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Madison Symphony highlights classic film music exiles

In the 1930s, Europe’s loss of artists and intellectuals fleeing the rise of Nazi persecution and anti-intellectualism proved to be America’s gain. Some of the greatest contributions to American culture came in the form of Hollywood film scores, with European exiles raising the symphonic standard of movie music for generations of film fans to come.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra will showcase the works of three better-known artists in its Composers in Exile: Creating the Hollywood Sound concert series. Classical and cinematic compositions by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklós Rózsa and Franz Waxman fill the playlist March 6-8 at Madison’s Overture Center.

Maestro John DeMain will conduct the three performances, with violinist Daniel Hope performing Korngold’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major. The March concerts will be Hope’s first time performing with MSO, and he says he’s delighted by the program that has been chosen, both for its musicality and as a way to educate audiences unfamiliar with the composers and their contributions.

“I particularly love vintage Hollywood film music, especially the scores by the European exiles such as Korngold, Waxman and Rózsa,” Hope said in an email interview from his home in the U.K. “These three composers also wrote a number of serious works, but only really Korngold is acknowledged today in this field.”

Rózsa’s work may be most familiar to moviegoers. MSO will be performing the Hungarian composer’s “Love Theme” and “Parade of the Charioteers” from the 1959 biblical epic Ben-Hur and the “Love Theme” from the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock classic Spellbound. The performance also will feature Rózsa’s 1933 Theme, Variations, and Finale, a non-cinematic work that helped secure his international reputation, according to program notes by J. Michael Allsen, professor of music at UW-Whitewater.

Rózsa was already working in the British film industry with fellow Hungarian ex-pat and director Alexander Korda when the war began. Film funding immediately dried up and Korda, in 1939, relocated his production company to Hollywood, taking Rózsa with him.

“I think slowly people are beginning to realize how talented these composers were,” Hope says. “Rózsa’s Violin Concerto is also an amazing piece, as is Waxman’s oratorio ‘The Song of Terezin.’”

In 1934, Waxman, who was Jewish, was severely beaten by Nazi thugs in Berlin. The incident motivated him to flee the country, first to Paris and then to Los Angeles, where he composed some 150 film scores, Allsen writes. “The Song of Terezin,” composed in 1965 and Waxman’s final concert work, was a large-scale musical setting for poetry from I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of work written by children imprisoned in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp near Prague.

Waxman will be represented on the program by “Ride of the Cossacks” from the 1962 Yul Brynner film Taras Bulba, based on Nikolai Gogol’s 19th century Russian novel. The concert also will feature Waxman’s non-cinematic 1955 Sinfonietta for String Orchestra and Timpani.

Waxman wrote his three-movement sinfonietta while traveling by cruise ship from New York to Europe, Allsen writes. The piece, commissioned by Rolf Lieberman, director of Zurich Radio, paints a suitably dramatic portrait through a variety of standard compositional techniques and familiar motifs that thread throughout the work. 

Korngold’s contributions to MSO’s concert include his popular suite from the 1935 Errol Flynn classic Captain Blood and the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major. Hope will perform the 1947 concerto, which he’s considered a masterpiece since the first time he heard a recording of violinist Jascha Heifitz performing the work.

“The piece was written, in a sense, as a response to the end of the Second World War. Up to that point, Korngold seems to have promised himself only to compose film music until Hitler was defeated,” Hope says. “He did this in order to make a living and to support his friends and family by getting them out of Europe. The piece, therefore, marks his return to symphonic music.”

Korngold, the Jewish Bohemian son of an influential music critic, was considered a prodigy as a young musician, hailed by composer Gustav Mahler for his talent. As conditions worsened in Europe, Korngold in 1934 accepted a film assignment in Hollywood and spent the rest of his days there, Allsen writes. The Violin Concerto is dedicated to Mahler’s widow, Alma Mahler-Werfel, who had been Korngold’s childhood mentor.

Korngold was essentially an operatic composer who described his film music as ”an opera without singing,” Hope says. Korngold’s music did more than passively accompany the image on the screen — it actively engaged with the dialogue, emotion and presentation of the film, the violinist added.

“I believe both Korngold and Max Steiner totally changed American film music, by adding a fin-de-siècle European symphonic grandeur,” Hope says. “Both composers became known for introducing leitmotifs, recurring themes that followed characters throughout a film.”

Hope is himself a fan of classic film music. His list of favorite film composers extends beyond this program to fellow exiles such as Werner Richard Heymann and Friedrich Holland and contemporary American composers Alfred Newman and Herbert Stothart, the latter a Milwaukee native who wrote the score for The Wizard of Oz

He believes that film music has carved more than just a successful niche for itself. The juxtaposition of composers’ cinematic and classical influences has had a significant influence on U.S. popular culture that is felt even today.

“Some people quip that Korngold’s music ‘sounds like Hollywood,’” Hope says. “I think it was the other way around.”


Madison Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Composers in Exile: Creating the Hollywood Sound runs March 6-8 at Overture Hall in Overture Center for the Arts, 221 State St., Madison. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, dial 608-258-4141 or visit