot of money, yet is discontent. His father visits and he cannot give him the time of day, making a vague promise to play chess with him next week. Magnus stops by and Felix confides that he wants to give up this life and return to the Ghetto where he makes a difference in people’s lives. A plaintive rendering of his theme by solo cello triste speaks of his unhappiness. In a scene change to the Ghetto clinic a young boy asks the clinic doctor where Dr. Klauber was, to which he replies that he does not come here anymore. Steiner supports the scene with a sad rendering of “Eli, Eli” – Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Music for this scene is not on the album.

Music for the following three scenes is not on the album. “Jessica Alone” reveals her in her classroom preparing flower bouquets with a happy rendering of her theme. A sad rendering of Felix’s Theme joins when a boy asks why he no longer visits them, to which she answers that he is a very busy man. “The New Klaubers” reveals them arriving in a large chauffeured car back to their old house in the ghetto, supported by the festive scherzando of the Ghetto Theme. Papa shows off his new car to his friend Mo, while Mama has coffee and strudel with her old friends. Jessica visits, learns that Birdie has a baby boy and exits to enter Felix’s old office. She misses him dearly and Steiner supports with a plaintive rendering of the Love Theme. Mrs. Klauber joins her and Jessica asks her to speak to her son as a young boy in her class needs an operation. Her theme becomes more hopeful on solo violin tenero as Mrs. Klauber counsels her to speak to him herself as he can refuse her nothing. “The Boy” reveals Jessica at the clinic with the sick boy waiting for Felix to arrive, supported by the plaintive string borne “Eli, Eli” Theme. We see Felix tarrying in his office, and bantering with one of his patients. As he prepares to leave for the clinic for a 12:00 appointment the nurse informs him that he has no appointment at the clinic and that his waiting room is full of patients. He makes the fateful decision to stay supported by a plaintive “Eli, Eli” Theme on a mournful solo cello. We end with the nurse at the front desk relaying another urgent message from the clinic, which the head nurse dismisses supported by a sad refrain of the Jewish Ghetto Theme.

Music for the following two scenes is not on the album. “Death of the Boy” offers a poignant score highlight. It reveals Jessica coming to see Felix to admonish him for the boy’s death and his estrangement from the community. Steiner interpolates the melody from the Jewish hymn “Hatikva” (The Hope), a melody that to appreciate, you must know the lyrics;

“As long as deep within the heart
A Jewish soul stirs,
And forward, to the ends of the East
An eye looks out, towards Zion.
Our hope is not yet lost…”

The melody surges as she enters his office, becoming grieving as she admonishes him for abandoning the boy who loved him, and his community. When he says he will go at once to attend to the boy, the music become elegiac on strings dolente with the “Eli, Eli” Theme as she answers, it is too late as he died at twelve o’clock, his last words calling your name. She departs grieving, say that she feels sorry for him. “Papa Takes Ill” reveals him and the family attending the Redemption of the First-Born ceremony for Birdie’s son. He again requests that the she play “Auf’n Pripetchok,” and as she plays the piano in the background, as Papa thanks God for blessing him with children who are talented and successful. He is very emotional, suddenly collapses after his speech, and attended to by a distraught Felix.

“Diagnosis” reveals a physician conference in Felix’s office where they all agree on the test findings, that his father has a brain tumor. A grim stepped chordal descent portends his dire circumstances. His family enters to conference and Felix gives them the bad news supported by grieving strings. When he says he will find the best doctor to operate the family demands that instead he must operate. A plaintive Papa’s Theme supports the scene joined at 1:04 by an aggrieved Felix’s Theme, which swells with anguish as he is distraught. His mother orders Magnus and Birdie out of the room and convinces him to do the operation. She insists that he operate, and he replies that he is scared. The interplay of his father’s theme and his is poignant. The scene was evidently shortened by editing as the music in the film ends at 1:24.

“Preparing for the Operation” offers a poignant score highlight with some of its most emotional music. It opens with a solemn Felix’s Theme as his dad is wheeled into to the operating room. He is crowing about his very talented son and Felix’s Theme warms and becomes tender when he comes to him. Papa asks to see his hands and recalls the white gloves he bought him as a boy to protect them. At 0:33 interplay with a solemn rendering of the Auf’n Pripetchok melody of Papa’s Theme commences that joins with the equally solemn Kol Nidre melody associated with the Jewish prayer with Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement. The music builds with a palpable pathos as the team moves his bed into position and drapes him as Felix scrubs for surgery. We close with portentous strings, which end with a sad final chord as Felix moves to the head of the bed and pauses, unsure for the first time in his life.

