American Composers Orchestra

 

about the music


aco homepage

concert schedule


David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues

Max Steiner

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Alfred Newman

Miklós Rózsa

David Raksin

Franz Waxman

Aaron Copland

Hugo Friedhofer

Bernard Herrmann

Dmitri Tiomkin

 

David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues

 

David Raksin

Since I expect to be present at the showing of some of the films I have scored, I thought I would skip autobiographics and instead recount a few stories that illustrate some of the vicissitudes unique to the career of a film composer.

Meeting the Director of Force of Evil
I had been summoned to meet the director of my next assignment, who turned out to be an amiable roughneck about my age, bright and shrewd, and New Yorky enough to let me know he didn't want "any of that Hollywood music" in his picture. What he wanted was "something different-like Wozzeck." A string of three-frame cuts of the aurora borealis flashed before my eyes: a director who actually knows how to pronounce the cherished name of Alban Berg's operatic masterpiece and believes that his film needs that kind of expressive music-I could almost feel the shackles falling away from my talent!

I invited him out to my Northridge farm for dinner so that we could talk, away from studio distractions.

So there we were in the living room with drinks in hand, the phonograph playing and the conversation taking its time to get under way. I remember thinking that this was the way things ought to be: I liked his script and I couldn't wait to hear what he had to say and to get working on the music. Suddenly irritated, he said, "What's that crap you're playing?" "That crap," I replied, "is Wozzeck!" That happened more than forty years ago, and if there is a story that tells more about why film composers sometimes despair of their profession, I have yet to hear it.

A Game of Tests With The Maestro
In the autumn of 1936 I returned from a working trip in England to join the composing staff at Universal Studio. There I found myself collaborating with several colleagues on music for various films whose sole unifying characteristic seems to have been the necessity to produce scores in no more than a few days —the rush was the name by which this debilitating process was known. After a month or so of this, I had a call from Leo Forbstein, head of the music department at Warner Bros. studio, who had heard about the music I was composing from his younger brother, a secondary executive at Universal. The result was an agreement to work for Warner's on weekends not required by my home studio.

On "free" Fridays I would appear at the projection room of Forbstein's group, where I would be shown bits and pieces of Warner movies for which I was expected to produce music to be recorded during the following week. I saw only special footage such as main or end titles, chases and montages-sequences in which the music would be relatively audible. In most cases there was hardly time to learn what the rest of the story was about-let alone to see the entire film. In this haphazard way I became a kind of featured link in a super-assembly line; for example, I didn't learn until months later that the star of one of the movies I worked on was Bette Davis. I had only done a few of these madhouse stints when Forbstein informed me that I would no longer be working for him. Not having caught the sly grimace that accompanied this unwelcome bit of news, I was crestfallen-until he explained that he had been hiring me for those weekends from Universal for more money than they paid me per week. He now proposed to employ me without that studio as intermediary-an endorsement of my talent that more than doubled my income. This lasted for a while, until Charles Previn, head of Universal's music department, offered me the plum assignment of working as assistant to Leopold Stokowski, who had come to the studio to provide the music for a new film, ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, which would feature Universal's youthful star, Deanna Durbin. Of course I leaped at the chance, and soon found myself in the presence of the great man.

I am a Philadelphian by birth and by inclination and was thrilled to be working with a personal idol, the conductor of my favorite symphony orchestra. My father had often played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, when an extra clarinetist or bass clarinetist or perhaps a saxophonist (for Bizet's l'Arlesienne Suite II or Ravel's transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition) was required. Stokowski, whose remarkable memory must have recognized the significance of the name, did not bring this up, so neither did I. But he did attempt to determine whether I was equal to the demands of the position by casually proposing what were actually tests of my resourcefulness.

He began by giving me the first movement of a Beethoven piano sonata, of which I was to put the first section into score for symphony orchestra. He had marked it thoroughly with instructions concerning instrumental colors, doublings, etc. [I am therefore an informed witness in the matter of Stokowski transcriptions, which have often been mis-attributed to others by gossip mongers. I can testify that the task which he assigned me was not much more than glorified copying, and definitely not the work of a transcriber. Is it too much to hope that this will help to lay some of the wicked rumors to rest?] Of course I turned up the next morning with the score finished, as far as it went. Stokowski approved of everything (as well he might, since it was according to his wishes) except for one small item, where I had substituted an E-flat clarinet for the B-flat one he had expected. His raised eyebrow asked why. "Mr. Stokowski," I said, "if I had used a B-flat clarinet there, it would have had to rise out of the chalumeau (the lower register) into the upper register, and the tone quality would change." Amused, he agreed.

