David Raksin Profiles Hugo Friedhofer

Remembering Hugo Friedhofer

by David Raksin

The renowned film composer, Hugo Friedhofer, was a paradoxical figure. On the one hand, he was surely one of the most learned, most accomplished members of our profession: a fine composer, a master of the orchestra, quick to perceive what was required of the music for a film and sure-footed in providing that music. This was the Friedhofer that film audiences knew, the formidable musician who composed so many wonderful scores.

But there was also the man who knew too much, the virtuoso of self-doubt who never seemed to have learned to take Yes for an answer. Somewhere during his early years something must have given one twist too many to the mechanism through which he viewed the world. I often thought that he might have acquired this pessimism from his father, a man of mordant wit. You may recognize the son in one of his father's characteristic remarks. "Any man who remarries," said Friedhofer père, "doesn't deserve to lose his first wife." (On one appropriate occasion I reminded Hugo of that.)

He was notorious for an attitude toward the world that seemed to magnify its shortcomings while appraising its blessings as though from the wrong end of a telescope-but we all enjoyed him for that. When you were around Hugo, you often got the feeling that when life was at its best it was no better than an itch that needed scratching. I once said of him that he had managed to sustain a dark view of everything, despite personal successes that might have tempted lesser men toward optimism and he enjoyed that.

Hugo was far from the ordinary, garden-variety misanthrope; but sometimes it seemed as though the only time life lived up to his expectations was when it disappointed him. How much of that was "style" or affectation, and how much was "real?"

I believe the self-disparagement that was so characteristic of Hugo was his way of dealing with the extreme anxiety which arose out of his exaggerated sense of his own fallibility and inner frailness. "Fallibility" and "frailness" are not words ordinarily applied to patriarchal figures-and in his profession that was the position that Friedhofer had achieved. But his intimates knew that in moments of great stress he often became obsessed with delusions of inadequacy. Through many of those nights of painful struggle so typical of the composer's life this delusion would persist, until the glorious sound of the music he had just composed filled the recording stage next morning and reminded him in terms that could not be denied that his talent had not deserted him.

Still he would persist in judging his music according to arcane criteria that would, if indiscriminately applied, sink just about everybody else in sight. But he was wrong, and he must have known that he was wrong. No one produces a body of work such as his out of anything less than sheer talent, technique-and love.
Long ago I wrote of him: "If Friedhofer likes to pretend that his art is othe
r than of a high order, so be it. But for the rest of us to disregard the evidence of our senses would be absurd. Besides, it would be foolish to be unaware that Hugo's notorious antipathy toward praise was only skin deep; that the man who replied to admirers (who had just called him "a giant!") by saying, "With that I will agree. I'm just a fake giant among real pygmies!" was not really averse to being loved-as long as it was in spite of himself.

Hugo seems never to have resolved these contradictory traits: they argued within him to the end. But he knew that nothing he could say or do could drown out the testimony of his music, in which is revealed the beauty of spirit he was so determined to hide.

The end came on May 17, 1981, two days after his eightieth birthday. On May 23 a memorial service and concert in his honor was held, at which we played music by Bach and Brahms, composers with whom he felt a special kinship. (Hugo loved to recount the parting shot delivered by Brahms on leaving a party, when he turned in the doorway and said he wished to apologize to anybody he had forgotten to insult.)

I reminded our friends and colleagues that: "Lucky as we were to have had Hugo among us, we must not risk offending him by overdoing our praise-which he is even now trying to wriggle out of, somewhere in time. Let us take comfort in that Olympian disdain for everyday hypocrisies and for his unwillingness to be assuaged in his war against the unwelcome aspects of life.

Fear not, dear Hugo (I said): If there is anyone around who has earned the right to be insulted, and whom you have forgotten has in to insult, you are forgiven."

Copyright 1995 by David Raksin