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Franz Waxman’s Film Score for Rebecca Report

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Updated: Dec 3rd, 2021

The Cinema/film industry has become a very conspicuous form of mass entertainment. The extent of cinema’s popularity, influence, and proliferation have been phenomenal. Artistic expression and development via technological expediency have made it an unequaled facet of visual/fine arts since the inception of the 20th century. Although the story, direction, cinematography, and editing are the four essential ingredients of motion pictures/films, the music/film score is a vital component as well. The visual image combined with the music helps exude the unique aura of a film. Music (largely orchestral) specifically written by a film’s designated composer is known as a film score. Multi-faceted in function, the score not only provides essential music to film and parallels the action but also delineates period, location, ethnicity, as well as emotional impetus, tone, and mood.

The advent of sound/talking pictures ushered in the Golden Age of Hollywood which commenced in the late 1920s. Initially, music was used as reinforcement. How a film score/music is utilized primarily rests with the director. With the pioneering efforts of accomplished composers such as Max Steiner, Hans Eisler, Miklos Rosza, and Dimitri Tiomkin, to name a few, composers began to experiment as well as implement their unique music style to inconspicuously support the film’s plot and characters. At a time in which actors’/actresses’ stardom was the vanguard, and artistic development behind the scenes was not equally paramount, their innovative work greatly influenced the Golden Age of Hollywood. Among this cadre of prolific composers was Jewish German American composer, Franz Waxman.

Born Franz Wachsmann, Waxman was born in the German empire’s Prussian Province of Silesia (now Chorzow Poland) on December 24, 1906. At the age of three, a serious eye accident involving boiling water tipped from a stove permanently damaged his vision. Working for several years as a bank teller, Waxman used his earnings to pay for his music lessons in piano, composition, and harmony. He eventually moved to Berlin and furthered his education by arranging and playing for German jazz bands such as Weintraub Syncopaters. The Blue Angel, a German film marking the debut of German-born American actress/singer /entertainer – Marlena Dietrich, catapulted Waxman into the foray of the film music world. He conducted and arranged the film’s score by Friedrich Hollaender. Waxman and his wife, Alice, fled Nazi Germany in 1934 and went to Paris. He was allowed to work on the score for the film adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play, Liliom. Waxman’s career in Hollywood commenced when at the behest of Erich Pommer, (Liliom’s producer), he was invited to the U.S. to collaborate on the film version of Jerome Kern’s musical, Music in the Air (1934). The 1935 horror classic, The Bride of Frankenstein, marked his first original score debut. Waxman would go on to work for all the major Hollywood film studios during his illustrious career. With a repertoire of 144 + film scores, he received 12 Academy Award nominations for Original Music Score and won two consecutively – Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951). Other notable film scores include A Christmas Carol, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde, Stalag 17, Mr. Roberts, Peyton Place, and Taras Bulba.

The 1940 classic psychological thriller, Rebecca, marked the U.S. directorial debut of iconic British filmmaker and producer, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, a leading pioneer in suspense/ psychological genres. Rebecca was the first of four collaborative efforts between Hitchcock and Waxman which included – Suspicion (1941), The Paradine Case (1947), and Rear Window (1954). Rebecca, the film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name, stars Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson. A gothic tale, the film’s plot centers on how the lingering memory of the title protagonist (Rebecca) hauntingly affects her husband, Maxim de Winter (Oliver), his second wife, Mrs. de Winder (Joan Fontaine), and the sinister housekeeper, Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Of the eleven Academy Award nominations Rebecca garnered, Original Music Score was one.

A film’s score/music can be used to identify the film as whole or particular scenes and characters within the film. The music can provide additional insight or information about the scene or character, a skill that reflects the composer’s comprehension and intelligence of the scene/character. The image of Rebecca – physical and personality – is conveyed not only through the description of her character her but also through the hauntingly mesmerizing as well as eerie score attached to her. In his book The Composer in Hollywood (1990), British linguist and Professor of Music, Christopher Palmer discusses Rebecca. “She is never seen, for she is dead: only malign influence can be felt, and the music helps us to feel it.” Professor of Film Jeanine Bassinger (Wesleyan University) further elaborates – “One of the great things about Franz Waxman was that he could soar with the romanticism and emotional fullness, as in the Hollywood melodrama ‘Rebecca’, where he infused the main character who is remembered and unseen with so much power and emotional appeal (Eisenberg, 2008). In the opening scene, we embark upon a menacing tread accompanied by an orchestration consisting of “bass over a repeated note, string and woodwind figurations writhing in quasiimpressionistic mists as an imperious horn summons.” The main credits arise over a series of dissolves which culminate with a distorted dreamlike view of Maxim de Winter’s estate, Manderlay, in ruins. Rebecca is a movie told in flashback by the second Mrs. de Winter. Throughout the entire film, Joan Fontaine’s character is never referred to by a first name, only as Mrs. de Winter. Her opening narration begins with, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The dream-like aura is created by romantic-impressionistic music. The camera slowly tracks forward up the overgrown deserted driveway of Manderlay as Fontaine goes on to say “Nature had encroached in her stealthy insidious way with long tenacious fingers (naxosdirect. com).” Although the musical motif for this scene is primarily associated with the Manderley estate, Rebecca’s theme is briefly introduced. Rebecca’s theme/score comes to the forefront in Scene 7, when the new Ms. de Winter enters Rebecca’s room, located in the west wing of the Manderley mansion, for the first time. To her surprise, Ms. Danvers is in the room as well. For the first time, you sense the intensity of Rebecca’s effect on the new Mrs. de Winter from the standpoint of fear, intimidation, and insecurity, etc., and Ms. Danvers – relentless obsession with Rebecca’s supposed sophistication and beauty. Ms. Danvers has preserved Rebecca’s room as a shrine and even idolizes her handmade expensive undergarments and negligees.

