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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

From Europe to Hollywood

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

In 1903, a plaque containing a poem by Emma Lazarus was attached to the inside of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York. Although the statue itself symbolises the nature of the republic - “Liberty” as conceived by France and the United States in the 1880s - the addition of Lazarus's poem, called The New Colossus, forever made the giant bronze lady a symbol of hope for immigrants. The lines most often quoted from the poem are:

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost, to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

The first half of the 20th century saw countless millions killed, countless millions scarred for life, and countless millions displaced across the globe as the result of two world wars. Europe in particular was unrecognisable in 1951 compared to what it had been in 1901, and for many in Europe, America was seen as a refuge. The impact of migration on the United States in the first half of the 20th century (not to mention at other times in its history) is a subject of vast and spectacular scope, but it has relevance for the arts, and for music in particular.

The American musical landscape was changed and enriched (in European terms) beyond recognition by the arrival of European performers and composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is therefore not surprising that that most American of artforms - the movies - should have been enriched by European émigrés as well. In today's post we're going to look at four men who did just that.

The majority of this article will be concerned with musicians who left Europe in the years before World War 2, but the composer of this music came to America much earlier, in order to escape World War 1. [listen]

Max Steiner was born in Vienna in 1888. He grew up in the world of Viennese operetta; his father was a theatrical producer and his grandfather managed the famous Theater an der Wien in the heyday of Offenbach and Johann Strauss II.

Steiner composed songs and an operetta when he was young, and he studied at the Vienna Conservatory. His career before the first world war developed across Europe. He was in demand as a theatre conductor and ballet composer in Ireland, England and France.

Max Steiner

In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, he moved to New York. He started work in America very much beneath his worth, as is often the case, earning money as a copyist, arranger and orchestrator for Broadway shows and revues. He eventually began conducting shows and worked with major Broadway figures in the 20s including George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans and Victor Herbert.

In 1929 RKO Radio Pictures bought the rights to the musical Rio Rita and Steiner was co-opted to work on the film. This led to a career as a film composer - a very new field at the time - and between 1929 and 1936 Steiner composed music for over 130 Hollywood films. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the strength of Steiner's work in this field went a long way to proving to Hollywood the importance of film music.

A few moments ago we heard the opening title music to Steiner's music for King Kong. This landmark film was released in 1933 and Steiner's score is remarkable in a number of ways. For a start, it's very modern-sounding. Like a lot of film music, divorced from its visual elements we can hear that the music is often discordant and atonal. Steiner here writes music that would not have been out of place in a cutting-edge contemporary music festival, even now. But beyond this, Steiner's music shows a direct link to his European roots. The score for King Kong is based on a series of leitmotifs, in exactly the same way a Wagner opera is. Different characters, situations and emotional states have their own musical signature, and the use of these signatures creates memory, connection and reaction in the audience member.

Steiner developed this technique throughout his film composing career. In one of his last scores for RKO, The Informer (1935), the music underlines the deceit of the main character superbly, and this score led to Steiner winning an academy award. [listen]

In 1936 Steiner left RKO and joined Warner Brothers. He produced scores at an incredible rate: ten a year as principal composer, and more as an assistant composer on other films. In 1939 he wrote the score for one of the most famous films of all time, Gone With the Wind, and created a melody which is as memorable and effective as it is simple. [listen]

Max Steiner composed the scores for many famous films, including They Died with their Boots On in 1941, Now Voyager in 1942, Since You Went Away in 1944, and A Summer Place in 1959. His last film was Two on a Guillotine in 1965, and he died in 1971.

Many musicians from middle Europe, like Steiner, found their way to America, but few were as prodigiously gifted as Erich Korngold, who was born in Brno (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1897. Like Steiner, Korngold came from a musical family; his father Julius Korngold was a respected music critic. But Erich Korngold stands as one of the most remarkable child prodigies in the history of music. Gustav Mahler pronounced him a genius at the age of nine, and he had a ballet performed at the Vienna Court Opera when he was eleven (which caused a sensation). Famous musicians who expressed astonishment at the young Korngold's abilities included Artur Schnabel, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Sibelius, Bruno Walter, Artur Nikisch and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Erich Korngold

Korngold's first orchestral works appeared when he was 14. The Sinfonietta, a major work lasting more than 40 minutes, appeared the following year. This the second movement. [listen]

Korngold went on to write operas - some of the most beautiful works of their kind - and his first two were completed in 1914. His best-known opera is Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), which was completed when he was only 23 and which received international acclaim. Similar fame attended his next few premieres, and he began teaching opera and composition in Vienna; he received honours from the Austrian president.

The director Max Reinhardt invited Korngold to Hollywood in 1934 to work on his film version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. What started as a one-off project quickly developed into a major career as a film composer, and just as well. The Anschluss (the 1938 Nazi annexation of Austria) prevented Korngold from working further in Vienna as he, like Reinhardt, was Jewish, and in the late 30s and early 40s he produced truly symphonic film scores for major Hollywood movies.

