Obituary: Ernest Gold

THE COMPOSER Ernest Gold's soaring score for Exodus, Otto Preminger's epic film about the formation of the state of Israel, won him the 1960 Academy Award as well as two Grammys. The stately main theme also became a hit for such pop stars as Pat Boone, reaching second place on the popular music charts - to the surprise of the composer, who considered the theme "too serious and too long-hair for popular appeal".

Gold's other scores included Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, and many Stanley Kramer productions, among them The Defiant Ones, Ship of Fools and Judgment at Nuremberg. He was Oscar-nominated for both best score and best song for Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and received further nominations for On the Beach and The Secret of Santa Vittoria.

The son of a lawyer who played the violin, Gold was born in Vienna in 1921, and like two other Viennese composers who went on to Hollywood fame, Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, he was a child prodigy. Gold's achievements could not be said to match those of his two compatriots, who figure among the greatest of screen composers, but his work earned great respect and he was particularly effective in his interpolation of traditional and folk music into symphonic scores.

He began studying violin and piano at the age of six, started composing two years later and at the age of 13 wrote a full-length opera. "My parents felt that being a composer was just a childish dream," he said. "They felt that most composers seemed destined to live and die in poverty, but I felt it was just a question of being discovered."

He studied at the State Academy of Music in Vienna but in 1938, with the Nazis taking over Austria, his family fled to the United States, where Gold's first symphony was performed and broadcast by the NBC Orchestra in 1939. He also started writing popular songs, and one of them, "Private Makes Perfect", spent 17 weeks on the hit parade. The singer Kate Smith, noted for patriotic material, had a hit with Gold's "They Started Something" during the Second World War.

In 1945 Gold moved to Hollywood with a letter of introduction to Columbia Pictures, who signed him to write the score for a 60-minute melodrama, Girl of the Limberlost. Other minor films followed, including an engrossing B-movie thriller at Universal, Smooth as Silk (1946), but his first major opportunity came when Stanley Kramer hired him to orchestrate George Antheil's music for Not as a Stranger (1955). He then conducted and orchestrated both Antheil's score for the Kramer epic The Pride and the Passion (1957) and Matty Malneck's score for Billy Wilder's superb transcription of the Agatha Christie play Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

The following year he was given his first chance to compose the score of an important film, the screen version of Diana Barrymore's biography Too Much, Too Soon (1958). The film was not successful but Gold's music was described by Variety as a "highlight" and the soundtrack recording was to have a longer life than the film itself.

Kramer then asked Gold to score his powerful and critically acclaimed story of racial tensions, The Defiant Ones (1958), the first of Kramer's films for which Gold provided music. For Kramer's On the Beach (1959), based on Nevil Shute's Australian-set story about mankind's annihilation due to radioactive fall-out, Gold made telling use of variations on the folksong "Waltzing Matilda" in what The New York Times called "a fine musical score", and for Inherit the Wind (1960), inspired by the 1925 trial of a Tennessee teacher who dared to teach Darwin's theory of evolution, used rousing numbers like "Old Time Religion" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in a score credited with giving the long film added excitement.

But it was Preminger's three-and-a-half-hour epic Exodus (1960) that brought the composer his greatest fame. Variety reported: "Ernest Gold's score is a strong plus factor and through its use of minor chords provides a flavoursome blending of ancient Hebrew strains with the modern surge of a people on the march." The haunting title theme became a popular hit, as did Gold's lilting title song for the comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), with lyrics by Mack David.

For Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Gold's score included a short overture that effectively set the mood for the powerful experience to come, and his expressive and moving music for Kramer's production A Child is Waiting (1963), directed by John Cassavetes and dealing with mentally retarded children, was described by Variety as "a vital factor".

Notable among Gold's later scores was his rousing music for Peckinpah's uncompromising picture of Germans fighting on the Russian front in 1943, Cross of Iron (1977), in which he again made effective use of folk music.

Gold once described his views on soundtrack scores:

What is visible should not be duplicated in the soundtrack. Music can demonstrate inner processes taking place in the characters, elucidate relations between them and - most importantly - throw its weight with or against a character in order to sway the point of equilibrium of a scene.

He continued to write symphonic and chamber works along with his film scores and in 1968 wrote a Broadway musical, I'm Solomon, with lyrics by Anne Croswell. Based on an Israeli comedy, King Solomon and the Cobbler, and starring the comedian Dick Shawn, it ran for only seven performances. Gold later commented,

From the point of view of a Broadway composer, the most nonsensical practice is that of casting people in musicals who are unable to sing. The hapless composer and lyricist are forced to throw out good material that had been created over a fairly extended length of time and must try to come up with quick solutions that must cover for the inadequacies in the singing realm.

The theatre historian Ken Mandelbaum later wrote that the show had "a couple of nice songs and an extremely silly book".

Gold was fortunate in not being asked to write the score for a musical version of Exodus produced three years later. Entitled Ari, it featured among its attractions a "concentration camp ballet" and closed after 19 performances.

Gold's first wife was Marni Nixon, a singer famous for her off-screen dubbing of such stars as Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn; his second wife, Jan Keller, survives him.

At one time the music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, Gold had in recent years founded the Los Angeles Senior Citizens Orchestra, for whom he was principal conductor. Acknowledging that many artists abandon their goals, he stated, "I know it's easy to grow discouraged. Somehow I was lucky enough to escape that popular affliction. Even as a child I was carried along by the convictions that I'd be successful in a musical career."

Ernest Gold, film composer: born Vienna 13 July 1921; married first Marni Nixon (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Jan Keller (one stepson); died Santa Monica, California 17 March 1999.

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