Elmer Bernstein

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Elmer Bernstein
Bernstein guest conducting the U.S. Air Force Band in 1981
Bernstein guest conducting the U.S. Air Force Band in 1981
Background information
Born(1922-04-04)April 4, 1922
New York City, U.S.
DiedAugust 18, 2004(2004-08-18) (aged 82)
Ojai, California, U.S.
GenresFilm scores
  • Composer
  • conductor
  • songwriter
Years active1951–2004
  • Rhoda Federgreen
    (m. 1942; div. 1945)
  • Pearl Glusman
    (m. 1946; div. 1965)
  • Eve Adamson
    (m. 1965)

Elmer Bernstein (/ˈbɜːrnstn/ BURN-steen; April 4, 1922 – August 18, 2004)[1][2] was an American composer and conductor. In a career that spanned over five decades, he composed "some of the most recognizable and memorable themes in Hollywood history", including over 150 original film scores, as well as scores for nearly 80 television productions.[3] For his work, he received an Academy Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and Primetime Emmy Award. He also received seven Golden Globe Awards, five Grammy Awards, and two Tony Award nominations.

He composed and arranged scores for over 100 film scores, including Sudden Fear (1952), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The World of Henry Orient (1964), The Great Escape (1963), Hud (1963), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), True Grit (1969), My Left Foot (1989), The Grifters (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Twilight (1998), and Far from Heaven (2002). He is known for his work on the comedic films Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), Airplane! (1980), The Blues Brothers (1980), Stripes (1981), Trading Places (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), Spies Like Us (1985), and Three Amigos (1986).

He also worked on frequent collaborations with directors Martin Scorsese, Robert Mulligan, John Landis, Ivan Reitman, John Sturges, Bill Duke, George Roy Hill, Richard Fleischer, John Frankenheimer, and Henry Hathaway.

Early life[edit]

Bernstein was born to a Jewish family[2] in New York City, the son of Selma (née Feinstein, 1901–1991), from Ukraine, and Edward Bernstein (1896–1968), from Austria-Hungary.[4]

He was not related to the celebrated composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, though they were friends.[5] Within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard), based on their bases of operation: East for New York City, West for Hollywood/Los Angeles.[6] They also pronounced their surnames differently. Elmer pronounced his name "BERN-steen", and Leonard used "BERN-styne".

During his childhood, Bernstein performed professionally as a dancer and an actor, in the latter case playing the part of Caliban in The Tempest on Broadway, and he also won several prizes for his painting. He attended Manhattan's progressive Walden School and gravitated toward music. At the age of 12 he was awarded a piano scholarship by Henriette Michelson, a Juilliard teacher who guided him throughout his entire career as a pianist. She took him to play some of his improvisations for composer Aaron Copland, who was encouraging and selected Israel Citkowitz as a teacher for the young boy.[7]

Elmer was drafted into the United States Army Air Forces during the World War II era where he wrote music for the Armed Forces Radio.

Elmer Bernstein's music has some stylistic similarities to Copland's music, most notably in his western scores, particularly sections of Big Jake, in the Gregory Peck film Amazing Grace and Chuck, and in his spirited score for the 1958 film adaptation of Erskine Caldwell's novel God's Little Acre.

He had a lifelong enthusiasm for an even wider spectrum of the arts than his childhood interests would imply and, in 1959, when he was scoring The Story on Page One, he considered becoming a novelist and asked the film's screenwriter, Clifford Odets, to give him lessons in writing fiction.


Early career[edit]

External audio
audio icon You may hear Elmer Bernstein's Theme Song for the movie The Magnificent Seven performed in 1960 Here on archive.org

Bernstein wrote the theme songs or other music for more than 200 films and TV shows, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments (1956), True Grit, The Man with the Golden Arm, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robot Monster, Ghostbusters, Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), and the fanfare used in the National Geographic television specials.[7]

His theme for The Magnificent Seven is also familiar to television viewers, as it was used in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. Bernstein also provided the score to many of the short films of Ray and Charles Eames.

In 1961 Bernstein co-founded Äva Records, an American record label based in Los Angeles together with Fred Astaire, Jackie Mills and Tommy Wolf.


In addition to his film music, Bernstein wrote the scores for two Broadway musicals, How Now, Dow Jones, with lyricist Carolyn Leigh, in 1967 and Merlin, with lyricist Don Black, in 1983.[8]

One of Bernstein's tunes has since gained a lasting place in U.S. college sports culture. In 1968, University of South Carolina football head coach Paul Dietzel wrote new lyrics to "Step to the Rear", from How Now, Dow Jones. The South Carolina version of the tune, "The Fighting Gamecocks Lead the Way", has been the school's fight song ever since.

