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Music / Elmer Bernstein

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"An interviewer once asked me to discuss my collaboration with Elmer Bernstein, and precisely why I chose to work with him. My first thought was, How could I not work with Elmer, when I had the chance? Simply put, he's the best there is – the very best."

One of the greatest film music composers in the history of American film, Elmer Bernstein (April 4, 1922 – August 18, 2004) was born in New York City. While in his teens, his piano teacher realized he had a creative gift and later was introduced to the legendary Aaron Copland. Copland being impressed, sent him at the age of 13 to see a gifted pupil, Israel Sitkowitz. He subsequently enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York, where he continued as a piano student and also took up composition. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, it became necessary to differentiate between two very successful and popular composers/conductors with apparently the same last name — Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein (pronounced Burn-STINE) was the famous pianist/conductor of the New York Philharmonic, star of the enormously popular Young People's Concert series that introduced classical music to the younger generation, and acclaimed composer of numerous concert and musical theater works, including West Side Story and On the Town. Elmer Bernstein (pronounced Burn-STEEN), also a concert pianist, earned his acclaim in the West-coast film industry, composing some of the most memorable, melodic, and exciting film scores over five decades. This is the man who wrote music for Moses, The Magnificent Seven, the Cooler King, Scout and Jem, Rooster Cogburn, the Ghostbusters, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Martin Scorsese. So, lest there be any confusion identifying the two (and to dispel the myth that they were brothers), Leonard became known as Bernstein East (signifying New York), and Elmer was dubbed Bernstein West. note 

After completing his first three Hollywood film scoring assignments between 1950 and 1952, the composer became another in a long list of liberal-minded professionals who Senator Joseph McCarthy considered a threat to the American way of life because of alleged Communist leanings—accusations which of course were fabricated to bolster McCarthy's own political agenda. Undaunted, Elmer quietly persevered by taking on a series of low-budget science fiction movies, where minuscule budgets forced him to use creativity and ingenuity to compensate for a lack of resources. (Cat Women of the Moon and Robot Monster are fun favorites of all serious Elmer Bernstein devotees.)

In an interview conducted for a book on film composing, Elmer once said that the wonder of music is that the listener doesn't need to bring anything to the table. He or she doesn't need to have an intellectual understanding of it, a knowledge of how it is made, or even why it was written. The listener can respond to it purely on an emotional level. Director John Sturges once remarked that he could direct an actor to look out a window, but Elmer's music could tell you what that actor was thinking or feeling.

Bernstein died in his sleep on August 18th, 2004 at the age of 82 (shortly after the death of another legendary composer, Jerry Goldsmith).

Throughout his career, Elmer Bernstein received 14 Academy Award nominations (winning one; he also holds the record for being the only person to be nominated at least once per decade from the 1950s to the 2000s), an Emmy Award, and two Golden Globe Awards, and was nominated for the Tony Award three times, and a Grammy Award five times.

He has his own page of awesome music to listen to.

His most notable scores include:

