How a Number of Composers Fleeing WWII Revolutionized Film Scoring

By Sasha Margolis

IDecember 1935, a brand-new adventure film hit US theaters: Captain Blood. A swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn, it tells the tale of Peter Blood, who flees Europe to escape the death sentence imposed by an unjust government. Reaching the Americas, Blood forges a new identity, and fences his way to a happy ending. Supporting his every move is a scintillating score, penned by somebody most unexpected: the very famous Erich Korngold, who had just arrived in California as part of a wave of Jewish composers seeking refuge from Hitler’s Europe.

At the time, in the infancy of sound film, movie composers weren’t really thought of as legitimate composers. True, Max Steiner had written a stunning score for 1933’s King Kong. But the prevailing idiom, according to Miklós Rózsa, was “conservative and meretricious in the extreme—diluted Rachmaninov and Broadway.” Korngold and his fellow refugees changed all that, enriching movies with melodies and moods as vivid as Technicolor. In the process, they altered the very idea of who a film composer could be, while reinventing themselves. The only question was whether Hollywood could give them a happy ending, too.

Korngold (1897–1957) was the studios’ biggest catch. One of the great composing prodigies of all time, Erich was the son of Vienna’s most powerful music critic, Julius Korngold, who saw his son as the next Mahler—a not unrealistic expectation. The youth had wowed Richard Strauss and Puccini with his talent, and by age 11, impressed Vienna as a ballet composer. At 23, he took Europe by storm with Die Tote Stadt—his third opera, and a masterpiece.

In Hollywood, Korngold went to work for the notoriously uncultured Warner Bros., who let him compose however he wanted. Imagining film scores as “operas without singing,” he responded with a complex leitmotif technique, designed to add subtle meaning to the action. He perfected the art of underscoring, even taking account of the pitch and timbre of actors’ voices. Korngold lavished Straussian (or Korngoldian) love themes on a string of adventure movies, and filled them with fanfares that echo Mahler and prefigure John Williams. Without Korngold’s Robin Hood, there could have been no Indiana Jones.

He did have his detractors. Fellow Viennese refugee Ernst Toch (1887–1964) famously quipped that “Korngold has been composing music for Warner Bros. his whole life. It’s just that when he was a kid, he didn’t know it.” Toch was a composer with a decidedly un-Korngoldian aesthetic. He’d been one of Europe’s most celebrated modernists, regularly mentioned in the same breath with Hindemith. Escaping the Nazis, he arrived in New York to teach at the New School. But as conditions worsened in Austria, where some 60 of his relatives still lived, he realized that to rescue them, he’d need to earn more money than he could just teaching. Paramount Studios put his dissonant style to good use: Their 1940s chase scenes were all action, and all Toch.


“Dark atmosphere arises from well-placed dissonance in Double Indemnity, which established Rózsa as the composer for film noir.”

Toch hailed from a heavily Jewish district of Vienna nicknamed Matzo Island. A fellow islander was the underrated Hanns Eisler (1898–1962). Eisler, a Schoenberg pupil who composed truly appealing atonal music, was fascinated by film. Upon arrival in the US, he took part in the Rockefeller Film Music Project, investigating how various musical modes affected moving images. Ordinarily, Eisler wrote, “if . . . the boy kisses the girl, a solo violin is applied, and if he falls down, a bass drum announces that he has hit the ground.” Eisler opted for a different approach, “dramatic counterpoint,” in which tranquil scenes were set to exciting music, and vice-versa.

A man of deep social commitment, Eisler found a natural home at RKO, an innovative and left-leaning studio. Despite his unorthodox approach, Hollywood recognized him with Oscar nominations for None but the Lonely Heart and Hangmen Also Die. Meanwhile, he composed songs in a variety of styles—Impressionistic, Expressionistic, and Romantic—that would be collected as the Hollywooder Liederbuch. In 1947, he co-authored Composing for the Films.

Golden age film score composers Richard Heymann (1896–1961), Franz Waxman (1906–67), and Miklós Rózsa (1907–95)

Vienna wasn’t alone in driving its composers to Hollywood. Werner Richard Heymann (1896–1961) got his start playing piano in Berlin’s 1920s cabaret scene. At the famed Sound and Smoke theater, he supplied light music to go with witty lyrics, in the service of satirizing fashion, culture, sex, and especially politics. Later, he scored over 40 films in Germany and France. In Hollywood, Heymann put his light cabaret touch to work in classic 1940s comedies including The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be.

