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FMS FEATURE ARTICLE...

November 18, 2004
David Raksin Remembered
Reminiscences underscored composer's talents, humor and intelligence
by Jon Burlingame


ProgramMore than 150 friends, colleagues and family members paid tribute to composer David Raksin at a memorial service Monday night, Nov. 15, at the Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre on the Los Angeles campus of the University of Southern California.

Raksin, the highly respected, Oscar-nominated dean of American film music, died Aug. 9 at the age of 92.

Opening the 105-minute program was Raksin's London recording of the first movement of his symphonic suite from Forever Amber (1947), accompanied by rare images of the composer.

Producer and music historian Marilee Bradford, who is preparing Raksin's papers for the Library of Congress and who organized the event, welcomed the group and spoke about the extraordinary number of manuscripts and letters that will form the core of the collection. She also quoted from his massive, 250,000-word memoir (as yet unpublished) and spoke of little-known aspects of his life apart from music, including his passions for aviation, architecture and politics (quoting Raksin, "There are three kinds of people in this world – men, women and Republicans").

This writer also spoke, briefly placing Raksin's career into some historical perspective and reminding the crowd of a classic Raksin anecdote. When Alfred Hitchcock was making Lifeboat at 20th Century-Fox in 1944, the director decided the film shouldn't have any music. His rationale: "Out in the middle of the ocean, where's the orchestra?" Raksin's reply: "Out in the middle of the ocean, where's the camera?"

ASCAP President Marilyn Bergman praised Raksin as "a brilliant composer and a brilliant man," recalling his tenure as president of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America (CLGA) during the 1960s and his service on the ASCAP Board of Directors from 1995 to 2003.

A video tribute, created by ASCAP for its 1991 Golden Soundtrack Award to Raksin, included clips from many of his most famous films – Laura (1944), Forever Amber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Force of Evil (1948), Pat and Mike (1952), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Al Capone (1959) – as well as the TV show Ben Casey (1961) and footage of the composer himself, in fine voice, singing "Laura" in concert.

Composer Bruce Broughton spoke of the "three David Raksins" he knew: the composer of Laura, whose intriguing and complex harmonies he had studied as a youth; Raksin the teacher, with whom he studied at USC and who encouraged the young composer ("it was like God had come down out of the heavens and kissed me on the forehead"); and Raksin the colleague and fellow leader of the composing fraternity, when Broughton took the reins of the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL), successor to the CLGA. He spoke of Raksin's "thoughtfulness and wonderful spirit."

Composer Patrick Williams said that Raksin's music had had "a profound impact upon me," calling it "melodic... evocative and passionate." He cited Raksin's "acceptance and support" of Williams' own music as invaluable to his career. He mentioned the composer's sense of "impish sarcasm" and added that he thought the composer had "the perfect left-right brain equation."

Lyricist Arthur Hamilton recalled first meeting Raksin at the Disney studios in the mid-1950s, and talked about the composer's surprising and all-but-unknown secondary career as a lyricist (under the pseudonym John Sartain Jr.). Hamilton cited Raksin's "keen ear for rhyme, acute sense of irony and a real talent for the game of words." He read the poignant lyric to what is believed to be the composer's last song, "A Rueful 7th," penned in 1999.

Pianist Mike Lang performed an alternately contemplative and playful arrangement of "Laura," as well as a mesmerizing, haunting version of Raksin's "Love Song from Apache." He regaled the crowd with stories about playing on Raksin film scores – including organ source cues which he and fellow keyboard player Ralph Grierson (also in attendance) agreed were so difficult they were "unplayable" even by the high standards of L.A. musicians – and Raksin's 1981 purchase of Lang's Van Nuys home and studio. Raksin showed up at the door, barely looked inside and announced, "My boy, it's great, I'll take it."

Composer William Kraft shared several amusing stories about his 50-year friendship with Raksin that dated back to playing percussion on an Ernst Toch piece that Raksin conducted as part of L.A.'s famed "Monday Evening Concert" series in 1956. He spoke of Raksin's friendship with other composers ranging from Igor Stravinsky to Pierre Boulez. He remembered Raksin joking with Luciano Berio – after a particularly harrowing ride with the Italian composer at the wheel, at speeds exceeding 100 m.p.h. – that the headline the next day might read "Famous Composer Killed With Italian Driver."

Kraft talked about Raksin's concert works, including Morning Revisited for brass and percussion, and his 1986 oratorio Oedipus Memnetai which, Kraft said, "showed all of his skill and might" and whose "day is still to come." He also told a surprising story about Raksin's two scores for Separate Tables (1958), the first of which he likened to Alban Berg ("I was in seventh heaven," Kraft said) but which the producers dumped; Raksin's second try was "just about as fabulous" and was Oscar-nominated.

Composer James DiPasquale, vice-president of the last incarnation of the CLGA and organizing chairman of the SCL, recalled that Raksin was "there to guide the process.... He was our adviser, our critic, our research library and direct connection to our collective past." His informal music studies with Raksin – a favor culled from assisting Raksin on his last TV-movie assignment, Lady in a Corner (1989) – were "eye-opening," he said, adding that a conversation with him could be "a virtual vaudeville of witticisms, criticisms and puns."

Composer Christopher Young, current president of The Film Music Society, said that Raksin's absence has left "a hole in the universe" that cannot be filled. As Raksin's student at UCLA, he said, the composer "influenced my life so profoundly" and had been especially encouraging during a depressing first year trying to find work in film. "Those moments of approval from David were divine," he said. "He saved my life."

Daughter Tina Raksin, in brief but emotional remarks, cited her dad's "tough and proud exterior" but also noted that he was "a generous, tender and caring man." She quipped that, in spirit, "he's out at the dessert table" while everyone was inside the auditorium.

Son Alex Raksin noted that, during his father's final days, "his spirit came through." When Alex read aloud a review by a notorious music critic, his father, despite difficulty in speaking, managed to remark, "I find that passage rather irritating," thus ensuring, Alex said, that his father "had the last word." The crowd, nearly all of whom knew Raksin personally, responded with knowing laughter.

Singer and music historian Michael Feinstein concluded the evening by performing some Raksin rarities at the piano: "This Is the End of the Story" from his short-lived Broadway musical If the Shoe Fits; "Love Is for the Very Young," the vocal version of The Bad and the Beautiful theme, with words by Dory Previn; and "Laura," but in both versions – one featuring the original, never-before-heard lyric by Irving Caesar (called "Two Dreams"), which Raksin famously rejected, and the famous, worldwide-hit version with words by Johnny Mercer.

© 2004 Jon Burlingame

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