  • Some Came Running (1958)
  • The Magnificent Seven (1960) — Number 8 on American Film Institute's Top 10 Movie Scores of all time. His Second Symphony would become the definitive Western score for the next 20 years. (Here's the legendary maestro conducting.)
  • The Great Escape (1963) — The Great Escape is a stunning achievement in film and film music. Upon its release, the film and its score were so critically heralded and applauded by the moviegoing public that they quickly became part of American pop culture. (Here's the legendary composer conducting.) (The soundtrack album released at the time was a very close re-recording; Varèse Sarabande gave the actual film recordings their premiere CD release — which proved to be a tribute to Bernstein, as the album came out just after his passing.)
  • The Ten Commandments (1956) — Grand, elaborate spectacle as only Cecil B. DeMille can create. The Ten Commandments is akin to Elmer Bernstein's First Symphony.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) — Elmer's masterwork and one of the best film scores ever written. I can't think of any other American film where music fits so perfectly and unobtrusively and yet carries such honest and powerful emotion than this landmark score. It's as if Bernstein climbed inside the psyche and imaginative world of a child and captured the essence of joy, wonderment, fear, and heroism with his music.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) — shows the whimsical side of the composer. The score prominently features the Ondes Martenot—an oscillating electronic instrument that was the precursor for the modern synthesizer. Developed in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, the Ondes sounds similar to the Theremin, which was invented a decade earlier and which is no doubt familiar to fans of Bernard Herrmann (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and The Beach Boys (Good Vibrations); in fact, Bernstein used the Theremin Standard Snippet in Heavy Metal. Like the Theremin, the Ondes produces an eerie oscillating tone reminiscent of fingers delicately passing along the rim of a crystal wine glass. Bernstein uses the Ondes to good effect here, employing it to accentuate the unpredictable behavior of the mischievous ghosts lurking in hotel hallways and ballrooms.
    • Bernstein recorded four tracks for the song album, but only two were included; Varèse Sarabande issued a lengthy score album, including bits not heard in the film (such as the complete end credits music) and all four of the song album recordings.
    • Producer-director Ivan Reitman stated in his audio commentary that he actually felt bad that Elmer's work for the film wasn't appreciated more at the time it came out since all anyone seemed to care about was Ray Parker Jr.'s title theme for the film.
  • The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) — American cinema's wakeup call to the depiction of heroin addiction and to the "power" of jazz.
  • Sweet Smell of Success (1957) — Great score to one of the best films of the late 1950s, in the same league as Marty (also a Hill-Brecht-Lancaster production), 12 Angry Men, and Touch of Evil.
  • The Buccaneer (1958)
  • Hud (1963)
  • The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) — John Wayne had adopted Bernstein as his preferred composer and this was their second collaboration. The music perfectly fits this tale of four reunited brothers coming to pay their respects to a mother they all but abandoned. The music is at once heroic (the brothers will stop a corrupt gunsmith and avenge their father's murder), and spirited (signifying four wild sons tamed by Katie's love and hope for them). The music eloquently demonstrates Elmer's deep understanding of the film medium and how music can enhance our enjoyment of character, setting, and story.
  • The Hallelujah Trail (1965) — A spoof of the American Western, the equivalent of Elmer's Third Symphony.
  • The Tin Star (1957)
  • The Scalphunters (1968) — Bernstein brings everything to the table for this social satire with a moral lesson about the evils of slavery and greed: good action cues, great theme song, fun comedic music.
  • True Grit (1969) — Bernstein and lyricist Don Black do an admirable job of composing a Jimmy Webb-sounding pop song for Glenn Campbell to sing over the opening credits (the single hit #9 on the American country charts).
  • Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) — Elmer's delicate score to this outstanding film adaptation of life-long prisoner and world-renowned bird expert, Robert Stroud, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Golden Age of film music is over. Here, as in other films of the early '60s, the big symphony orchestra is replaced by a chamber-sized ensemble that applies a less is more approach. Just as Bernstein used the solo piano in To Kill a Mockingbird to portray the world through a child's eyes, so too does he use solo woodwinds—piccolos, flutes, oboes, and bassoons—to capture Stroud's solitary inner world and his precious birds. Elmer's music quietly joins in perfect harmony, the woodwinds flittering about playfully like the sparrows in Stroud's cell. It's amazing that this is the same composer who could create a testosterone-driven Western theme like The Magnificent Seven. What range.
  • Walk on the Wild Side (1962) — Elmer gives us a Cajun stew of sensual bordello music and exhilarating Dixieland jazz that is so evocative of the underside of the 1930s French Quarter that the film is almost superfluous.
  • Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) — Elmer's theme swells into a kind of romantic concerto for solo piano and orchestra, presaging the joys and sorrows of two "strangers" who are linked by a careless sexual encounter. The piece is easily one of Elmer's most beautiful and shows he could hold his own with Henry Mancini when it came to the romantic theme song.
  • Rampage (1963)
  • The World of Henry Orient (1964) — In this wonderful George Roy Hill film, Bernstein achieves for teenagers what he did for younger children in To Kill a Mockingbird. His music manages to capture the lives of two teenage girls—one well adjusted and happy (Gilbert), the other a troubled but gifted pianist (Valerie)—and their escapades around Manhattan.
  • Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965) — Bernstein's jazzy, pumped up rock and soul score.
  • Hawaii (1966) — Bernstein successfully invented music that sounds intrinsically Hawaiian—as calibrated through the influence of New England Calvinist missionaries. To prepare for this film, as he did for many films, Bernstein took on the role of musicologist to study the music and instruments of nineteenth-century island culture. Ingeniously, Elmer moves seamlessly from frenetic percussion figures to very Christian-sounding symphonic hymns. Justifiably, this is one of his most popular scores and one I fondly call Bernstein's Fourth Symphony.
  • The Rat Race (1960) — Continuing proof that Elmer Bernstein is as good an interpreter of the New York streets as his contemporary, Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story). Great source music throughout, particularly when Curtis auditions with a jazz group, played by Sam Butera & the Witnesses.
  • Summer and Smoke (1961) — The main theme is one of Bernstein's most hauntingly beautiful compositions.
  • The Young Doctors (1961) — It is one of Bernstein's most understated scores, which is refreshing for a medical drama, where storylines can quickly tailspin into soap opera.
  • Men in War (1957)
  • Kings Go Forth (1958)
  • Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)