Versatility in orchestrations contributes to the emotion generated. String instruments generally emphasize romance and tragedy whereas brass instruments are indicative of power and sorrow (when used in solos). Percussion heightens the suspense. Waxman seems to infuse all of these elements in Rebecca. The nova chord, an early form of a polyphonic synthesizer, is an instrument liked to the Hammond organ which was invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934. Like its contemporaries, the Ondes, Theremin, Trautonium, and Martenot, it was used occasionally in science fiction and horror film scores. The Martenot, which was invented in1928, was one of the first electronic musical instruments ever created. It produces a sound akin to a theremin, but with all kinds of sound manipulation. Waxman uses the theremin and in particular the nova chord to intimate the supernatural presence of Rebecca. The striving strings hovering around the keyboard add a unique chilling sound. They bring the ghostly/evil presence of the dead Rebecca to the forefront and potency of the past. The ‘Rebecca’ theme echoes on the nova chord with its enigmatic spooky sonority every time Rebecca’s presence is invoked [almost invariably by the frightening Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson)] or her name is mentioned by other characters. Because the malevolent spirit of Rebecca lives on in Ms. Danvers, the nova chord comes to stand as a musical symbol for her as well. The sinister score seems to entrench the connotation of “lesbianism and necrophilia through which the past contrives to poison the present .”

Waxman’s music not only exudes Rebecca’s impact and presence but also characterizes the intense disdainful relationship between the new Mrs. De Winter and Ms. Danvers which thereby heightens the pace of the film. This underscores another key function of film music – generating emotion which in terms can relax or intensify the pace. The inherent nature of music is to stir emotion. “The sole purpose of it [music] being there is,” says late American composer Earle Hagen “that you feel the necessity of heightening the emotional stakes (Hagen, 173).” Fontaine’s character undergoes a metamorphosis as indicative by her musical motif. Initially, the new Mrs. de Winter is immature. A childlike musical theme accompanies her throughout the early segments of the movie. Scene 7 is also pivotal from the perspective that the new Mrs. de Winter begins to take charge and show more backbone to Ms. Danvers. The change is reflected in her musical motif. “Character development can be shown not only on the screen, but through the music as well; it is another example of a score’s ability to comment on a film. (Oppenheim, The Functions of Film Music).”

A milestone, Rebecca was a rewarding and challenging project. Waxman’s musical style was profoundly affected by his work on Rebecca. The movie propelled Waxman into fame and made him one of the most sought-after composers in Hollywood. He would go to compose a similar Gothic background in at least half a dozen films throughout the rest of his 26-year career in Hollywood. Waxman arranged his score from Rebecca into a concert suite at the behest of the Standard Symphony – a precursor to the Bell Telephone radio series. This marked the first opportunity composers and producers alike used music as a means of promoting a motion picture. Rebecca’s was not only Waxman’s favorite but Hitchcock’s as well. In Hitchcock’s Music, author Frank Sullivan likens the Rebecca storyline to Waxman and Hitchcock. “Rebecca’s story line also fit the émigré pattern. Like Hitchcock and Waxman, its nameless heroine is an orphan, a stranger in a bizarre, glamorous new world. Manderley is a stand-in for Hollywood, a wondrous but artificial place full of seductive wealth and great peril (Sullivan, 67).” Hitchcock’s collaboration with Waxman and his contemporaries (Herrmann, Tiomkin, Rosza, etc.) suggest that music was of paramount importance in his films. “For Hitchcock music was not merely an accompaniment. It was a focus. And it didn’t just reveal something about the characters who sang the score’s songs or moved under its canopy of sound; music could seem to be a character itself. But in Hitchcock’s most powerful films it is impossible to separate music from the visual fabric or plot. Music has as much a role to play as any of the character (Rothstein, 2007).”

Waxman was exceptionally effective in scoring for some of Hitchcock’s psychological suspenseful films as evidenced by Rebecca. For him, the music was worthwhile in its own right. His career attests to his versatility. As his son, John Waxman states, his father was a chameleon (Eisenberg., 2008).” Waxman goes on to say that “My father would say good music is good music, no matter what the genre or context… [He] could work in every genre, including horror films (The Bride of Frankenstein-1935), comedies (The Philadelphia Story-1940), war pictures (Objective, Burma-1945), historical dramas, women’s pictures, and Westerns. (Eisenberg, 2008).” Ever the case, Franz Waxman’s legacy will forever leave an indelible influence on film music.


Dalkin, Gary S. “The Classic Film Scores of Franz Waxman.” Web.

Eisenberg, Elyse. “A Score of Appreciation for Golden Age Film Composer Franz Waxman.” 2008. Cinema’s Exiles from Hitler t Hollywood. Web.

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Hagen, Earle. Scoring for Films. Criterion Music Corp. New York; 1971.

Oppenheim, Yair. The Functions of Film Music. Web.

Palmer, Christopher. The Composer in Hollywood. Marion Boyars Publishers Inc. New York; 1990.

Rebecca at the TCM Movie Database. Web.


Rothstein, Edward. “Hitchcock’s films and the character of music.” The International Herald Tribune: The Global Edition of the New York Times-Culture Section. Web.

Sullivan, Jack. Hitchcock’s Music. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

“Waxman: Rebecca.” Web.

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