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Bernstein, Elmer


Composer. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 4 April 1922. Education: Attended Walden School; New York University; trained as pianist; also studied composition with Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe. Military Service: Composer for U.S. Army Air Force radio shows during World War II. Family: Married 1) Pearl Glusman, 1946, two sons: composer Peter Bernstein; writer Gregory Bernstein; 2) Eve Adamson, 1965, two daughters. Career: After military service, worked as a concert pianist; also worked in the United Nations radio department; scored first film, Saturday's Hero, 1951; composed for the TV series Johnny Staccato, 1959–60; composed for the TV series Riverboat, 1959–61; composed for the TV series Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, 1971–74; composed for the TV series Ellery Queen, 1975–76; composed for the TV mini-series Captains and the Kings, 1976. Awards: Best Motion Picture Score Golden Globe, for To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962; Best Original Music Score Golden Globe, for Hawaii, 1966; Best Original Music Score Academy Award, for Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Career Achievement Award, 1991; Cinequest San Jose Film Festival Maverick Tribute Award, 1998. Address: c/o Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211, U.S.A.

Films as Composer:


Saturday's Hero (Idols in the Dust) (Miller); Boots Malone (Dieterle)


Sudden Fear (Miller); Battles of Chief Pontiac (Feist)


Never Wave at a WAC (The Private Wore Skirts) (McLeod); Robot Monster (Tucker); Miss Robin Crusoe (Frenke); Cat Women of the Moon (Hilton)


Make Haste to Live (Seiter); Silent Raiders (Bartlett); Career: Medical Technologists (Churchill—short)


The Eternal Sea (Auer); Storm View from Pompey's Head (Secret Interlude) (Dunne); The Man with the Golden Arm (Preminger); House, after Five Years of Living (C. & R. Eames—short)


The Ten Commandments (DeMille); Men in War (A. Mann); Fear Strikes Out (Mulligan); Eames Lounge Chair (C. & R. Eames—short)


Drango (Bartlett and Bricken); The Naked Eye (Stoumen); Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick); The Tin Star (A. Mann); Toccata for Toy Trains (C. & R. Eames—short); The Information Machine (C. & R. Eames—short)


Desire under the Elms (Delbert Mann); God's Little Acre (A. Mann); Kings Go Forth (Daves); The Buccaneer (Quinn); Anna Lucasta (Laven); Saddle the Wind (Parrish); Some Came Running (Minnelli)


The Miracle (Rapper); The Story on Page One (Odets); Two Baroque Churches in Germany (C. & R. Eames—short); Glimpses of the U.S.A. (C. & R. Eames—short); Israel (Zebba—short)


From the Terrace (Robson); The Magnificent Seven (J. Sturges); Introduction to Feedback (C. & R. Eames—short)


By Love Possessed (J. Sturges); The Young Doctors (Karlson); The Comancheros (Curtiz); Summer and Smoke (Glenville); IBM Mathematics Peep Show (C. & R. Eames—short)


The House of Silence (C. & R. Eames—short); Hud (Ritt); Walk on the Wild Side (Dmytryk); A Girl Named Tamiko (J. Sturges); Birdman of Alcatraz (Frankenheimer); The Great Escape (J. Sturges); To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan); Rampage (Karlson)


The Caretakers (Borderlines) (Bartlett); Kings of the Sun (Lee Thompson); The Carpetbaggers (Dmytryk); Love with the Proper Stranger (Mulligan)


The World of Henry Orient (Hill); Think (C. & R. Eames—short); Four Days in November (Stuart); Baby the Rain Must Fall (Mulligan); Some Sort of Cage (Allyn and Baldwin—short)


The Hallelujah Trail (J. Sturges); The Reward (Bourguignon); 7 Women (Ford); The Sons of Katie Elder (Hathaway); Cast a Giant Shadow (Shavelson); IBM at the Fair (C. & R. Eames—short); Westinghouse A.B.C. (C. & R. Eames—short); The Smithsonian Institution (C. & R. Eames—short); IBM Puppet Show (C. & R. Eames—short)


The Silencers (Karlson); Hawaii (Hill); Return of the Seven (Kennedy)


