Franz Grothe

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It sometimes seems, if you take the accounts of Hollywood's musical colony and its members' lives at face value, as though all of the talented members of the German-speaking film music community left…
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It sometimes seems, if you take the accounts of Hollywood's musical colony and its members' lives at face value, as though all of the talented members of the German-speaking film music community left when one or the other of the two World Wars began to threaten. This was never true, of course, although one couldn't be blamed for believing it, since not too much was heard about German cinema outside that country for many years after World War II -- if there had been any truly talented musicians writing scores for the movies, who outside of Germany and Austria would have known, or cared? Franz Grothe is a case in point. In a career stretching over 40 years, he wrote 155 film scores, all in a lyrical, melodic idiom, the best examples of which would have delighted fans of Max Steiner or Alfred Newman. He also had credentials as a "serious" composer that would have passed muster in any country in the world -- before World War II, as a composer of songs, he had a special artistic relationship with no less a figure than Richard Tauber, the most celebrated tenor of the era, and also with the operetta diva Marta Eggerth. During the early '40s, popular singers stood ready to cover his songs as easily as the coloratura sopranos (including Erna Berger) who seemed to do so well with his work from the movie soundstage or the concert hall. For all of that, however, he was hardly known outside of Germany and Austria.

Franz Grothe was born on September 17, 1908 in Berlin. His mother was a singer, and his father played the piano, as well as representing the Bluthner piano company in Berlin. The young Grothe showed musical interest and aptitude from a precociously early age. At four he was playing the glockenspiel and drum, and started learning the violin a year later. Thanks to his father's musical interests, Grothe got to meet the likes of Gregor Piatigorsky and Karol Szreter as guests in his parents' home. He learned the violin well, but he took even more naturally and quickly to the piano, which became his primary instrument. By age 10, he was composing and had given his first recital as a solo violinist. Grothe might have had an idyllic youth, learning music at his leisure, but his father's death when he was still in his teens obliged him to start earning a living to support his mother. He went to work as a pianist, starting out in chamber ensembles but eventually moving up to work in Dajos Bela's orchestra, where he succeeded Mischa Spoliansky, who went on to achieve note as a composer of songs and as a composer in Hollywood. Grothe continued to compose, and wrote an operetta, Ehe auf Zeit. It was never performed, but one tango from the score, "Rosen und Frauen," became a huge hit for Grothe when the celebrated tenor Richard Tauber added it to his repertory. He and Tauber developed a happy and productive relationship for many years -- the legendary singer made several of Grothe's subsequent songs into hits, and Grothe made close to 300 recordings with Tauber, as accompanist or arranger. He also orchestrated music for Franz Lehar, Emmerich Kalman, and Robert Stolz, among many other composers of operetta and light opera. During the '20s, while on tour with Dajos Bela, Grothe began writing concert works, including several in a symphonic jazz idiom, which was becoming very popular at the time. It was the arrival of synchronized sound in movies in Germany in 1929-1930 that brought Grothe into films. In his own words, he was captivated by the new medium and the possibilities that it offered for a composer to work in a multitude of idioms, styles, and settings. Early in his screen career, he collaborated in film with the likes of Franz Lehar and Oscar Straus, as well as future Hollywood transplant Bronislaw Kaper. Once he began working on his scores alone, however, Grothe quickly found success on his own terms. Those films, even when they weren't based on operettas, included lush operetta-like scores and songs, which, coupled with their romantic plots, made them among the most popular films produced in Germany before the war. Grothe's first big hit in films was Die Blonde Carmen (1935), starring Marta Eggerth, the beloved Hungarian-born light opera soprano, who turned "Schon, Wie der Junge Fruhling" into a popular song. He followed this up in 1936 with Immer, Wenn ich Glucklich Bin, also starring Eggerth. His scores inevitably included not only richly orchestrated, achingly melodic background music, but at least one song that the singer was able to transform into a popular classic. After Eggerth was forced to leave Austria following the German takeover in 1938, Grothe's music graced the films of her successor, Marika Rokk. Grothe remained in Germany during Hitler's rule, writing his quota of gorgeous songs despite the war and other horrors going on around him; in fact, if anything, the war hardly dampened the free-flowing joy and lyricism of his film music at all. That this was possible at all is comprehensible when one understands the nature of German film production during the war. The German film industry, both in the years leading up to the war as well as during it, made its share of propaganda films, of course, all intended to justify its government's actions. Some of those are regarded today as astonishingly potent pieces of cinematic art in the service of a corrupt ideal, and are justifiably famous, such as Triumph of the Will and Olympia; others, such as the anti-Semitic tract Jew Suss, are thought of as abominations, and can't even be shown legally without special permission from a unit of the postwar German government. But those weren't the only kinds of movies being made in Germany. Just as Hollywood produced its share of escapist comedies and musicals during the war years, some of them (Yolanda and the