Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Isaac Stern in Music from "Humoresque"

Cover design by Alex Steinweiss
With another Academy Awards ceremony looming (the 87th!), it seems a fitting time to share this album of music from the 1946 Warner Brothers romantic melodrama, "Humoresque." This story about an aspiring young violinist's doomed affair with a wealthy socialite, played by Joan Crawford, has long been admired by Crawford's fans as one of her finest performances on film. I can see why, but for me, the film only works because of its glorious music, played on the soundtrack by Issac Stern and Oscar Levant, who also plays the part of best friend to the on-screen violinist (played by John Garfield). My problem with the picture is that neither of the lead characters seems particularly likable; in fact Levant's character is the most sympathetic in the film, unusually for him! Nor did I care for the underlying message, which seems to be: "don't get involved with a musician; they're all crazy and will drive you to suicide if you're so unfortunate as to fall in love with one!" When I watched the movie for the first time, it felt like I was sitting through endless periods of bickering dialogue while waiting for the all-too-brief musical interludes.  I'm sure that my little review probably tells more about me than about the film, but having said that, the best part of it, for me, is right here:

"Humoresque" - Selections from the film:
Dvořák: Humoresque
Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Fantasie (arr. Waxman)*
Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen
Bizet: Carmen - Fantasy (arr. Waxman)
Isaac Stern, violin; *Oscar Levant, piano;
Orchestra conducted by Franz Waxman
Recorded August 14, 1946 (except the Wagner)
Columbia Masterworks set MM-657, four 78-rpm records
Link (FLAC files, 87.39 MB)
Link (MP3 files, 55.99 MB)

The Wagner fantasie is the only work played uninterruptedly in the picture (as its climax, in fact), so it was dubbed from the soundtrack; the other pieces were studio recordings.

The story goes that Warner Brothers originally wanted Jascha Heifetz for the job of playing the violin on the soundtrack, but he demanded more money than Jack Warner was willing to pay, So "J.L." said "we'll get a talented kid to do it," went to San Francisco to hear Stern in a recital, and hired him on the spot. It was undoubtedly a big boost to Stern's career. He was all of 25 years old, and had just begun recording for Columbia.


  1. thank you. its great to finally have the wagner arrangement in its original "setting" as it were. cheers, alfred venison.

  2. "John Garfield...had to be photographed playing the violin, simulating the technique of the left hand fingering and the right hand bowing it...In close shots, they had two violinists crouched out of camera range; one did the fingerwork and the other the bowing. The violin was attached to Garfield's neck. The real playing was pre-recorded by the great Isaac Stern, and I accompanied him on piano. After a couple of takes, I suggested, "Why don't the five of us make a concert tour?"
    -Oscar Levant, Memoirs of an Amnesiac (pp. 182-83), 1965

  3. The "story" is more or less accurate, except that it wasn't JL who went to San Francisco to hear the young Stern - it was Franz Waxman, who was given the task - as the one responsible for the sound track - to find an "unknown" soloist. The Carmen Fantasy has long since entered the standard concert repertory; the Tristan Fantasy hasn't, but is just as inventive. Thanks for posting.

    1. Yes, that makes much more sense. I simply misheard the interview on the "Humoresque" DVD and imagined JL would want to take personal credit for such a find!

  4. Wonderful music to watch Joan Crawford drown to, though nothing tops Thomas Mann on the hazards of loving a musician. As for being one....

  5. Franz Waxman (along with Korngold) is probably the most underrated composer, conductor, and musician from the 20th Century.