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November 26, 2004
Remembrance of a treasured friend
by Jon Newsom
Chief of Music Division, The Library of Congress

David Raksin, 1915
David Raksin, 1915
David in grammar school operetta, 1925
In grammar school operetta, 1925

Editor's note: This personal reminiscence was originally published in the program of a memorial service for David Raksin on November 15, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.

Music is not translatable into words, yet, in the context of a dramatic or poetic setting, it can, in the hands of such a master as David Raksin, achieve expressive depths possible in no other art, depths which probe the ineffable realm of human feeling with an acuity impossible in words or pictures.

Yet words are all I am able to offer even though there is no word, perhaps not even an evocative combination of words, that summons up a particular feeling in David's best music of which I want to speak. That feeling is melancholy but not sad, noble but not arrogant, longing but not grasping, sentimental but not self-indulgent, resigned but not despairing. Its passion is not suppressed yet it is poised, even philosophical. The dark prophet Ezekiel might even find momentary solace in its strains. Tristan and Isolde might hear in it the troubled voice of King Mark. From where, one wonders, did this depth of feeling come?

Frederick Delius, whose music, if not his character, David and many of his generation admired especially for its harmonic richness, created a mood both aspiring and sensual, and in a spirit of resignation nurtured by the Dionysian philosophy of Nietzsche and the romantic writings of the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen. This hedonistic ethos of a turn-of-the-last-century cult, however, was alien to David, who was too much of a Jewish patriarch to permit its licentious undertones to infect the noble despair and anger he felt as a tone-poet and toiler in Jehovah's vineyards. Though not a conventionally religious man, David had a more vivid image of God than most people I know, and he was highly sensitive to the injustices his Creator could inflict, not so much on himself but on his fellow men and women. Like Job, David felt that his own ethical vision was superior to that of his Maker.

David Raksin
Photostrip taken during production of Transatlantic Rhythm, captioned by David: "Monkey Bizness on the Irish Sea" Sept. 1936, Blackpool

On saying this, I now hear in my mind's ear David's voice from the beyond, filled with fatherly caution but not without nuances of guarded approval such as one uses in addressing a zealous but unseasoned disciple. He is saying to me: "Jon, you may be slightly overstating the case." Yet I hear as clearly his voice the night more than twenty years ago when we were discussing one of his favorite characters, King Oedipus. The conversation turned logically and passionately to another favorite fatherly character who was equally buffeted – some believe by Fate, others by Fate's more willful personification in the form of the Heavenly Father. I am speaking of course of Abraham, Father Abraham who belongs to all inheritors of the great desert religions. David knew exactly what he would have said to God if ordered to sacrifice his only son, and he vented and I listened with as much compassion as he had shown me when I was the outraged friend in need of an understanding ear. And I urged him, with all my powers as a commissioner of new music with money to offer, to set his rage to music, or at least to consider setting one of Kierkegaard's several variant versions of the story, each more horrendous and – as David would say – "heart-rendering" than the preceding. Even better, I suggested, take Benjamin Britten's approach and use Wilfred Owen's version in which Abraham refuses not the Lord's but the Angel's intervening command to hold his sword, and so, the poet writes, "slew his son, and half the seed of Europe one-by-one." Unfortunately, David did not feel up to the challenge.

David Raksin, 1940s
David, 1940s

The urbane, wistful longing of Laura, the themes from The Bad and the Beautiful, Forever Amber, Too Late Blues, Carrie, or Will Penny were not born, if anyone might suspect they were, out of the sheer talent of a master craftsman in fulfilling the demands of his profession, but out of David's compassionate and embattled heart which sought to understand the pain felt by the loving and complex people in the films he enriched and, to a great extent, interpreted for their audiences and often, to their chagrin, the very creators of those films who had hired him. He looked into their characters' souls and often understood them more deeply than those writers, directors, and actors who brought them to the screen only partially developed and emotionally inarticulate before David's music provided the nuances that make them believable and memorable. His world was one of searching, discovering, and playing (he loved words as much as notes). His world was also one of changes and the endless partings effected by change. His music was both his outlet for grief and his consolation.

David with horns, 1950s
David with horns, 1950s

He said once that he lived and worked in a golden age of Hollywood, and that he and his colleagues knew that it was a golden age and that they lived it to the hilt. He appreciated that for a brief time, a composer of his special genius could write the kind of music he needed to write and, most remarkably for any time in the history of music, hear it played beautifully and immediately.
David Raksin
David has left us a musical legacy unique in its expressive powers, and too rich to be superceded by changing fashions. It is also so universal that it can with grace and style follow the hearts of an Apache warrior, a king's mistress, or a detective who has fallen in love with a portrait of a beautiful woman whose presumed death by murder he is investigating.

We will each miss David the man in our own personal way. We will all share, however, in the musical heritage he has left us and which will remain for us and, we may hope, for many generations to come, as a consolation until the ends of our lives.

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