Thief, etc.) amazingly experimental, so did the German movie industry. Except that Germany's musicals and romantic comedies were, if anything, even more escapist than Hollywood's. One must also recognize another key factor it this -- Hitler himself loved musicals, especially Hollywood-style musicals (particularly those by Busby Berkeley), and adored operetta, most notably Lehar's The Merry Widow, supposedly his favorite musical work of all (which should not reflect on Lehar or The Merry Widow, anymore than the Nazi embrace of Bruckner's music should, in any way, defame Bruckner or his music; it simply is, that's all). Under those circumstances, it would have been difficult to find a government cultural official, even if it had been the case, who would express concern over a production schedule that was too thick with musicals or operettas. And so Grothe was given these light romantic, even comical, scripts and scenes to work from, and did his best as a composer. He worked not so much in service of the Nazis, as in service to Germany and to his countrymen, in much the same way that Furtwangler, Krauss, Lehar, et al conducted concerts for their countrymen. His title music ("Valse Triste") from the 1941 film Illusion was one of the most achingly bittersweet works to enter the classical music repertory in Germany during that period, and for polish and depth, runs rings around much that Steiner was doing in Hollywood at the time, though curiously enough, Grothe didn't recognize its appeal for almost three years, when he started performing it at the piano. Even more startling is his score for the 1944 musical Die Frau Meiner Traume, which would shock the uninitiated with its lighthearted, Hollywood-like mood. The film seems to have been close in spirit to Hollywood fare such as Pin-Up Girl, Down Argentine Way, or Cover Girl, with Marika Rokk filling in for Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth, It is worthy of Robert Stolz or Sigmund Romberg at their respective bests, with a breezy, one dance revue score, alternately sweeping or brisk and spirited following another (scored for everything from harp ensemble to 1930's-style light jazz orchestra), even as Germany looked down the barrel of Allied guns. Surely no composer since Johann Strauss II, presenting Die Fledermaus amid the financial ruins of the Viennese market crash of the early 1870's (and that was more happenstance than the result of Strauss' intentional timing) ever dealt so freely in joyous abandon in the face of disaster -- he even finds space in the score for some delightful post-Romantic musical Orientalism and a charming Spanish-flavored orchestral dance. After the war ended, Grothe fell silent for a time. This may have been at least partly a reflection of the state of the German movie industry, which took years to recover from the aftermath of the war. He returned to film work with Die Frauenarzt Dr. Pr├Ątorius (1950), which demonstrated that his knack for writing sweet melodies and hauntingly beautiful songs had not been lost during the period of extended inactivity. The '50s proved to be Grothe's most active decade, with 60 scores to his credit, eight alone during the year 1959. Grothe was the living link, in Germany, for a period of three decades, between the operetta stage and the motion picture. Lehar was already an old man, nearing the culmination of his career as a composer, when sound films came in. Kalman and Stolz were driven out of Germany by the rise of Hitler, and by the time Stolz returned, he was past the best part of his creative life. Grothe kept the lush, melodic tradition alive on the screen -- his scores are nothing less than scrumptious in their rich melodies and lush textures; nor are his scores purely Romantic in content or idiom; he incorporated elements of '20s jazz where appropriate, and one can hear a curious European variant on mid-20th century popular music. Generally, his music displayed a flowing lyricism that found Grothe compared favorably to Kalman and other operetta giants of the first half of the 20th century. He also had a chance, occasionally, to allow his talents to intersect with those legends as subjects -- Grothe had the distinction of writing a score for a film about the Von Trapp Family, Die Trapp Familie (1956). The movie, directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, subsequently disappeared in the wake of the screen adaptation of The Sound of Music, but it gave Grothe a chance to turn his talents to a distinctive, and distinctively Austrian musical subject. Ironically, even though he had never ventured to Hollywood, during the late '50s and much of the '60s, Gothe found himself beset by the very same sort of cultural changes that bedeviled the careers of colleagues such as Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, and Miklos Rozsa. The German movie industry, like most of the rest of Europe, tended to emulate the popular cultural changes in Hollywood films -- just as the latter, in their scoring, became more beholden to and influenced by the work of contemporary popular composers, so, too, did Germany's movies. By the '60s, there were no more movies about the Baroness Von Trapp or anyone like her being made in Germany, and the kind of lush, romantic melodies that Grothe wrote so easily and memorably weren't needed anymore. In fact, Grothe especially resented the kind of function he was most often asked to serve in the '60s, to provide "source music," which is to say, music that was part of the scene in which the characters play out their roles, either on the radio or performed by a band in the background. He tried working in television, but its lower budgets and shorter production schedules were less to his liking. Grothe continued to work in radio, composing and conducting. He died in September of 1982, two days after collapsing while at work at the studios of West German radio in Cologne. In 1992, the conductor Emmerich Smola and the Cologne Radio Orchestra recorded a selection of a handful of the best of Grothe's film scores for the German-based Capriccio label.