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He Wrote the Songs

Celebrating Tinseltown composer and musical innovator Franz Waxman

MOMA is celebrating the centennial of the hugely talented and amazingly prolific composer Franz Waxman, whose legacy comprises nearly 150 film scores and a number of concert pieces. A master at translating psychological conflicts into brooding orchestrations, he was always prone to searching for novel sounds. One of his first film assignments was at the Berlin studios in 1930, arranging and conducting Friedrich Hollaender's score for The Blue Angel. From this period dates Waxman's lifelong friendship with Billy Wilder, then a novice screenwriter.

After being beaten on the street by Nazi thugs, the Jewish Waxman left for Paris in 1934 where he joined Wilder and an increasingly large group of German film industry exiles. His jazzy score is the perfect accompaniment to Mauvaise Graine (1934), Wilder's exuberant directorial debut.

It was fellow exile and Blue Angel producer Erich Pommer, settled in America, who imported Waxman from Paris. His first original work in Hollywood was a resounding success—James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the mother of all horror film scores. Its climax is the extraordinary creation scene, when the Monster's weird bride, Elsa Lanchester, is unveiled to a cacophony of wedding bells and her thumping heart is represented by one note repeated by the timpani. His Bride score widely praised, Waxman was appointed head of Universal's music department; he later moved over to MGM as a staff composer and then on to Warner Bros.

Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis
photo: Museum of Modern Art
Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis

Waxman became one of the most sought-after composers in Tinseltown after the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), in which his dreamlike impressionist music did much to evoke the presence of the unseen dead title character. (He collaborated with Hitch on three other pictures— Suspicion, The Paradine Case, and Rear Window—not in this show.)

Waxman's masterpiece is arguably his subtle Oscar-winning score for Sunset Boulevard (1950). Here, he uses the tango to exemplify the atmosphere of early cinema in which deranged ex–film star Norma Desmond still lives. At the climax, as she descends the staircase, now totally bonkers, he shifts to an expressionist style with an all-stops-out parody of Strauss's Salome. The composer worked with Wilder on three more films after Sunset Boulevard. The best of these, the underrated Spirit of St. Louis (1957), is a highlight of the show. It features a wrenchingly sincere performance by Jimmy Stewart as Lindbergh and derives its strength in good part from Waxman's intimate score, which reflects the aviator's states of mind and his apprehension at flying the Atlantic alone.

When Waxman died in 1967, shortly after his 60th birthday, he was still at the height of his powers. MOMA's retro includes 21 features scored by him, the New York premiere of a short about the composer, and a live cabaret evening concert hosted by the composer's son John Waxman.

 
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