The next "test" came the following Friday. "I would like Miss Durbin to sing the aria of the Queen of Shemakha from Le Coq d'Or, so I will need the score at once." A breeze, thought I: everybody knows the marvelous aria of the Queen of Sheba, from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, The Golden Cockerel, with its sinuous descending chromatics. It should be easy to find. Sure! What we all "knew" was the version of the piece that appears in the orchestral suite, not the aria. So, realizing that the Eastern seaboard opera houses and music stores and libraries would be closing for the weekend at 2:00 pm, our time, I began to call every place I could think of. Everybody seemed to have the orchestra suite, but nobody had the opera aria or could offer any idea of where to find it.

I tried the Metropolitan Opera, the Philharmonic and the 58th street Music Library in New York, the Boston Opera, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Free Library and Fleischer Collection, all kinds of music publishers, libraries and stores in other East Coast cities. The time deadline soon passed, so I began to canvass other areas, gradually moving west-running up Universal's telephone bill. My unhappy suspicions were soon corroborated: plenty of suites, but no arias. By the time I finished talking to the San Francisco Opera people, Los Angeles Philharmonic librarians and several of the film studio music libraries, I realized that I was in trouble.

Still I knew that the elusive aria had to be somewhere, even that Stokowski must have performed it, but 1 could not bring myself to compromise the situation by asking him. Suddenly a dim light went on in my cranial attic, and I had my first real clue: somewhere in the Los Angeles area lived a former studio music librarian named Earl Wilson, who was reputed to have "all kinds of offbeat stuff." He had to be my man, especially since he was almost certainly my last man.

I knew just where to look for Earl Wilson. Out came the tattered old copies of the Musicians Union directory that every studio department saves, for reasons best known to pack rats and warehousemen. And sure enough, there was Mr. Wilson, somewhere in the northwestern reaches of the San Fernando Valley among the surviving estancias. All it took was a telephone call, but when I asked the big question it turned out that the score was still beyond my grasp-he didn't have one. "Earl," I said, "what about the parts ?" —meaning the parts for individual instruments. "Have you possibly got a set of them?" "Parts?," said the voice on the other end, "Sure I got 'em-out in the barn somewhere."

My next move was to commandeer a company car, black, with chauffeur, and to join Earl in a search for the elusive music, which we found straight-away. I thanked him profusely and promised to bring it back in a few days. Returning to the studio, I put in a call for a fine copyist of the old school-a splendid musician, and in half an hour I was with him in his modest flat on the second floor of a dilapidated house on Hollywood Boulevard. Harry Cockayne was an elderly English gentleman, very frail actually, retired, I knew, and still supporting himself and his invalid wife. I showed him the set of orchestra parts: 12 woodwind parts, 11 brass and horns, 3 percussion, harp, violins I and II, viola, cello and bass-not a very long piece. "Harry," I said, "can you combine these into a score for me? You can do it in pencil if you prefer-but I need it by Monday." Mr. Cockayne assured me that it would be ready by Sunday evening, and I promised him I would see to it that he was paid three times the Union's copying rate.

According to plan I picked up the pencil score on Sunday, and spent the rest of the evening checking to see whether it was accurate, which it was in every detail. Bless you, dear Harry! The next morning I walked into Stokowski's bungalow at Universal and casually tossed the score onto his desk. Of course he knew what a task he had set me, the more so because it came on the eve of a weekend-so that my casual gesture was more than a bit snippy, and I probably deserved a sharp lecture. But the maestro was a most generous-hearted gentleman, with a gracious sense of humor, so he settled for a raised eyebrow and a quiet admonition. "Hm," he said, "very funny." Which is what comes of living a charmed life-in this case, mine.

Music Via A Devious Root
Not long after I had composed the score of LAURA, and the picture was in theatrical release, I was deluged with mail from people who wanted to get the music of the theme. At a time when it was considered a big deal to receive half a dozen letters, I finally stopped counting mine when they reached 1700. Others--Darryl Zanuck, head of production at 20th Century-Fox Studio; Otto Preminger, director of the film, and the stars: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson and Vincent Price -received hundreds more. Among those addressed to me was one I found quite fascinating.