Franz Waxman (1906–67) played piano for Berlin’s Weintraub Syncopators, a cabaret jazz band, and embarked on film work as orchestrator for The Blue Angel. Fleeing Germany after a severe beating by Nazi thugs, he made a quick Hollywood reputation with The Bride of Frankenstein, which established
horror-movie style for years to come: whole tone scales for suspense, strings for danger, brass for menace. Early on, Waxman wrote symphonically, à la Korngold—though in place of Korngold’s complex web of leitmotifs, he preferred a few recognizable themes. By the time he won Oscars for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951) Waxman’s style had broadened. Sunset Boulevard’s two leads are represented by tango and bebop, respectively, and the score makes liberal use of the saxophone.


Waxman was matched innovation for innovation by Rózsa (1907–95), a Budapest native who by the mid-1930s had established himself in Europe as a serious composer. Wartime conditions on the continent sent Rózsa to London, where he was hired to score The Thief of Bagdad. When the Germans began bombing there, he followed production to Los Angeles to complete the music—which was promptly nominated for an Oscar. Rózsa was a composer of great imagination. In The Thief of Bagdad, he has the young thief Abu sing a canon with himself in an echoing cavern. Dark atmosphere arises from well-placed dissonance in Double Indemnity, which established him
as the composer for film noir. Rózsa introduced the theremin into cinema to portray amnesia in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and an alcoholic’s craving for drink in The Lost Weekend. In the ’50s, even as Hollywood turned away from rich symphonic scores, Rózsa wrote for Ben Hur and other big budget epics.

Waxman and Rósza both appear to have found happiness in Hollywood. Rózsa taught composition at USC, and negotiated three months off a year from MGM to write concert works. Waxman founded the Los Angeles Music Festival in 1947, to foster “European cultural standards,” and conducted US premieres of works by Honegger and Britten there. But he was far from untouched by the war. In 1965 he wrote The Song of Terezin, based on poems by children interned at Terezin concentration camp.

Others had more difficulty reconciling Hollywood life with their pre-Hollywood identities. Ernst Toch found himself unable to write concert music during the war, and at war’s end, learned that 30 of his relatives had been murdered in the camps. As soon as he could, he abandoned film music. Then, the concert music poured out of him.

Werner Heymann, despite earning four Oscar nominations, opted in 1951 to return to film and theater work in Germany. Hanns Eisler, in contrast, wished to continue in Hollywood. But powerful historic forces determined otherwise, helped along by Eisler’s own sister, Ruth Fischer. Fischer, a prominent Trotskyite, had long been on the run from Soviet death squads, along with her lover, Arkadi Maslow. When Maslow was murdered in Havana, Fischer suspected Hanns and her other brother Gerhart of ratting her lover out. She proceeded to testify against both before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hanns was labeled “red composer-in-chief,” and despite a swell of support from figures including Einstein, Bernstein, and Copland, he was forced to leave the country.


And Korngold? After the war, the elitism of the music world and the lifelong burden of his father’s expectations influenced him to exit the cinematic field. He wanted to return to Vienna. But the comfortable way in which he’d spent the war years kept the Viennese from welcoming him back. (They didn’t know how much he’d spent to support relatives and anti-Fascist organizations.) At the same time, enmities engendered by Korngold’s critic father, jealousy of his Hollywood success, and changing postwar tastes all conspired to keep his music out of the concert hall.

The Symphony in F# he completed in 1952 appears to reflect all this. Its language resists easy categorization: evocative themes from film scores rub shoulders with purely symphonic hints of Bartók, Mahler, Sibelius. The listener journeys for nearly an hour through sound and narrative, before encountering an unlikely succession of final moods. First come peace, awe, perhaps religiosity. An ominous ostinato quickens to a threatening whirlwind. Chromatic fanfares announce the imminent finish. And then, with just two chords, comes the most unlikely thing of all—a Hollywood ending. Whether it signaled true happiness, or was just a little bit of cinematic magic, only Korngold knew for sure.

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This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strings magazine.