Elmer Bernstein

Hollywood composer whose landmark scores included 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'The Ten Commandments'
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The Independent Online

One of Hollywood's best known and most prolific composers, Elmer Bernstein was responsible for such landmark scores as The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, Walk on the Wild Side, The Great Escape and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Elmer Bernstein, film composer: born New York 4 April 1922; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Ojai, California 18 August 2004.

One of Hollywood's best known and most prolific composers, Elmer Bernstein was responsible for such landmark scores as The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, Walk on the Wild Side, The Great Escape and To Kill a Mockingbird.

He was one of those who pioneered jazz-influenced scoring, with The Man with the Golden Arm, and in 1967 he won an Oscar for the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. Nominated for the award 14 times, his work was noted for its dynamic, full-blooded passion and melodic invention. His main theme for The Magnificent Seven is one of the most famous of movie tunes. He also composed vocal and chamber music, plus a Broadway musical, and in 1970 he succeeded David Raksin as president of the Screen Composers' Guild.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1922, Bernstein was the son of a high school teacher who loved jazz. He decided at the age of 12 that he wanted to be a concert pianist, although he said later, "No one thought of me as a musical prodigy, least of all me." Noting his tendency to improvise, his piano teacher took him, at the age of 13, to the composer Aaron Copland, who arranged for Bernstein to study composition formally. He later studied the piano with Henrietta Michelson at the Juilliard School of Music, then composition with Stefan Wolpe and Roger Sessions.

He gave his first piano performance at the age of 15 in Steinway Hall, New York, but a promising career as a concert pianist was interrupted when he was drafted into the US Army in 1943, although it was military service that introduced him to the art of scoring incidental music. Because he had extensive knowledge of American folk music, an early passion, Bernstein was asked to write orchestral arrangements of such folk tunes as "Blue Tail Fly" and "Sweet Betsy from Pike" for Major Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band. This led to his scoring dramatic radio programmes for the Armed Forces Radio Network and by the time of his discharge Bernstein had written over 80 scores for radio.

He briefly resumed his career as a concert pianist, but in 1949 he was asked to write the music for a United Nations radio documentary, narrated by Henry Fonda, about the armistice the UN had effected in Israel. Further prestigious radio work followed, leading in 1950 to offers from Hollywood. Bernstein later told the writer Tony Thomas how "exciting and intriguing" he regarded this opportunity:

Bear in mind that the veterans were still operative - [Max] Steiner, [Dmitri] Tiomkin, [Alfred] Newman, [Bernard] Herrmann and Johnny Green were there and highly productive. Alex North had made a big impression, Franz Waxman was in full flower, so to speak. It was a kind of golden age - a golden age plus. I say "plus" because we could look to the future with great hope at that time. Film music was a burgeoning art.

His first film scores were for two routine films, a football drama, Saturday's Hero, and a racetrack yarn, Boots Malone (both 1951), but he then conceived a sterling piece of dramatic scoring for David Miller's fine thriller Sudden Fear (1952) starring Joan Crawford. Bernstein's use of solo instruments like the piano and flute, and his employment of small groups of musicians rather than an accepted symphonic style, were elements that would become trademarks. The composer himself welcomed the immediacy of film composition and accepted the inherent limitations. "In the past, writing symphonies was a long, laborious process," he said,

and even if the composer was lucky enough to get a performance he might not ever hear the piece again. With film music, you can write something and quickly find out if it functions in the situation. I've always found that very stimulating. People constantly refer to the limitations of writing film music; actually the limitations are not that severe.

Temporarily "grey-listed" during the McCarthy era for his support of left-wing causes ("I wasn't important enough to be blacklisted"), he worked on low-budget movies such as Robot Monster and Cat Women of the Moon (both 1953), but he returned to the mainstream in the mid-Fifties with two films that demonstrated both his genius and his versatility.

For Otto Preminger's stark story of drug addiction The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), starring Frank Sinatra as a junkie drummer, he wrote a compelling jazz score that signalled a new era of film scoring. He followed this with a majestic, epic score in the more traditional style of Erich Wolfgang Korngold or Steiner for Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956).

Both scores became best-selling soundtrack albums, though Bernstein insisted that The Man with the Golden Arm was not a jazz score. "It is a score in which jazz elements were incorporated toward the end of creating a highly specialised atmosphere, specific to this particular film," he wrote when the film was first released,

but I never gave free rein to the players, which is the thing that becomes jazz. So it was really a score that used jazz to colour it. In this respect I was fortunate in that jazz had heretofore been used most sparingly in this manner.

He added,

I told Otto Preminger of my intentions after one quick reading of the shooting script. There is something very American and contemporary about all the characters and their problems. I wanted an element that could speak readily of hysteria and despair, an element that would localise these emotions to our country, to a large city if possible. Ergo, jazz.

The score was created in only 20 days, whereas The Ten Commandments took Bernstein a year and a half. "There were so many obstacles to overcome," he wrote.

The first was my own apprehension of scoring what amounts to the birth of civilised ethical concepts, of scoring conversation between man and God, of scoring the birth of freedom and the dignity of man as a free soul under God. I don't think that any true artist should feel equal to that task.

He described DeMille's demands as "quite Wagnerian". "He believes firmly in the use of the leitmotif and the interplays of these motifs in scenes which affect the destinies of more than one character."