The actual operation is unscored, as we see a rising desperation in Felix as his father’s vital signs slowly ebb until he passes unto death. Music reenters in “Father’s Death” as a grieving lament with Papa’s Theme joining at 0:30 on solo piano. Felix is devastated as they take his father away, and as he stands alone a solo cello triste and harp join Papa’s Theme for an aching, parting reprise marked by the finality of bells tolls. In “Despair” we see Felix walking the streets at night, which Steiner supports with heart-wrenching interplay of Papa’s and Felix’s Themes. “Return to the Office” reveals Felix returning to his office carried by a stepped descent of despair. Anguished strings carry his theme as his mother and siblings rush to comfort him. Felix indulges in regret and self-pity as Papa’s Theme joins, and his family tries to assuage him of any guilt. He gets up and rages of his life gone wrong, of surrendering his birthright for the fame of Park Avenue, and for what he asks, as he raises and then smashed the frame of the photo showing “Dr. Klauber’s Million Dollar Hands”. Steiner supports his rage with a powerful, impassioned crescendo by his theme to achieve the score’s emotional apogee. He departs supported by dark chords of anger as he declares he is through and will never operate again. The music for this scene is not on the album.

“Return to the Clinic” reveals people lined up on the stairs outside the clinic supported by a grieving Ghetto Theme. At 0:21 Felix approaches the clinic door carried by a wistful rendering of his theme, as he pats a young boy on the head at 0:33, yet the boy recoils supported by a grieving Jewish Ghetto Theme on solo violin. We close on forlorn statements of Felix’s Theme. The album cue ends here, but in the film Felix walks in a sees a woman being treated by another doctor and we see regret in his eyes. The abandonment Theme of “Eli, Eli” creates a palpable pathos. Music for the following three cues is not on the album. “News of Jessica” reveals a clinic doctor informing him of her new spinal problem, which requires surgery. Steiner sow anxiety with woodwinds and horns as we see concern in Felix’s eyes as he departs to visit her at home. “Felix Visits” reveals Jessica laying in bed talking to her mother, supported by a gentle statement of her theme. A dark cello tremolo and foreboding horns supports a knock on the door. As he enters and she sees him, an aggrieved crescendo by the Love Theme takes him to her as she calls out his name. Distressed horns resound as he kneels and buries his head in her bed. “Magnus’ Anger” reveals a meeting of Magnus, his mother and Jessica. He is angry and blames Jessica for Felix abandoning his profession due to her entreaties to return to the Community Clinic. She rebuts him by saying that when Felix lost the Ghetto, he lost himself, his ideals, his love of life, real work, but most of all, he lost his love of people as well as his soul. Magnus leaves frustrated and as his mother pleads for Jessica to help her son, interplay of the Abandonment and Papa’s Theme join in a forlorn statement. Yet a closing shot of Jessica’s eyes is supported by a harp delicato full of hope.

“Jessica’s Operation/FInale” reveals her on a gurney about to be wheeled into surgery. Steiner interpolates the melody from the Jewish hymn “Hatikva” (The Hope) to support the moment. At 1:05 a happy ascent supports her putting make-up touches on her face. Impassioned strings bring Felix to her room cresting with horns at 1:27 as he arrives. Jessica informs him she is determined to have surgery and we see he is distraught as this is a dangerous surgery in which she can die. An impassioned Love Theme swells with fervor as he tries unsuccessfully to dissuade her. When he asks who will be doing the surgery, she answers a fine surgeon, Dr. Felix Klauber, her statement crowned at 2:09 by proud horn statements of his theme. A diminuendo of loving tenderness follows as she pulls him down to her lips, kisses him, and asks that he wish her luck. She closes saying, and good luck to you. A crescendo dramatico surges as she is wheeled out, followed by a torrent of tension as he vows to prevent the surgery. Dr. Schifflen exhorts him to perform the surgery supported at 3:09 by repeated, swelling statements of Felix’s Theme, saying to him that he is the better doctor, but if he will not do the surgery, I will, which Steiner crowns at 3:32 with a timpani drum roll. A diminuendo of contemplation follows as Felix accepts his destiny, and at 3:50 a marcia dramatico supports his walk to the operating room. Joined by the Jewish hymn “Hatikva” as he enters. In a cut away to the hallways we see two patients talking with a restless Felix’s Theme slowly swelling on an impassioned ascent in the background. At 4:58 Steiner channels Tchaikovsky with a dramatic swirling storm of strings, which crest on a renewed Felix’s Theme as we see him being congratulated for a surgery of unparalleled skill. He has redeemed himself, and his theme swells with renewed pride and confidence for the score’s finest statement as the camera pans up the stairs of the clinic where the door reads “Dr. Klauber”. We close triumphantly on Felix’s Theme to on-screen script, which reads “I dedicate these two hands in service – – That the lame may walk, the halt be strong – – Lifting up the needy; comforting the dying – – This is my oath in the Temple of Healing”.