At that time one of the decisive battles of World War II had just been concluded. A large contingent of American troops had been surrounded by the German Army near the Belgian town of Bastogne, in the Ardennes Forest. The German commander demanded that they surrender immediately, to which his American opposite, McAuliffe, replied, "Nuts!" (or so we were told). Some military strategists deny that there ever was a real "Battle of the Bulge" at Bastogne, but a powerful conflict did take place, in which a relieving American army fought their way in while the trapped forces fought their way out, defeating the encircling Wehrmacht. The victorious American troops were rewarded with a period of Rest and Recreation, and it was from this camp that one of our soldiers sent me the letter I found so remarkable.

"I saw LAURA here at R & R the other night," he wrote, "and liked your music; and I recognized that you took the theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony." Now, I've heard some weird attributions concerning the source of various renowned musical ideas in my time, but this truly took the prize. Remember, if you can, the principal theme of LAURA (which is also known as a popular song), and try to match it with the great melody of Beethoven's final symphony in D minor. (If you can manage that, I've got a ton of low-grade lead you ought to be able to transmute by alchemy into gold.)

However, I could not leave a letter from a soldier who had survived such an ordeal unanswered. So, gathering what wits I still had about me after years of scoring films, I replied, somewhat as follows: "Since you are the only one who has understood how I composed my LAURA theme, I feel I owe you an explanation. What I did was to take the slow movement of the Ninth, the one before the Scherzo. I found a section where the celli were in tenor clef, then turned it upside down and pretended that the music was in alto clef. Having done that, I then took every third note and put them together to form the new theme now known as Laura. How you figured that out for yourself is beyond me; but having done so, you deserve nothing less than a full description of the method I used."

I'm writing this down at the end of November 1993. In mid-October I attended the Flounders Film Festival in Gent, Belgium. There, in the course of a symposium, I was asked to talk a bit about the music of LAURA, and I recounted the above story. Next day, an interviewer who had attended that session told me that when I finished my cockamamie "explanation" another journalist, seated next to him, said, "Well ... at least he's honest."

Timing is Everything--Or Is It?
November 1960: my wife Jo and I were eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first child. Very late in the evening of the 8th I awoke to find her in pain, which to me meant that her "time" must be near. Jo is a rather stoic person, so it took some persuading to get her to call our doctor, who immediately said to me, "Get her to the hospital-now!" In comparatively little time she was being examined by a young intern at the old Cedars of Lebanon hospital, who pronounced her not quite ready.

I had already been through incipient fatherhood before, so I was trying to be cool about things so as not to add to her own concerns. But I had another problem: I was about halfway through composing a sequence for one of my film scores, which had to be in the hands of the Studio copyists next morning, for a recording that afternoon. So, in order to make the best of a difficult situation, I set myself up in her room with a table and a shaded light, and began to work.

All the time, I was carefully watching her and wondering why the nurses weren't. After a while I went to the nursing station and said to the nurse assigned to her that Jo was now having labor pains about every twelve seconds, and their duration varied from about six seconds to a bit longer. Visibly annoyed, the young woman followed me back into Jo's room, where we arrived just at the onset of a rather severe pain. "That," I said, "lasted four-and-a half seconds." The nurse glared at me, but waited till the next spasm, at which I said, "Time between pains was nine seconds, and that one was four seconds." Now the nurse was quite annoyed with me. "Have you got a stopwatch-or something?" she asked. "No," said I. With a panicky look, she rushed out and soon returned with the intern. From their attitude it was clear that they thought they were dealing with some kind of freak.

Together they waited through the onset of three pains; in each case I called the time of the intervals and the duration of the spasms. The intern, who had been timing the events with his stopwatch, looked at me quite incredulously, then he and the nurse dashed out to call our obstetrician, Leon Krohn, who was also Chief of Staff at Cedars and who arrived in time to usher into our world the dearest little boy ever born to deserving parents.

Leon, a personal friend, who had also delivered my first son, by a former marriage, and would later bring into the world our beloved new daughter, Valentina, had been told about the marvels of timing accomplished by-of all things-a husband, and wanted to know how I did it.

With pleasure, I explained that I had been using a method often employed by film composers: I had been timing Jo's labor pains by counting clicks, a mechanical system analogous to the metronome, which is used to compute intervals in timing and for synchronization. 12-frame clicks, in fact. At film-sound speed, 12 frames equals half a second; two of them equal a second, and I had often used that trick to surprise dental X-ray people. After testing me a bit, Dr. Krohn was delighted, and so were Jo and I; and we have remained so during the time we brought up the wonderful young man, our Alexander, who is now Deputy Book Editor of the Los Angeles Times.


Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author

aco homepage

concert schedule