Remembering David Raksin:
A Centennial Tribute
(1912 - 2012)
For the centennial of David Raksin's birth, I quote portions of my memorial tribute to David Raksin titled, "Remembering Raksin," from Film Score Monthly, Volume 9, Number 8, September 2004. What follows in blue type are excerpts from my article:
"David Raksin arrived on the scene in Hollywood at a time when film music had begun to master the obvious. He was one of the major figures in helping to free film scoring from the hold of 19th-century romanticism. His use of the orchestra and its instrumentation was unique and advanced for the time."
-- Elmer Bernstein
In 2001, when he was a guest at the American Museum of the Moving Image, he signed my copy of a songbook of his melodies. When I first showed him the songbook, his face lit up and he looked at the cover photo of him dressed as the Dana Andrews character looking at the portrait of LAURA. I'll never forget how pleased he looked.
Unlike the European emigres who came to work during Hollywood's Golden Age, such as Korngold, Rozsa, Steiner, Tiomkin and Waxman, Raksin was of American vintage. He was born in Philadelphia on April 4, 1912. He credits his first break to George Gershwin. As Raksin tells it, his arrangement of 'I Got Rhythm' pleased Gershwin, so Gershwin recommended him to his publisher. Soon Raksin was writing for Broadway shows.
Raksin came to Hollywood in 1934 at the age of 22. His first assignment was to arrange the melodies of Charlie Chaplin for his film MODERN TIMES.
After completion of the Chaplin score, Raksin returned to new York and worked on several Broadway shows. Then, in 1937, he was offered more money to join the composing staff at Universal Pictures. One year after working at Universal, he joined the staff at 20th Century Fox.
Laura to Amber
"At that time," Raksin explained, "I was considered much too far out and insufficiently housebroken to be turned loose on anything less resilient than a nice grue and horror film. But I was the next detective-mystery-story type in line, so Newman signed me to write the score for LAURA (1944).
As any film fan knows, his score for LAURA (1944) literally put his name on the film music map. Ironically, that scoring assignment had been offered first to Bernard Herrmann, who Raksin called "a virtuoso of unspecific anger," who turned it down because "if it wasn't good enough for Newman it could hardly be good enough for him [Herrmann]"...A few years after LAURA, Raksin composed one of his most elaborate and impressive scores for FOREVER AMBER...In his interview with Elmer Bernstein, Raksin tells how the opening theme was put together:
"It starts with an idea I called a quasicaglia -- a pun on the word passacaglia -- which in this case was just a G minor scale; two parts superimpose themselves over that and develop into a sicilliene, which eventually turns into an extended melody."
The story of how he wrote the LAURA theme has been told before (for example, in A GUIDE TO FILM MUSIC) and in the record notes of the 1976 RCA LP album. This album with suites from LAURA, FOREVER AMBER and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL was later released on RCA Victor CD in Dolby Surround Sound in 1989. These are his three best known scores and are conducted by Raksin leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra.
This same album was reissued with a new CD cover and excellent re mastered sound in the Classic Film Scores by RCA/Sony Music Entertainment in 2011.
The Bad and the Beautiful
Besides LAURA and FOREVER AMBER, Raksin named other favorites: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (19512), AL CAPONE (1959), and also THE REDEEMER (1965), which Hugo Friedhofer told him was "the best score for a religious film ever written." Also, Raksin named a horror film that he said had an unusual score: WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971).
As with LAURA, his theme for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL was composed over a weekend. As Raksin tells it:
"I was trying to make a piano part out of it. I was in Kay Thompson's penthouse at the time. What I did not know was that Andre Previn was next door and could hear me. So I am struggling with the thing and the door opens and Andre says, 'What the hell have you been playing in here'? I told him it was a thing I wrote for THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and he asked me to play it through. So I struggled through it, and looked up at him when I finished and all he said was, 'Lunch.'"
Raksin goes on to say that "six weeks later Previn came on the soundstage while he was recording that same theme with full orchestra. And he says, 'What a great piece! Marvelous. I've got to have it. I want to record it.' Then Raksin said to Previn, 'You son of a gun, I played this for you in Kay Thompson's place and all you could say was Lunch!' Previn simply replied, 'the way you play who could tell?' But Raksin wasn't upset. He called Previn a "sort of younger brother to me." Raksin's memorable theme from this film was also turned into a song, "Love Is For The Very Young" with lyrics by Dory Langdon.