  • The Bridge at Remagen (1968) — Contains one of Elmer's most thrilling main title themes—a stirring snare corps-driven march that functions in a way almost completely opposite to The Great Escape March.
  • Big Jake (1971)
  • Animal House (1978) — This film basically restored Bernstein's professional reputation following long career lull scoring TV shows as opposed to the grand movies he used to score. Director John Landis had actually known Bernstein since he was a kid and had actually gone to school with Bernstein's son, Peter. The elder Bernstein was initially confused as to why Landis picked him to score the movie since he wasn't really known for being a comedic composer. Landis explained to him that he wanted Bernstein to compose a straight underscore which wouldn't sound goofy and would instead sound like an earnest dramatic score. Landis firmly believed that making the film very broadly comedic would backfire in the worst way possible, which also explains why he insisted on casting unknown dramatic actors for the lead roles as opposed to established comedians. As a result of the success of Animal House, Bernstein's career entered a new avenue for him in he was now scoring comedies as well as dramas.
  • Airplane! (1980) — For this uproarious spoof of air disaster movies, Elmer Bernstein early on decided that the music score for this comedy should take itself very seriously; in other words, it should be scored as if the composer isn't in on the joke and is making an earnest attempt to write hugely dramatic cues to support the disaster movie formula, obviously taking a hint from John Landis when scoring Animal House. Elmer's masterfully overwrought score adds immeasurably to the MAD Magazine-inspired comedy. The score also pokes fun at other movie genres: we get a snippet of John Williams's tuba motif from Jaws as we see an airliner's tail weave in and out of the clouds like a shark's dorsal fin.
  • Genocide (1981) — Holocaust documentary.
  • Stripes (1981)
  • The Chosen (1982) — Bernstein's main theme is as impressive a work as John Williams' well-respected theme for Schindler's List, scored 11 years later. Bernstein's music underscores the two central conflicts in the film: one between two cultures (Hassidic and Zionist Jews) and one between a brilliant young man (Robby Benson) and his cold and distant Rabbi father, played with restraint and subtlety by Rod Steiger. Using a chamber-sized orchestra, Elmer's music richly conveys the Hebrew's historical fight for a homeland, the revered traditions and laws that have defined a religious culture for thousands of years, and the heroism of a young man who must break free of those traditions to find his own path.
  • The Black Cauldron (1985) — The Black Cauldron would be for Bernstein what Mulan was for Jerry Goldsmith: a fascinating venture into a fresh realm that required music to play a more significant role in the film. Treated as a dramatic film, Bernstein shakes the shackles of comedy while retaining just enough innocence to root the film in the proper genre without becoming trite. The 1980s were also known by film music collectors as the time during which Elmer Bernstein solidified the sound of the ondes martenot into listeners' vocabulary. The pinnacles of use for the ondes martenot in his works were The Black Cauldron and Ghostbusters, and it would continue to be heard into the 1990s. Invented in 1928 in France, the ondes martenot shares some of the same characteristics as the theremin, but with the ability to actually perform individual notes on a keyboard. Various controls on the ondes martenot made it the earliest form of electronic instrument and its eerie sound is still heard occasionally in orchestral performances today. Its role in The Black Cauldron is central, for Bernstein was nowhere as advanced as, say, Jerry Goldsmith, in 1985 when it came to using synthesizers to enhance the fantasy element. As the identity of The Black Cauldron, the ondes martenot creates an undeniably unique environment for the world of Prydain, and its performances highlight the score. Oddly, however, despite the symphonic depth and thematic integrity of the score, the ondes martenot is really the only standalone highlight. From start to finish, Bernstein offers solid suspense music, with animated-genre comedy rhythms and occasional full-blown brass action integrated into several cues throughout. But it's the often gloomy organ-powered, piano thumping, and timpani rolling suspense that defines The Black Cauldron. The deliberately pounding theme for the evil Horned King is almost religious in its dark power. The piano intelligently plays an integral role in maintaining a constant flurry of activity in action sequences.
    • Varèse Sarabande issued a re-recording conducted by the composer (Walt Disney Productions didn't release the film tracks at the time, perhaps because [unusually for a Disney film even then] there were no audience-friendly songs); Intrada later released the complete original soundtrack in 2012, including the bits deleted from the actual film by last-minute Executive Meddling.
  • Da! (1988) — Proved once again how well Bernstein can interpret the nuances of drama and comedy and convey them with music.
  • The Age of Innocence (1993) — The high-water mark in Elmer's later works, this score for director Martin Scorsese is a success on so many levels; it perfectly evokes America's Gilded Age—the opulence and wealth of an idle upper class; it weaves in and out of the quiet deceptions, innuendos, and secret longings of its central characters; and it unsentimentally articulates the tragedy of people hopelessly snared by social mores and fears of familial abandonment and financial ruin. The equivalent of Bernstein's Fifth. It's a rich musical tapestry with some wonderful themes.
  • The Rainmaker (1997) — Elmer must have relished this project because he reaches deep into his untapped resources to produce an underscore that is grungy, bluesy, and perfectly appropriate for a film set in Memphis, populated with seedy and morally ambivalent characters. Elmer composes to the characters and their situations in a city that seems permanently overcast, hot, and humid.
  • Far from Heaven (2002) — The composer concluded his illustrious film music career with this stunning achievement. Having honed his craft on films like Desire Under the Elms, Some Came Running, and From the Terrace, Elmer knew just the right approach to take with Far From Heaven's score. In the end, Elmer's score is rendered with the same artistic strokes as the film's rich New England autumn color and the simple but very naturalistic dialogue. A great film and a fitting swan song for one of the greatest film composers of the 20th Century.
  • Composed the fanfare accompanying the National Geographic TV specials (plus two scores, one of which was released by Intrada).
  • Mc Q (1974) starring John Wayne as the eponymous Cowboy Cop. It's the funkiest score for a movie starring "The Duke".
  • Keeping the Faith
  • Wild Wild West (some cues composed by his son Peter)
  • Hoodlum
  • Bulletproof
  • Canadian Bacon (with Peter Bernstein)
  • The Good Son
  • Oscar
  • Cape Fear (adapting Bernard Herrmann's score for the 1962 version)
  • The Grifters
  • ¡Three Amigos!
  • Spies Like Us
  • Trading Places
  • Stripes
  • An American Werewolf in London
  • Heavy Metal
  • The Blues Brothers
  • Meatballs
  • Leonard Part 6: in an interview with the Goldsmith Odyssey podcast, Peter Bernstein said his father did this movie as a favour to someone at Columbia.
  • Slipstream (1989)
  • Ellery Queen (one of several TV series he worked on — unlike several of his contemporaries, Bernstein was never snobbish about the small screen)

