Franz Waxman

(1906 - 1967)

1935    Bride of Frankenstein

1940    Rebecca

1948    Sorry, Wrong Number

1950    Sunset Boulevard (Academy Award) 

1951    A Place in the Sun (Academy Award)

1954    Prince Valiant

1954    Rear Window

1962     Taras Bulba

Franz Waxman (Wachsmann) was a young German composer who mastered his craft by working in Hollywood. After being assaulted by Nazi sympathizers on a Berlin street, Waxman left Germany for Paris, then came to Hollywood in 1935 to work on the film  Bride of Frankenstein . The great success of his score led to his assignment as head of music at Universal Pictures. Out of a desire to compose more and supervise less, Waxman left Universal to be a staff composer at MGM for seven years, then on to Warner Brothers (who at the time also had Max Steiner and Erich Korngold as staff composers). In 1948, he became a freelance composer. In later years, Waxman’s interest in conducting and composing concert music led him to create the Los Angeles Music Festival (1947-1967). 

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride of Frankenstein was the sequel to the 1931 classic  Frankenstein , and helped initiate a wave of horror-related films throughout the late 1930’s and 1940’s. Waxman’s score established several musical devices that would become standard procedure for all later horror films. 

String tremolos (often “sul ponticello”) are used to build suspense, as are woodwind trills and brass flutter-tonguing. Waxman also utilized other orchestral colors as needed- organ (when calling for religious undertones), and solo violin (see scene with blind man). The Bride of Frankenstein also utilizes leitmotives which are heard throughout the film. The primary leitmotives are for the monster, the bride, and Dr. Praetorious. 

A famous scene from the film takes place as the monster wanders through the woods and comes upon a blind hermit living alone. The source music for this scene is Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, as played on violin by the blind man. Waxman skillfully uses this music as underscore in the next scene as the blind man welcomes the monster into his cottage. The theme returns on organ at the height of the scene when the man is praying, thanking God for his “new friend”.

The “creation of the bride” scene demonstrates Waxman’s ability to build a musical climax over the course of a long scene. In this case, a timpani is used to depict the sound of a heartbeat, and the sound evolves to two notes (a P4 motive) once the bride is enlivened with electricity from a bolt of lightening. All three major leitmotives are present in this scene, and the full bride leitmotif is heard fully when she comes alive. Also notable is the dramatic use of silence in the scene.

Film Notes

Studio System of the 1930’s

A Place in the Sun (1951)

After  Bride of Frankenstein , many of Waxman’s films were in the film noir genre. Waxman relied on many of the same musical devices first developed for  Bride of Frankenstein. Other than creative orchestral colorings, Waxman drew from traditional methods of building musical texture, with devices such as fugue and passacaglia. 

In A Place in the Sun , Waxman builds dramatic textures punctuated by a heart-like pulse. In the very tense boat scene, the music reveals George Eastman’s conflicted emotions, which contrasts with the scene’s dialog.  In another scene, Waxman uses a traditional “fugal” texture as the main character flees through the woods.

A Place in the Sun - Boat Scene

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

In  the 1948 film Sorry, Wrong Number , Waxman uses a  passacaglia (repeating figure with added variation, typically in bass) to build tension through added layers of orchestration, culminating in the chilling murder of Barbara Stanwyck’s character.

Sorry, Wrong Number - Murder Scene