A Man of Principle
The following story behind Waxman’s score for Demetrius and the Gladiators is emblematic of the composer’s character. It’s a matter of record that sequels often don’t measure up terribly well to the films on which they’re based, and those that do are the exceptions to the rule. Demetrius is among them, and is an outstanding example of how a sequel could surpass the original in substance, impact and enjoyment. When Alfred Newman wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award for his own score for The Robe (the film on which Demetrius was based), Waxman did something unprecedented in the annals of the film colony: he resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
He also stipulated that his own screen credit in Demetrius specifically state that his music is based on Alfred Newman’s score for The Robe. That’s the kind of integrity Franz Waxman had. The Demetrius score is a skillful and fascinating blend of pure Waxman, pure Newman, and Waxman-based-on-Newman. It seems paradoxical that the soundtrack album of The Robe was available on LP for decades, while the music from Waxman’s score for Demetrius was never recorded commercially until after the advent of the compact disc. The title music for Demetrius, moving from suspenseful to martial to brooding, has one of the most memorable themes ever to be heard in a film, and the barbaric gladiatorial march Waxman composed for the arena sequence is, in a word, savage in its implication and musical impact.
An earnest man and a serious composer, he often devoted more effort to a score than the film’s quality really warranted. “...Many of the films he scored barely deserved the effort he put into them,” wrote the late film historian Tony Thomas in Film Score: The Art & Craft of Movie Music. That Waxman did this bespeaks the seriousness of purpose that distinguishes the exceptional man and musician from the commonplace.
Among composers in Hollywood, Franz Waxman was arguably the greatest musical psychologist who ever wrote for films. In the texture and careful placing of music, it was a trait he shared with his colleague at Warner Bros., Max Steiner (who had studied for a time with Gustav Mahler). For appropriate film sequences, Waxman’s music is subtle, not blatant and obvious, and slips easily into viewers’ subconscious awareness. Music is one of the most important elements in our enjoyment of a film, and even when, as dictated by the scene, it’s actually intended as “background” music we are sometimes aware of its presence. Waxman composed on a level so sophisticated and cunning that he made us subliminally aware of its absence. He was a master of the kind of surprising and effective harmonic musical progressions that influence the overall impact his films have on us.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
It should surprise no one who had the good fortune to know Franz Waxman that there’s a very real connection between the kind of man he was and the kind of house he built (in 1938) and lived in with his family until the end of his life. Like the man himself, the house and grounds are tasteful and unpretentious, with a subdued but tangible kind of visual quality that can be best described as having Real Class while being unassuming. Situated just off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills, it still has a superb overlook of the San Fernando Valley, all the way to Sylmar and Santa Clarita on the Valley’s northern edge. (His home and the Rózsa residence shared the same zip code, 90046.)
Facing an expansive lawn, Waxman’s private studio contained a Steinway piano (with two additional ones enhancing the music room). Much of the study’s wall-space was covered by shelves filled with scores and books, above which were his Academy Award nominations. Crowning the contents of his basic repertoire library of music were the Complete Works of Bach—a component of the studio revealing of the sincerity and spirit of the man who worked there. On one wall was the now-iconic painting by Wilhelm von Beckerath of Johannes Brahms in profile at the piano. The likeness, done in 1896—the year before Brahms died—is almost photographic in its clarity and is, in a word, superb as an image of Brahms and is entirely characteristic of his personal bearing. (His late-in-life photographs will bear this out.) The portrait captures the essence of Brahms, playing the piano with his cigar in his mouth, the plume of smoke rising above him. Also in Waxman’s study were a large table-desk, and a drafting table at which he actually composed. His son, John Waxman, still has both of these.
Brahms smoking a cigar; Bach sitting.
The very caliber of the guests who graced Waxman’s home at one time or another constitutes yet another link between the surroundings and those visitors themselves. They included French cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-1986), American composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), American pianist William Kapell (1922-1953), Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976), Israeli pianist Menahem Pressler (born in 1923), and Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). John Waxman assures this writer that there are genuine stories behind the visits to the Waxman home of each of these (and countless other) musicians.
Another of Waxman’s visitors to the Mulholland Terrace home was the man who is debatably the most important symphonist of the 20th century. Like Copland here in America, he was an industry unto himself in his native Russia. The only real musical regret of this author’s life is that he never had the opportunity to meet him. His name was Dmitri Shostakovich.
As Waxman matured, his musical intellect deepened and his professional activities broadened, and he performed with violinist Isaac Stern, among others. In addition to his film scores, he wrote many works specifically for the concert hall. He, Miklós Rózsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (significantly, all conservatory trained) were the only major composers in Hollywood to do so as a feature of their musical lives. Among such Waxman works are the Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra (the “Carmen Fantasie,” for its basis on themes from Bizet’s opera), the “Tristan & Isolde” Fantasie (from the Wagner opera), the Sinfonietta for Strings & Timpani, The Charm Bracelet, and the 1959 Joshua, an oratorio (a work for large forces based on a biblical text), which he conducted at the Los Angeles Music Festival. He had founded it in 1947 and was for the remaining two decades of his life its principal conductor. The Rhapsody for Piano & Orchestra was based on themes from his score for the film, The Paradine Case, and his symphonic poem for narrator and orchestra, Ruth, was based on his music for the film, The Story of Ruth.