Korngold's early film scores included Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, and this, Anthony Adverse, for which he received the first of his two Academy Awards. [listen]

Korngold's later film scores included some of the greatest examples of the genre: The Adventures of Robin Hood (which won him his second Academy Award), The Sea Hawk, and Kings Row were produced between 1938 and 1941. Like Max Steiner before him, Korngold used leitmotif technique in his film scores, and in his own words regarded film music as "opera without singing". Heard on their own, Korngold's film scores are reminiscent of the tone poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss. This is "Battle, Victory and Epilogue" sequence from the music for The Adventures of Robin Hood. [listen]

Of Korngold's concert music only the violin concerto (written in 1937) seems to have made a permanent home for itself in the repertoire these days. After the war he returned to concert music, writing a cello concerto in 1946 and the Symphony in F sharp, which was completed in 1952, among other works. He died in Hollywood in 1957 at the age of 60, and believed himself a forgotten relic of a bygone era. Thankfully in recent years there has been renewed interest in this amazing musician, and not least in his gorgeous music for film.

The third composer under discussion here was born in 1906 as Franz Wachsmann. A native of Germany, of Jewish descent, Wachsmann is better-known by the Americanised version of his surname, Waxman, which he adopted after he took up residence in Los Angeles in 1934.

Waxman's migration to the United States was brought about by his involvement in film music in Germany. He was hired to arrange and conduct the score of Holländer's The Blue Angel in 1930, and this was the turning point in his career which had hitherto been mostly limited to playing piano in night club bands.

Franz Waxman

Waxman's arrival in Hollywood coincided with the first major developments in film music as a major genre in its own right. Like Korngold and Steiner, Waxman brought a classically-trained edge to his film music and rapidly became one of the leading film composers of Hollywood's so-called golden age. His first Hollywood score - The Bride of Frankenstein - dates from 1935 and it set the tone for horror films of the period. [listen]

Waxman worked on 144 films in his career and received 12 Academy Award nominations. He won two Academy Awards in consecutive years for his scores for Sunset Boulevard in 1950 and A Place in the Sun in 1951. His other film credits include Captains Courageous, The Philadelphia Story, Rebecca, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Prince Valiant and The Nun's Story.

Waxman's creativity extended to major concert works as well. Among these the most important are the dramatic oratorio Joshua (written in 1959) [listen] and his last composition, The Song of Terezin, written in 1965. The Song of Terezin is a work for children's and adult choirs, mezzo soprano and orchestra and is dedicated to the memory of those who died under the Nazis in the fortress of that name. It sets poetry written by many who suffered there and as might be imagined, it's a work of powerful emotions.

Waxman's most famous work is, compared to all this, somewhat lighter, and it spans both film and concert genres. A brilliant showpiece for violin and orchestra based on themes from Bizet's Carmen was originally composed for the 1947 film Humoresque. The Carmen Fantasie, as it became known (not to be confused with Sarasate's work of the same title), soon had a life of its own as a stand-alone concert piece and is occasionally heard today. [listen]

Franz Waxman was also a highly-respected conductor and advocate for new music both in the United States and in Europe. He died in Los Angeles in 1967.

The fourth and final European émigré we'll discuss is Miklós Rózsa, who was born in Budapest in 1907. Rózsa's training was thorough and to the highest standards. He was exposed to Hungarian folk music from an early age and the music of his native culture was a lifelong obsession, as it was for another of his classmates at the Budapest Academy, Béla Bartók.

Miklós Rózsa

Rózsa started composing very early and he went on to study in Leipzig. Before long his works were being published and performed across Europe, and one of the most famous was the Theme, Variations and Finale, an orchestral work completed in 1933. This gained Rózsa an international reputation and as a footnote it's interesting to remember that this work was on the program which the young Leonard Bernstein took over at very short notice in New York in 1943, the event which launched his conducting career. This recording is conducted by the composer. [listen]

Rózsa was introduced to film music through his friendship with the Swiss composer (and member of “Les Six”) Arthur Honegger. He worked a lot in London for the producer Alexander Korda and it was Korda who took Rózsa to Hollywood in 1940 to work on the score for The Thief of Baghdad. Before long he was in demand as a freelance film composer and conductor, and he was regarded as one of the leading film composers of the era. He wrote music for over 100 films while on the staff of MGM from 1948 to 1962, and from 1945 to 1965 he also taught film music composition at the University of Southern Califormia.

Epic and period films were Rózsa's speciality; he had the ability to encapsulate a mood almost instantly, and his colourful and lavish scores set a new benchmark for aural opulence. He won three Academy Awards for his film music: for Spellbound in 1945, A Double Life in 1948, and perhaps his best-known, Ben-Hur in 1959. [listen]

Whether in his film music or his concert works, Miklós Rózsa never forgot his Hungarian heritage. Even though he doesn't usually quote actual Hungarian folk melodies, his music grows from the same source, and he often composed his own melodies in a traditional folk style. This is especially so in works such as the Hungarian Peasant Song and Dance, the Three Hungarian Sketches, and Hungarian Nocturne. He was also very capable of writing in larger, more traditional forms. Works such as the Concerto for Strings and the Piano Sonata [listen] bear this out, as do his four concertos, one each for violin, viola, cello and piano.

Miklós Rózsa died in Los Angeles in 1995 at the age of 88. Along with Steiner, Korngold and Waxman, he helped bring great depth and artistry to American musical life, and not just in the field of film music. It is in the field of film music that these four men perhaps found their greatest fame, but as is always the case, there's a lot more music under the surface just waiting to be discovered.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2012.

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