The result was a score rich in stirring thematic melodies, and a mixture of symphonic grandeur (the orchestra at its greatest strength had 71 musicians) and attempts to recreate Egyptian source music by utilising facsimiles of the sort of woodwind and percussion instruments of the period. Eight horns were utilised to impart a "wild, barbaric quality" to the numerous fanfares, and Bernstein noted that two episodes were given unusual treatment. "In the burning bush sequence the string choir was reinforced by a novachord, and in the sequence of the pestilence several electronic devices were used to help impart a feeling of terror."

The following year he wrote another jazz-tinged score, for Alexander McKendrick's uncompromising film about the underbelly of Broadway, Sweet Smell of Success. Other 1956 releases included his moody, intense score for the psychological drama Fear Strikes Out, more traditional, rustic themes for the western The Tin Star and surprisingly pastoral music for the stark action drama Men in War, a score of which he was particularly proud. "It was the story of a beleagured platoon in Korea - they can't get back to their lines and they are moving through enemy territory," he said.

It was a good picture but yet another war film. What was there to say? Nothing I could write could make the danger any more obvious than it already was on film. What I decided to do was comment on the beauty of the surroundings, the hidden beauty of the woods, the birds - the pastoral feeling.

Firmly established as one of Hollywood's finest in the field, he was now in constant demand - in 1958 he scored two more Sinatra vehicles, Kings Go Forth and Some Came Running, plus the DeMille production The Buccaneer, Desire Under the Elms, starring Sophia Loren, God's Little Acre and Anna Lucasta.

In 1960 he composed what is probably his best-known score for the screen, The Magnificent Seven, with its memorably surging title theme and its expansive evocation of frontier life (one can detect the influence of his former mentor Copland in Bernstein's western scores). Comparing it later to his plaintive music for To Kill a Mockingbird (1963), which had just a wistful piano solo as its title melody, he stated,

The biggest problem is to make the initial decision about the musical evaluation of the picture. You have to decide what the music must do. Sometimes it's obvious. It was easy with The Magnificent Seven because the image was active and muscular. But Mockingbird was difficult to do, as it had a more complicated story involving two children, their attorney father, an eccentric neighbour and an isolated community that is suffering from a racial disturbance. What was the element to be discussed in the music?

I decided to focus on the kind of particular and peculiar magic that is the imaginative world of a child. There's an unsophisticated mysticism about a child's imagination and it's a marvellous thing. Simplicity was the keynote - the score starts with just the right hand playing a simple melody, and I tried to orchestrate simply, with bell-like, harp-like sounds. It was one of those cases where I was fortunate enough to hit on exactly the right thing to do.

Bernstein had another hit theme with his sinuous, poundingly rhythmic title music for the melodrama set in a Southern bordello, Walk on the Wild Side (1962), memorably accompanied by Saul Bass's photography of a prowling cat. Other notable titles among Bernstein's over 100 credits are Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Great Escape (1963), Hawaii (1966) and Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). In 1967 he ventured into fresh territory, the Broadway musical, writing the songs for a show set on Wall Street titled How Now, Dow Jones. With lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, it proved a serviceable score with one show-stopper, "Step to the Rear", but the show had only a modest six-month run.

Back in Hollywood, his scores included True Grit (1969), The Gypsy Moths (1969), The Shootist (1976) and Zulu Dawn (1979). In the late 1970s his music gained a new dimension when he scored some of the era's hit comedies such as National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Airplane! (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Trading Places (1983) and Ghostbusters (1984). For Stephen Frears's superior film noir of 1990, The Grifters, Bernstein wrote a score he described as "playfully unsettling - for that is what the film is like".

He continued to do distinguished work for such films as The Age of Innocence (1993) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), also composing several works for symphony orchestras. In 2002, at the age of 80, he was feted on This Is Your Life, and energetically made the publicity rounds to promote his score for Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, a splendid remake of the Douglas Sirk melodrama All That Heaven Allows, which Bernstein had never seen. "I went and saw it after I finished the score for Todd's film," he said.

Frank Skinner's score was very classically based - it's influenced by Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. I couldn't have written that. I consider myself musically as peculiarly American.

Bernstein's score won him his 14th Oscar nomination and much acclaim. "The critics have been very enthusiastic," he said.

I'm not sure that's all about the quality of the music - though at the moment it's my favourite of all the scores I've written - but rather that there aren't many scores these days that are so directly emotional. To Kill a Mockingbird was the link for Todd, because it covered a similar emotional terrain.

Bernstein had written a similarly romantic score for Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, but later had a bruising experience with Scorsese when the director discarded his music for Gangs of New York (2002).

I had written the score for the film almost a year before. Then, when he started editing the film, he changed his mind. He rang me and told me he was going to go for a Scorsese score, which meant that, as with Goodfellas and Casino, he was going to use recorded music on the soundtrack.

Bernstein's television scores include the music for the tough series Johnny Staccato (1959), starring John Cassavetes as a Greenwich Village jazz pianist and private detective, and the western series The Big Valley (1965). In 1963 he won an Emmy for his scoring of The Making of a President.

In 1979 Bernstein, noted for his energy and enthusiasm, told the Los Angeles Times,

I can't think of anything else that I'd rather have done with my life. It is an amazing human privilege to look back on your life and simply be able to say that you had some part in making millions and millions of people feel better, two hours at a time.

Tom Vallance