1950s: Hollywood Blacklist[edit]

Along with many other artists in Hollywood, Bernstein faced censure during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Bernstein was called by the House Un-American Activities Committee when it was discovered that he had written some music reviews for a Communist newspaper. After he refused to name names, pointing out that he had never attended a Communist Party meeting, he found himself composing music for movies such as Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon, a step down from his earlier Sudden Fear and Saturday's Hero.[7][9]

1980s: Comedic works[edit]

John Landis grew up near Bernstein, and befriended him through his children. Years later, he requested that Bernstein compose the music for National Lampoon's Animal House, over the studio's objections. He explained to Bernstein that he thought that Bernstein's score, playing it straight as if the comedic Delta frat characters were actual heroes, would emphasize the comedy further.

The opening theme of the film is based upon a slight inversion of a secondary theme from Brahms's Academic Festival Overture. Bernstein accepted the job, and it sparked a second wave in his career, where he continued to compose music for high-profile comedies such as Ghostbusters, Stripes, Airplane! and The Blues Brothers, as well as most of Landis's films for the next 15 years, including An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, and the music video to the Michael Jackson song "Thriller".

1990s: Continued work[edit]

External audio
audio icon You may hear Elmer Bernstein's music for the movie The Age of Innocence performed by the London Philharmonic in 1993 Here on archive.org

When Martin Scorsese announced that he was re-making Cape Fear, Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann's original score to the new film. Bernstein leapt at the opportunity to work with Scorsese, as well as to pay homage to Herrmann.[10] Scorsese and Bernstein subsequently worked together on two more films, The Age of Innocence (1993) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Bernstein had previously conducted Herrmann's original unused score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1966 Torn Curtain.[11]


Having studied composition under Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and Stefan Wolpe, Bernstein also performed as a concert pianist between 1939 and 1950 and wrote numerous classical compositions, including three orchestral suites, two song cycles, various compositions for viola and piano and for solo piano, and a string quartet.

As president of the Young Musicians Foundation, Bernstein became acquainted with classical guitarist Christopher Parkening and wrote a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, which Parkening recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernstein's baton for the Angel label in 1999. In addition, Bernstein was a professor at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music and conductor of the San Fernando Valley Symphony in the early 1970s.[12]

Personal life and death[edit]

Bernstein was married three times, first to Rhoda Federgreen. Their marriage lasted from 1942 to 1946.[13] Bernstein's second wife was Pearl Glusman, whom he wed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 21, 1946.[14][15] After the couple's divorce in 1965, Bernstein married Eve Adamson. They remained together for 39 years, until his death.[15]

In the 1960s, Bernstein was an owner in the Triad Stable Thoroughbred racing partnership, named for a music term. His partners included his assistant, Robert Helfer, and the wife of the Triad Stable's trainer Morton Lipton.[16]

The Bernsteins in the 1990s resided in Hope Ranch, a suburb of Santa Barbara, California.[10] Later, they moved to a home in Ojai, California, where Bernstein died of cancer on August 18, 2004.[17] His publicist Cathy Mouton simply stated at the time that Bernstein had died following a lengthy illness.[15][18] He was survived by his wife Eve and their two daughters, Emilie and Elizabeth; by his two sons, Peter and Gregory Bernstein, from his earlier marriage to Pearl Glusman; and by five grandchildren.[15][18]

Influences and legacy[edit]

Bernstein considered these artists as influences on his work: Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Dimitri Tiomkin, Duke Ellington, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Miklós Rózsa, Jimmie Lunceford, Max Steiner, Victor Young, Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe.

Composers who have acknowledged the influence of Bernstein's work on their own include James Newton Howard,[19] Alan Silvestri, Georges Delerue, Howard Shore, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Dick Hyman, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Trevor Jones, Mark Isham, Bear McCreary, Ennio Morricone, Danny Elfman, Alan Menken, Randy Newman, and Randy Edelman.[citation needed]


Awards and nominations[edit]

Over the course of his career, Bernstein won an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and two Golden Globe Awards.[20] In addition, he was nominated for the Tony Award three times[8] and a Grammy Award five times. He received 14 Academy Award nominations and was nominated at least once per decade from the 1950s until the 2000s, but his only win was for Thoroughly Modern Millie for Best Original Music Score. Bernstein was recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with Golden Globes for his scores for To Kill a Mockingbird and Hawaii. In 1963, he won the Primetime Emmy Award for his score of The Making of The President 1960. He is the recipient of Western Heritage Awards for The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965).[20]

