Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
Looking for the Key.
Elmer Bernstein by Norman Tozer.
The Man with the Golden Arm  and The Magnificent Seven . Two of the most influential and enduring scores of the US cinema. Both written before their composer was 38. Thinking conventionally you'd say "Great stuff, must have been the peak of his career. Did he do anything much after that?" Or even: "When did he stop writing?" But in an age when people in media automatically either write-off or write-down (note the accountancy terms) anyone over 45, Elmer Bernstein is a phenomenon. At the age of 77 not only is he still scoring films as well as ever, but he also continues a round of other activities. Recently he has scored John Grisham's The Rainmaker, Barry Sonnenfield's The Wild, Wild, West and Robert Benton's Twilight as well as a new small-scale score for the revival of an early Dutch silent.
If you lay claim to creativity in the film scoring business you're on a sticky wicket. Be too individual and you can be accused of failing to serve the needs of the movie. Create music which reflects the style and motivation of the film and you'll be dismissed as having no personality, being an empty pasticheur. But if you deliberately choose forms which interpret the style and motivation of a film, plus indicating individuality in your writing, you're probably Elmer Bernstein. To achieve this you need musicianship, talent, and experience wrapped in a personality which allows you to be right and to persuade others you are.
Born in New York City on the fourth of April 1922, the young Elmer Bernstein is said to have practised or dabbled with painting, dance and acting; giving the impression that music arrived late in his consciousness. He puts it differently: "I am the only child of a middle class family primarily interested in the arts. The impression that I was more interested in dancing, acting and painting is inaccurate. I was encouraged in all these endeavours by my parents who were determined to keep me away from the business world".
By the time he was 13, he wanted to be a pianist but after his teacher arranged for him to see Aaron Copland, he also studied composition. Later he continued his piano studies with Henrietta Michelson at the Juilliard and composition with Stefan Wolpe and Roger Sessions. Being drafted into the army in 1943, cut short his developing career as a concert pianist but fatefully gave him the experience which would equip him for his lifetime work. He had a knowledge of American folk music and this got him the task of arranging and orchestrating such songs for Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band; and this also led to writing music for radio dramas with the US Armed Forces Radio Service.
At the war's end, Bernstein resumed his concert work as a pianist. But in 1949 he was asked to write music for a United Nations Radio presentation. The ball was rolling. Next an offer from NBC Radio and, in 1950, from Hollywood.
The first pictures, like Saturday's Hero and Never Wave at a WAC, were a modest start and also a slow one. He would have to write over a dozen more movies before his real break came, and in true showbiz fashion it was a big one. Cecil B DeMille directing the epic The Ten Commandments needed a replacement composer, when Victor Young died suddenly. Bernstein was suggested and succeeded in persuading DeMille that he could do the job. Almost simultaneously, he was working on Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra. Two successful high profile pictures and in very contrasting styles announced that Bernstein had arrived.
Some two hundred films later he is still writing high profile films and maintaining his high standards. He has won an Oscar once and been nominated twelve times. He has two Golden Globe awards and lifetime achievement awards from ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and the LA Critics Circle.
Like many creative artists a success in a particular genre has often typecast him. - as a jazz composer after Man With the Golden Arm, as a Western composer following The Magnificent Seven, a comedy composer after Animal House. In fact, he's been typecast in enough different styles to underline the point of his versatility.
He is part of the first wave of truly American Hollywood composers. Up to the time that he and Alex North began scoring most US producers believed that the Central European full-orchestral styles of writing - notably of Steiner and Korngold - were most suited to accompany film. These post-war composers not only brought the influences of Copland and Thomson but of jazz and the writing for smaller groups of instruments. Bernstein developed a full-bodied, melodious vigorous, muscular, style for much of his work. But then has balanced it with small-scale, chamber-like compositions. Denying that he has preferences concerning orchestra sizes, he says: "I am always concerned for what is appropriate to help the film".
His first big lesson in scoring is said to have come from working on Ten Commandments. DeMille rejected a slow-moving passage intended to accompany the slow-moving exodus scene. Bernstein confessed to an interviewer some years after that he was worried that if he increased the tempo it would look wrong, but he tried it. "The great lesson I learned was that music can appear to speed action up and it's a lesson I put to very good use in The Magnificent Seven".
Cecil B DeMille had very particular ideas on film scoring and some interviews picture Bernstein as disagreeing with them. He told me that this was "inaccurate". DeMille wanted leitmotifs for the characters "and, as his films tend to have a strong, narrative quality, rather than an internal quality his concept...serves him well. As far as my music approach is concerned, it will always be what I think serves a particular film best. I have no parochial views on writing music for film".
But I did wonder if the changing technicalities of recording had influenced his ideas on writing? "Actually limitations concerning soundtrack recordings when I first came to Hollywood made it necessary to balance the orchestra very much as one would do in a concert hall, resulting in a much more natural sound than one can achieve today". Was today's excellence of reproduction a mixed blessing? "The technical improvements make it possible to achieve greater clarity and separation of dialogue, music and sound effects. Unfortunately, those capabilities are mostly used in a vulgar way".
Although Bernstein has written for, and conducted in, the concert hall, he cares about the quality of film music. Constantly he is reported as being uneasy with the idea that music can be written to be extracted piecemeal and commercially exploited away from its cinema origins as hit songs. He worries, as all film composers do, over the musical illiteracy of the majority of producers. In his efforts to get filmscores listened to for their own values he has tried to launch a record label and is currently President of the US Film Music Society ("we have been struggling to find [it] a permanent home") and has conducted many concerts of film scores. And, for two years in the seventies, his wife, Eva Adamson edited the Film Music Notebook magazine.
Over the years Elmer Bernstein has constantly proved the excellence of his musicianship, talent and experience I noted in my introduction, but what of the personality that guides all these attributes? I had hoped to learn more, thinking this must be the elusive key to an artist's success.
But here the journalist is an onlooker, left to ponder the few facts. Listening to him present a concert he sounds a good communicator,.warm ,humorous, yet portraying himself as unwilling to talk too much about his music. Reading some of the interviews he has given, I read between the lines a sly humour in his handling of some journalists. In our limited personal contact he has been clear and decided in his rebuttal of inaccuracies reported about him. Acquaintances speak of his generosity. Finally I realise that he speaks only of his work and music, he maintains his privacy. That key is still his secret.
Select list from the 212 (plus) filmscores:
Man With the Golden Arm ;
The Ten Commandments ;
Sweet Smell of Success ;
Some `Came `Running ;
The Magnificent Seven ;
To Kill a Mockingbird; Walk on the Wild Side; Birdman of Alcatraz ;
Hud; The Great Escape ;
Thoroughly Modern Millie (Oscar) ;
True Grit ;
The Shootist; Serpico ;
Animal House ;
Heavy Metal ; An American Werewolf in London ;
My Left Foot ;
The Grifters ;
Age of Innocence ;
Devil in a Blue Dress ,
The Rainmaker ; Hoodlum .
© Norman Tozer 1999
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