  • Some selections of Elmer Bernstein's scores to listen to.

Some interesting statistics about Elmer Bernstein:

  • Selected by Cecil B. DeMille to score The Ten Commandments, even though the young 34-year old composer had only been scoring films for 5 years.
  • Scored three films for Frank Sinatra, including the landmark all-jazz underscore, The Man with the Golden Arm, as well as Some Came Running, and Kings Go Forth.
  • Scored seven John Wayne films, becoming the actor's preferred film composer after the death of Dimitri Tiomkin: The Comancheros, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, Big Jake, Cahill: United States Marshall, McQ, The Shootist.
  • Scored six films for Burt Lancaster, who often requested the composer for his films.
  • Scored three Paul Newman films: From the Terrace, Hud, and Slap Shot.
  • Four of Elmer's most memorable scores were composed for films starring Steve McQueen: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Love With the Proper Stranger, and Baby, the Rain Must Fall.
  • Composed for two films directed by critically acclaimed John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Gypsy Moths).
  • Was a favorite composer of highly regarded director, George Roy Hill, who used the composer on five of his films.
  • Composed a rip-roaring, New Orleans-charged theme for Walk on the Wild Side played over the main title sequence of a cat prancing through an alley — the best part of the entire movie.
  • Had a #1 hit song with Glenn Yarborough covering "Baby, the Rain Must Fall."
  • Wrote what many regard as one of the 10 best film scores of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird, for the film directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck. Music critics have called it one of the finest examples of film music that reflects the world through a child's eyes.
  • Composed at least two themes that most American film buffs can sing note-for-note: The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape march.
  • Created musical archetypes for the modern Western, the Southern melodrama, the American war film, and gritty urban dramas. You can still hear his influence in many modern film composers.
  • Had a second career of sorts, finding new audiences with his scores to films directed by John Landis and other comedy directors of the '70s and '80s. Film scores included Animal House, Airplane!, Ghostbusters.
  • Scored the background music to Michael Jackson's Thriller video — one of the MTV era's most famous and popular music videos.
  • Wrote a terrific score for Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker, starring Matt Damon.
  • Weary of shallow, big-budget films in the 1990s, turned his attention to smaller independent films, which focused more on humanistic stories.
  • Scored three films starring Daniel Day-Lewis, including My Left Foot and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.
  • Nominated 14 times for the Oscar (incredibly, his only win was for Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was a musical).
  • Always touted the contributions of his frequent orchestrators, Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes, and made sure they received credits on Bernstein's soundtrack albums.
  • Is one of the most recorded film composers of all time, with 120 soundtracks on LP and CD formats at last count.

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