I would like to commend James d’Arc and Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production for producing this invaluable album, “Max Steiner: The RKO Studio Years 1929-1936”. The early Golden Age scores offered by this album have long been sought by lovers of the art form, and their presentation here is a Godsend. The original sources for the scores were truly archival and it is a miracle that the engineering team was able to produce the album. While the audio quality contains imperfections and does not achieve current 21st century standards, I believe that in the final analysis, we can still experience the brilliance of Steiner’s handiwork, and I am thankful. When considering the canon of Max Steiner in totality, few, including this author would categorize the score for “Symphony of Six Million” (1932) as one of his finest efforts. What is notable, however is that it constituted a seminal event for Hollywood Studio film production – namely, it was the first film underscore to extensively be woven into the film’s fabric. Until this time Steiner duties at RKO had been limited to composing original music for Main Title’s, such as he did for “Cimmaron” (1931), along with End Title or exit music. On this film Steiner relates “Mr. Selznick instructed me to score one reel in, about 1,000 feet or ten minutes of music, to see whether it would interfere with the dialogue or help. It was decided that it did help and the top brass were delighted”. Thus, we who love film score art have much to be thankful to David O. Selznick as the man who served as the catalyst for unleashing the power of music in motion pictures. In a memo dated 5 December 1935, to John Hay Whitney, Chairman of the Board of Directors for Selznick International Pictures, Selznick wrote: “That he considered the right score a major element in the success of the picture – an infinitely greater element than it is considered by most people. I can think of no better way of spending several thousand dollars to improve a picture than on the right score, and there is, in my opinion, no one in the entire field within miles of Max”. High praise indeed.

In regards to this score, Steiner offers a multiplicity of fine themes to support the characters and film narrative. Felix’s Theme, a marcia maestoso perfectly emotes his essential goodness, confidence and dignity, revealing Steiner’s genius and resplendent career record of effectively capturing the essence of the lead character. The film explored Jewish family life and community culture, and Steiner masterfully channels their cultural sensibilities with the bustling Ghetto Theme, as we as interpolating several traditional Jewish songs and hymns, including “Kol Nidre”, “Auf’n Pripetchok” by Mark Warshawsky, “Hatikva” by Naphtali Herz Imber, and “Eli, Eli” by Jacob K. Sandler. Folks, this score in every way enhanced and elevated the film’s narrative, allowing Selznick to achieve his vison. I consider it a fine early career effort by Max Steiner and a seminal score, which forever changed Hollywood film making. While I recommend this score as an essential part of your collection, regretfully the 3 CD box set is no longer available except on the secondary market where its price is prohibitively expensive. I would ask Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production for a re-release so new generations of film score lovers can appreciate the genius of max Steiner.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Main Title: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERT9isi_PBc

Buy the Symphony of Six Million soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:13)
  • Boyhood to Manhood (0:21)
  • Felix’s Decision (0:54)
  • Diagnosis (3:10)
  • Preparing for the Operation (3:41)
  • Father’s Death (1:42)
  • Despair (0:30)
  • Return to the Clinic (1:05)
  • Jessica’s Operation/Finale (6:32)

Running Time: 19 minutes 04 seconds

Brigham Young University Film Music Archives Production FMAMS-110 (1932/2002)

Music composed and conducted by Max Steiner. Orchestrations by Bernard Kaun. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Max Steiner. Album produced by James d’Arc.

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