Bernstein guest conducting the U.S. Air Force Band in 1981
April 4, 1922|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||August 18, 2004
Ojai, California, U.S.
|Occupation(s)||Composer, conductor, songwriter|
Elmer Bernstein (April 4, 1922 – August 18, 2004) was an American composer and conductor best known for his many film scores. In a career which spanned fifty years, he composed music for hundreds of film and television productions. His most popular works include the scores to The Magnificent Seven, The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ghostbusters, The Black Cauldron, Airplane!, and The Rookies.
Bernstein was born in New York City, the son of Selma (née Feinstein, 1901-1991), from Ukraine, and Edward Bernstein (1896-1968), from Austria-Hungary. He was not related to the celebrated composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein; but the two men were friends, and even shared a certain physical similarity. 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). They pronounced their last names differently; Elmer pronounced his (BERN-steen), and Leonard's was (BERN-stine).
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 twelve, at which time he was given a scholarship in piano 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. 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.
Throughout his life, Bernstein demonstrated an 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.
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), The Man with the Golden Arm, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robot Monster, and the fanfare used in the National Geographic television specials. 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.
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.
Along with many 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.
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 to the movie 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, and Airplane!, as well as most of Landis's films for the next 15 years.
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, and to pay homage to Herrmann. 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.
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.
Over the course of his career, Bernstein won an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and two Golden Globe Awards. In addition, he was nominated for the Tony Award three times 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 Emmy for Excellence in Television for his score of the documentary The Making of The President 1960. He is the recipient of Western Heritage Awards for The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965).
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 USA, 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. 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 and with the NARAS Governors Award in June 2004.
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 scores for the following the films were nominated for the list:
- 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)
- Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
Bernstein made his home in Hope Ranch in Santa Barbara, California in the 1990s. Bernstein died of cancer in his sleep at his Ojai, California home on August 18, 2004. His publicist stated that he had a lengthy illness. He was survived by his wife, Eve. He had two sons Peter and Gregory, and two daughters Emilie and Elizabeth. He had five grandchildren at the time of his death.
- Peter Pan (1954) – Incidental music composer
- How Now, Dow Jones (1967) – Composer – Tony Co-Nomination for Best Musical, Tony Co-Nomination for Best Composer and Lyricist
- Merlin (1982) – Composer and Incidental music composer – Tony Co-Nomination for Best Composer and Lyricist
- Biography elmerbernstein.com
- "Great Escape composer dies at 82". BBC News. August 19, 2004.
- "Introduction". Bernstein West. Retrieved 2012-04-10.
- Biography songwritershalloffame.org, retrieved December 21, 2009
- Internet Broadway Database listing ibdb.com, retrieved December 21, 2009
- Susman, Gary (August 19, 2004). "Goodbye". EntertainmentWeekly.com. Retrieved 2009-02-27. "Composer Elmer Bernstein Dead at 82". MSNBC.com. Associated Press. August 19, 2004. Retrieved 2009-02-27.
- Woodward, Josef, 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
- "Talk on the Wild Side" bernardherrmann.org, June 2003
- 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.
- Internet Movie Database listing, Awards imdb.com, retrieved December 21, 2009
- Biography filmreference.com, retrieved December 21, 2009
- Hollywod Star Walk - Elmer Bernstein, Composer Star on the 7000 block of Hollywood Boulevard
- "Great Escape composer dies at 82", BBC News, 19 August 2004
- Luther, Claudia, Elmer Bernstein, 82; Composer Who Won Oscar 'Could Do It All', Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2004
- Official website
- Elmer Bernstein at the Internet Movie Database
- Elmer Bernstein at the Internet Broadway Database
- Elmer Bernstein at the TCM Movie Database
- SWF movie with soundtracks
- Discography at SonyBMG Masterworks
- Fan website
- Meatballs Movie Website