On April 21, 2001, David Raksin was a guest at the Composing for Film series presented at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.
When asked about THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, he said that Betty Comden and Adolphe Green liked his score, but Vincente Minnelli (the director) and John Houseman (the producer) didn't. Minnelli asked him to write 'a siren song,' and that's what he wrote. Raksin said he was especially pleased that Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim told him it was the best film score he'd ever heard.
Raksin said he was pleased with his score for the underrated film, SUDDENLY (1954), which was scored for strings and four horns and only had about 16 minutes of music -- but minutes that 'really counted.' He also mentioned scenes for some 20th Century Fox musicals, such as the big splashy finale to Busby Berkeley's THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1945).
Another of his favorable scores was THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (1951), with its theme based on a twelve-tone row [included on David Raksin at M-G-M].
When asked about other film composers, Raksin named Bernard Herrmann as one he especially admired. He said, 'Benny had a gift for writing sequences rather than melody.' Using VERTIGO as an example, Raksin called it 'Our Lady of Perpetual Sequences.'
Conversation with Raksin
Even though the following remarks were years ago, they still apply to today's music scene. Raksin was very candid when he said to Elmer Bernstein in an 1976 conversation:
"I am convinced that we have lost something of the essence, the breadth and scope, and heart of film music...We were assured that anything goes as long as one wants to do it. All very well if what you want to do is to finger paint or make mud pies. But when it comes to flying a 747 or performing open-heart surgery - or doing almost anything worth doing that requires more than rudimentary skills, such as composing film scores - there is no substitute for education and self-discipline. Talent alone will not suffice if dues have not been paid, and if intelligence and intuition are not brought to bear"
[Courtesy - The Film Music Society]
In a personal note about his conversation, Elmer Bernstein wrote this about his fellow composer, David Raksin:
"A man of superb wit, great intellect and passionate opinion, he never presents you with a postcard photograph but rather an artist's painting...his indomitable will has persevered through a great body of works which have done much to free the art and to provide healthy road signs for future generations of composers."
David Raksin died at the age of 92 on August 9, 2004.
As Elmer Bernstein said so well, Raksin gave us "an artist's painting" rather than merely a "postcard photograph." David Raksin deserves to be better remembered.
He was one of the most intelligent and well informed film music masters of Hollywood's Golden Age.
tribute by Roger Hall, Managing Editor, Film Music Review
For comments or questions, write to:
Two David Raksin film scores are listed on the
100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century
Recommended Raksin On CDs
Raksin's best known film score
FOREVER AMBER (1947)
A great Raksin score to a less than great film
THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)
The second best known Raksin film score
TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (1962)
A wonderful underrated Raksin score,
Here are other Raksin film scores from the 1950s:
GROUNDS FOR MARRIAGE (1950)
A LADY WITHOUT A PASSPORT (1950)
THE MAGNIFICENT YANKEE (1950)
THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR (1950)
THE REFORMER AND THE REDHEAD (1950)
RIGHT CROSS (1950)
ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI (1951)
KIND LADY (1951)
THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (1951)
THE GIRL IN WHITE (1952)
PAT AND MIKE (1952)
THE VINTAGE (1957)
UNTIL THEY SAIL (1957)
All of these films are represented on this recommended 5 CD Film Score Monthly box set...
DAVID RAKSIN AT M-G-M (5 CD Box Set)
Raksin on DVD
This highly recommended DVD contains informative commentary
by Wesleyan University film professor, Jeanine Basinger ,
and brief comments by David Raksin
LAURA (Fox Film Noir)
David Raksin is featured prominently in this excellent survey
of Hollywood film music in the Music For The Movies series...
THE HOLLYWOOD SOUND
A GUIDE TO FILM MUSIC
(Chapter V - The Composer as Commentator)
David Raksin Remembers His Colleagues, Hollywood Composers (The Stanford Theatre Foundation, 1995) - a hard-to-find yet fascinating 48 page booklet with Raksin discussing his own music plus Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Aaron Copland, Hugo Friedhofer, Bernard Herrmann, and Dimitri Tiomkin.
Listen to this wonderful audio interview with David Raksin from 1988:
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