David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
The story of Alfred Newman's life is one of those rags to riches tales that are supposed never to happen outside the novels of Horatio Alger or the wistful fantasies of children. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1901, the eldest of ten children. The family was terribly poor, but somehow the mother was able to get piano lessons for her six-year-old son, for twenty-five cents that's per lesson, of course. The teacher was a house painter by trade, and the boy quickly outgrew his tutelage and progressed to a scholarship with a professional.
A year later he gave his first recital, and soon some kind friends brought him to the attention of the great Polish pianist, Sigismond Stojowski, who offered him a scholarship. Before long, Alfred had won a silver medal and a gold medal in a competition; among the judges were the German conductor Karl Muck and the renowned composer/ pianist Ferruccio Busoni. But, prodigy or not, there was no escaping hard reality: Al's father could not find work, and the boy had to earn a living for his family. Once again friends intervened, and he found a job as piano soloist at the Strand theatre in New York City. He was now thirteen.
Then followed the traditional feast-or-famine sequence, in which periods of employment alternated with no work at all, so Newman eventually drifted into musical theatre. This was hard work, but the pay was a great improvement over what had gone before, and there were other rewards that a youth of seventeen had to find irresistible-girls, girls and more girls. When I listened enviously to the wondrous tales Al used to tell as we sat around in his dressing room over drinks after recording sessions, I got the clear impression that he rarely wasted his energies in resisting what Fate had put in his path.
Al would have made a poor candidate for sainthood; but he was by all odds the best conductor who ever picked up a baton in Hollywood-a town with more than its share of artists on the podium. And it was conducting that brought him to movietown, as musical director for one of Irving Berlin's first film musicals, REACHING FOR THE MOON. This led in short order to a contract with Samuel Goldwyn and into the aspect of his career for which he became world famous: composing film scores. I intend to cite some impressive titles from the list of his films. But as a colleague who received his first film experience with Al (it was he who hired me to work with Charlie Chaplin on MODERN TIMES) I'd rather quote an Italian master of the idiom, Nino Rota, who, on being asked who his favorite film composer was, replied, "Alfred Newman. He has such a wonderful way of extending themes and such a fine dramatic talent."
This talent found a home in the romantic films of the next four decades, during which Al received 45 Academy nominations and won 9 Oscars. In 1939 he was nominated four times: for WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE RAINS CAME, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and THEY SHALL HAVE MUSIC (musical direction). In Academy voting, multiple nominations have a way of canceling one another out, so Newman lost. (This was also the year in which another memorable score was bypassed: Max Steiner's music for GONE WITH THE WIND. For those curious to know what could have beaten such strong competition, it was STAGECOACH, the work of four composers.)
About a year later, Newman would be working with the redoubtable director of STAGECOACH, John Ford, on a film version of Richard Llewellyn's novel, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. For the principal theme of his score, Al reached back to a movie he had done for Samuel Goldwyn in 1935, BELOVED ENEMY, a story about Irish revolutionaries. At that time he had enlisted as researcher our colleague Cyril Mockridge, who found a beautiful folk song, "The Sixpence." There was a small problem: this melody was not Irish, but Welsh; yet it was so lovely that Newman decided to take his chances with the Irish Provisional Army. And, probably because the recordings took place in Hollywood rather than Belfast, there were no untoward incidents except that during one take the low-C string on a cello snapped; but the microphones failed to pick that up, so panic was averted.
In 1941 Newman worked (as composer or musical director) on sixteen films. Two years later came the celebrated score of SONG OF BERNADETTE, from Franz Werfel's novel about a young French girl whose life was transformed by a saintly vision. So successful was Newman's evocation of this ecstatic religious milieu that producers with religious themes came to him for music. After a while, Al was heard to complain that when he was dressing for work his collar automatically went on backwards, like that of a cleric. This irreverence toward convention also manifested itself in his personal life. When he was conducting his music for THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, a group of us used to hang out at his recordings, when we should have been in our studios working. One member of this motley crew was Oscar Levant, best known as a wit and walking encyclopedia, though he was also a fine composer and pianist. In this film the villain, Black Michael, was played by Raymond Massey, and his mistress by the beautiful Mary Astor. When Oscar heard the melody Al had written for her, he asked , "Why is it that in Newman's music the theme for the Other Woman is always so much stronger than the one for the wife?" He also proposed words for that theme: "Black Michael, Why Are You Blue?" For some reason, this lyric has not achieved immortality.
Al used to say that composing, which he described as "sitting in a room, wearing out pencils," was too lonely a life to really satisfy him; as a gregarious man, he clearly preferred conducting. His enjoyment of this talent was apparent on the recording stage at 20th Century-Fox Studio, where he had assembled a virtuoso orchestra. There was in his conducting style a mixture of sentiment and romantic turbulence, of precision and passionate intensity that is next to impossible to duplicate. Our mutual friend, Elmer Bernstein, told me that when he recorded an album of the music of WUTHERING HEIGHTS it was one of the most difficult tasks he ever undertook. I can bear him out. After all my years with Al, as well as many years of my own on the podium, I have come to realize how much of his music was in the performance. Part of that was in the way he could maintain pace and intensity despite the very slow tempos of which he was so fond; and equally important was his style of rubato conducting, which means a way of varying the time value of notes and the stress upon them. The purpose is to achieve a high degree of expressiveness. A criticism frequently leveled at film music is that it overdoes expressiveness, and all too often this is true. When Newman conducted some of my earlier movie scores at 20th-Century Fox, we often disagreed as to the degree of volatility that was appropriate. But there was never any doubt in my mind that he could do wonderful things with whatever we put before him, as well as with his own music. I think you will be able to feel this when you hear the music in the pictures we will be showing.
One rather odd item. During a period when Al was temporarily estranged from that powerful matriarch, his mother, someone brought her the news that Al was about to marry again--this would have been his third wife. Expecting a tirade, the bearer of the tidings was surprised to hear Luba Newman, ever the quintessential Jewish mother, say she thought this "Very nice"--to which she added, "The poor boy deserves a year of happiness." Yet this marriage to Martha Montgomery was the one that survived and produced five children, among whom are two who followed him into film composition, David and Thomas Newman. Their sister Maria is a splendid violinist and violist, but primarily a fine composer (as is their cousin Randy Newman). I recall with pleasure that when a youthful Tom Newman appeared in my USC class in Music for Films I told him that at one time I had been another son of his father.
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author