Waxman’s 1965 song cycle The Song of Terezin, a large-scale work for mixed chorus, children’s chorus, mezzo-soprano soloist and orchestra, may be his most important work for the concert hall. This is significant: The text is based on a collection of poems (I Never Saw Another Butterfly...) written by children interned at Theresienstadt in World War II. Of the 15,000 who were captive at the concentration camp, a mere 100 survived.
A word, now, about the directness of expression, and in whatever mode, we usually find in children. Picasso, on visiting a school and being shown artwork, is said to have commented, “It took me 50 years to learn to paint like that.” He was looking at finger-paintings done by the school’s children. The direct simplicity of a child’s communication can be arrestingly expressive, surprisingly vivid, beautifully touching, and indeed poetic. Any grandmother can confirm this.
Beyond Film Music:
Waxman’s The Song of Terezin
Oratorio, being performed in Hartheim, Austria. Photo courtesy franzwaxman.com.
Conjecture is fruitless but still fascinating: The Song of Terezin might have been performed by Leonard Bernstein during the mid-1980s. John Waxman told this author he had discussed with Bernstein himself the possibility of a New York Philharmonic performance of the work. Bernstein ultimately decided instead to program another song cycle, his own Songfest. His choice is entirely understandable, but was still disappointing to admirers of Franz Waxman’s music. Nevertheless, patience can have its own reward: a Decca recording of The Song of Terezin is now available.
A composer’s musical notehand can actually affect the appearance of his prose letterhand. Even the untrained eye can detect marked influences. Waxman’s handwriting offers a classic example. A handwritten letter to the author from the composer reveals no visible difference between his lower-case “b” and the flat sign (which lowers a note by one-half tone) that one can find in his musical manuscripts.
Mozart never heard his last three symphonies, but Waxman heard his Song of Terezin performed, at its premiere in Cincinnati. Not long afterward, soon after returning from a year in Europe, the author learned that Franz Waxman had been taken by cancer only two months earlier, on February 24, 1967, two years after completing The Song of Terezin and two months after his 60th birthday.
Waxman in New York
At this point I must forsake an author’s anonymity and take a personal role. One day in the fall of 1962 I was walking along 7th Avenue in Manhattan when I passed a man I’d never met but whose face was as familiar to me as his music. I turned around and followed close behind him. What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. Most people would open an umbrella to protect them from the rain, and would close it when sheltered. Not this man. Though it was raining lightly, the umbrella he carried was closed. When he passed under the marquee-overhang of the Rivoli Theatre, where he’d be sheltered from the rain, he opened his umbrella, continued walking, and then closed it when he re-entered the rain. The image of The Absent-Minded Composer originated with Beethoven and the tradition was continued by many who followed him—including the man I was watching, Franz Waxman himself.
To get his attention I whistled a theme from Mahler’s second symphony (Resurrection), which I knew Waxman had recently conducted in Los Angeles. Getting no reaction from him, I tried a theme from one of his own compositions—presumably a foolproof way of getting a composer’s attention—but even here I got no reaction (though this worked when, years later, I encountered Samuel Barber on the northwest corner of 54th Street and Madison Avenue). I had no choice but to approach Waxman, introduce myself and shake hands with him.
I asked him what brought him to New York. “I live here part of the time,” he told me. I learned from his son only much later that for the last 10 years of his life the composer had had a brownstone on East 65th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, where he and his wife and son lived on two of the floors. A Baldwin piano graced the apartment, where most of The Song of Terezin had been composed.
The talk soon turned to the recent opening of Lincoln Center. “I heard Schumann’s Eighth Symphony there,” I heard him say. “I thought Robert Schumann composed only four symphonies,” I countered knowingly, and as kindly as I could. “William Schuman,” replied the maestro even more knowingly and kindly than I. William Schuman, an important American composer, had been president of my alma mater, the Juilliard School, before becoming Lincoln Center’s first director.
When Waxman stopped and asked me where the United Artists building was, I told him we had passed it two blocks ago. He had a towering musical intellect, but like Beethoven his facility in certain kinds of practical matters seemed woeful, and the masks of Pathos & Comedy were now worn simultaneously. I thought it best to personally accompany him to his destination, which I was glad to do.
That meeting, my only one with Franz Waxman, is something for which I am very thankful.
The author is sincerely indebted to John Waxman for his kindness and generosity in having furnished specific and very singular details that only he, as the composer’s son, could have provided for this article.
Jeffrey Dane is a music historian, researcher and author whose work appears in the USA and abroad in several languages. His book, A Composer’s Notes: Remembering Miklós Rózsa, was published by iUniverse for the 2007 Rózsa centenary.