On Sunday, Sept. 18, at 3 p.m. in Skinner Hall, Richard Gordon and Robert Osborne will recount the tale of the man who “swept in a new golden age of American film music.” Franz Waxman is best known for writing films scores for “Rebecca,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” and “The Rear Window.” Waxman was born in Silesia (now Poland), and studied music composition at the Dresden Music Academy. Up until 1932, when he fled to Paris with his wife, Waxman wrote scores for movies in Berlin which are virtually unknown to non-German audiences. Waxman composed in Paris for a few years then left for California, where he continued his cinematic/musical career in Hollywood.
As a composer for MGM, Waxman first gained critical acclaim scoring Richard Wallace’s The Young in Heart in 1938, which garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. During the next three decades, Waxman would go on to write scores for 144 movies and receive nine Oscar nods, winning twice. Apart from his extensive works, Waxman left his legacy by founding the Los Angeles Music Festival in 1947, giving opportunities for fellow composers to share their voices. I got to interview Robert Osborne and learn about Jewish composers, Café Sabarsky, and why he can’t choose a favorite performing venue.
Q: When did you first hear a Franz Waxman piece?
A: I first heard Waxman by seeing some of the classic films that he scored in theatres and on television. “Philadelphia Story,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Rear Window.” I was doing a performance at the Neue Galerie and I heard a Waxman song Marlene Dietrich had sung. It was terrifically well-written. I wanted to know more songs that he had written, but I had trouble finding any published. I finally found a copy of the song by reaching out to the people who own Waxman collections. So I asked Michael Pisani about it and he actually knew John Waxman [Franz’s son], who lives in Connecticut. Ultimately, John provided me with copies of all the songs his father had written, the majority of which are unpublished.
Q: What drew you to his style?
A: Waxman was a Jewish Berliner who fled the Nazi powers. There are examples of many, many others in similar situations … We have a huge influx of great composers who fled the Nazis and ended up in either New York or Hollywood. Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Korngold–whose grandson recently a Vassar student actually–and Max Steiner. These immigrants, these German-Jewish immigrants mostly, brought beautiful music. They definitely influenced future generations of film composers, from Danny Elfman to John Williams.
Q: Why do you believe his story deserves to be told?
A: I wanted to share his songs and the Vassar research committee very kindly helped fund the project. What I wanted to do was a portrait of his exile status from Berlin to Paris to Hollywood and also sing in the languages he wrote in.
Q: Waxman has written a beautiful mountain of work, but a mountain nonetheless. How did you choose the works you’ll be performing?
A: The thing that really drew me to him at first was his German cabaret songs. They were so extremely clever and well-written, equal to anything that I had found by other composers writing during the Weimar period, in the late ’20s and early ’30s in Berlin and other German cities. Then I found out he lived in Paris and composed there for six months; he wrote a lot of songs while he was in Paris. Then he came to America, where the requirements for songs were different by the filmmakers, so he didn’t write as many songs as he had when in Berlin and Paris. I chose these to show the three stages of his life. I picked these songs to show contrast with one another.
Q: You’ve performed all over the world. Is there a performance venue dearest to your heart?
A: Skinner Hall. (laughs) No, really. It’s hard to come up with a response to that; I am deeply grateful for any performing venue that sponsors performances of song or opera or musicals, I consider it a great honor to have performed at any of these venues, knowing I get to share the same stage as great performers before me, and great performers still to come. It’s easy to say, “Oh, what a thrill to sing at Carnegie, or in Southern France, or in a Greco-Roman amphitheater,” but I hold them all dear, because they are places where art can happen.
Q: When did you first meet Richard Gordon?
A: Richard and I met before to do my first performance at the Café Sabarsky, which was probably 10 years ago or so. I was looking for a pianist who would be specifically comfortable with doing cabaret, improvisatori and some transposition, and he came highly recommended by a number of friends whose opinions I very much value. We began working and we’ve become best friends. We perform predominantly in this repertoire.
Q: As a seasoned veteran in both the operatic and orchestral concert scene, what is a piece of advice you’d give those hoping to follow in your footsteps?
A: I would say be sure before you embark on pursuing a career as a performing artist that you must have an unquenchable passion for doing it. As a teacher for a number of years, I am so grateful to see generation after generation coming up who wants to do this, who wants to be a performing classical musician, an opera singer or musical theatre performer. The flame seems to be alive as ever, which makes me very happy.