Additional honors included lifetime achievement awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the Society for the Preservation of Film Music, the US, Woodstock, Santa Barbara, Newport Beach and Flanders International Film Festivals and the Foundation for a Creative America. In 1996, Bernstein was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard.[21][22] In 1999, he received an honorary Doctorate of Music from Five Towns College in New York and was honored by the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Bernstein again was honored by ASCAP with its marquee Founders Award in 2001[21] and with the NARAS Governors Award in June 2004. Bernstein was the subject of This Is Your Life in 2003 when he was surprised by Michael Aspel at London's Royal Albert Hall, after conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as part of his 80th year celebrations.[citation needed]

His scores for The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird were ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth and seventeenth greatest American film scores of all time, respectively, on the list of AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores. Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, and Jerry Goldsmith are the only composers to have two scores listed, and are therefore in second place for the most scores on the list, behind John Williams, who has three. Other Bernstein film scores nominated for the list are as follows: The Age of Innocence (1993), Far from Heaven (2002), The Great Escape (1963), Hawaii (1966), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Summer and Smoke (1961), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962).


  1. ^ Timm, Larry M. (2003). The Soul of Cinema: An Appreciation of Film Music. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. p. 153. ISBN 0-13-030465-4. Elmer Bernstein, pronounced 'Burn-steen'...
  2. ^ a b The Guardian: "Elmer Bernstein - Prolific Hollywood composer whose scores ranged from The Magnificent Seven to Far From Heaven" Michael Freedland August 19, 2004.
  3. ^ ":BIOGRAPHY", Official Site of Elmer Bernstein, The Bernstein Family Trust. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  4. ^ Biography Archived July 21, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Great Escape composer dies at 82". BBC News. August 19, 2004.
  6. ^ "Introduction". Bernstein West. Retrieved April 10, 2012.
  7. ^ a b c Biography Archived June 22, 2010, at the Wayback Machine songwritershalloffame.org, retrieved December 21, 2009
  8. ^ a b Internet Broadway Database listing ibdb.com; retrieved December 21, 2009.
  9. ^ Susman, Gary (August 19, 2004). "Goodbye". EntertainmentWeekly.com. Archived from the original on September 22, 2011. Retrieved February 27, 2009. "Composer Elmer Bernstein Dead at 82". Today.com. Associated Press. August 19, 2004. Retrieved February 27, 2009.
  10. ^ a b Woodward, Josef (1991). Sounds Around Town — Elmer Bernstein: A First in His Career: Composer: From 'Cape Fear' to 'The Grifters,' all of his film scores this year are different. On purpose. Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1991.
  11. ^ "Talk on the Wild Side" bernardherrmann.org, June 2003.
  12. ^ Patrick Russ, liner notes for Christopher Parkening • Elmer Bernstein • Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra for Two Christophers (Angel CD 7243 5 56859 2 6), New York, Angel Records, 2000.
  13. ^ "FACT SHEET". Elmer Bernstein. Retrieved December 18, 2018.
  14. ^ "Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Marriage Indexes, 1885-1951," database with digital image of original Elmer Bernstein-Pearl Glusman marriage license 826434, December 21, 1946; FamilySearch, archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  15. ^ a b c d Severo, Richard (August 20, 2004). "Elmer Bernstein, a Composer of Scores Capable of Outshining Their Films, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved August 1, 2018.
  16. ^ "Khal Ireland Will Be for Sale July 21, Unless..." Los Angeles Times, page 56. July 3, 1966. Retrieved July 29, 2021.
  17. ^ "Great Escape composer dies at 82", BBC News, August 19, 2004.
  18. ^ a b Luther, Claudia (August 19, 2004). "Elmer Bernstein, 82; Composer Who Won Oscar 'Could Do It All'". Los Angeles Times.
  19. ^ Luther, Claudia (August 29, 1973). "Obituaries; Elmer Bernstein, 82; Composer Who Won Oscar 'Could Do It All'". Los Angeles Times. p. B9. ProQuest 421941839. Composer James Newton Howard, who wrote the score for "The Sixth Sense," "The Fugitive" and other films, told The Times in 2001 that he regarded Bernstein among the most influential of composers. 'With his scores, one never has the feeling that the music is working too hard,' Howard said. 'Somehow, he has always been able to achieve gigantic effect with the most gentle and graceful gestures.'
  20. ^ a b Internet Movie Database listing, Awards imdb.com, retrieved December 21, 2009
  21. ^ a b Biography filmreference.com, retrieved December 21, 2009
  22. ^ Hollywood Star Walk - Elmer Bernstein, Composer Star on the 7000 block of Hollywood Boulevard

External links[edit]