Thoroughly Modern Millie (Hill); The Scalphunters (Pollack); A Computer Glossary (C. & R. Eames—short)


I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (Averback); Where's Jack (Clavell); The Bridge at Remagen (Guillermin); Guns of the Magnificent Seven (Wendkos); Powers of Ten (C. & R. Eames—short)


True Grit (Hathaway); The Gypsy Moths (Frankenheimer); The Midas Run (A Run on Gold) (Kjellin); A Walk in the Spring Rain (Green); Tops (C. & R. Eames—short); The Liberation of L. B. Jones (Wyler)


Cannon for Cordoba (Wendkos); Doctors' Wives (Schaefer)


Big Jake (G. Sherman); The Tell-Tale Heart (Carver—short); Blind Terror (See No Evil) (Fleischer); Light, Strong and Beautiful (Tardio—short); Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law (Kulik)


The Magnificent Seven Ride! (McCowan); The Amazing Mr. Blunden (Jeffries); The Rookies (Taylor); Deadly Honeymoon (Silverstein)


Cahill, United States Marshal (Cahill) (McLaglen); Incident on a Dark Street (Kulik)


The Man from Independence (Smight); Men of the Dragon (Falk); McQ (J. Sturges); The Trial of Billy Jack (Laughlin); Gold (Hunt); Report to the Commissioner (Operation Undercover) (Katselas)


Ellery Queen (Too Many Suspects) (Greene)


The Shootist (Siegel); The Incredible Sarah (Fleischer); Serpico: The Deadly Game (Collins)


Billy Jack Goes to Washington (Laughlin); The 3,000 Mile Chase (Mayberry)


National Lampoon's Animal House (Landis); Bloodbrothers (Mulligan)


Charleston (Arthur); The Great Santini (The Ace) (Carlino); Meatballs (Reitman); Zulu Dawn (Hickox)


Airplane! (Abrahams and D. & J. Zucker); Moviola: This Year's Blonde (Erman); Saturn 3 (Donen)


Honky Tonk Freeway (Schlesinger) (co); Going Ape! (Kronsberg); Stripes (Reitman); An American Werewolf in London (Landis); Heavy Metal (Potterton—animation)


The Chosen (Kagan); Five Days One Summer (Zinnemann); Airplane II: The Sequel (Finkleman)


Trading Places (Landis); The Entity (Furie); Class (Carlino); Thriller (Landis) (co); Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (Johnson)


Bolero (Derek) (co); Ghostbusters (Reitman); Prince Jack (Lovitt)


Spies Like Us (Landis); Marie Ward (Donaldson); The Black Cauldron (Berman and Rich—animation)


Legal Eagles (Reitman); Three Amigos! (Landis)


Amazing Grace and Chuck (Newell); Leonard, Part 6 (Welland)


Da (Clark); Funny Farm (Hill); The Good Mother (Nimoy)


Slipstream (Lisberger); My Left Foot (Sheridan)


The Field (Sheridan); The Grifters (Frears)


A Rage in Harlem (Duke); Cape Fear (Scorsese); Rambling Rose (Coolidge); Oscar (Landis)


A River Runs through It (Redford); The Babe (Hiller)


The Age of Innocence (Scorsese); Lost in Yonkers (Coolidge); Mad Dog and Glory (McNaughton); The Good Son (Ruben); The Cemetery Club (Duke)


Canadian Bacon (Moore)


Devil in a Blue Dress (Demme); Roommates (Yates); Frankie Starlight (Lindsay-Hogg)


Bulletproof (Dickerson)


Puppies for Sale (Krauss); Buddy (Thompson); Rough Riders (Milius—for TV) (theme only); Hoodlum (Duke); The Rainmaker (Coppola)


Twilight (Benton)


Chinese Coffee (Pacino); The Deep End of the Ocean (Grosbard); Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (Coolidge—for TV); Happy Face Murders (Trenchard-Smith—for TV); Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese); Wild Wild West (Sonnenfeld)


Keeping the Faith (Norton)


Chinese Coffee

Other Films:


The Rat Race (Mulligan) (mus, + bit ro)


Mister Quilp (Tuchner) (mus d)


From Noon till Three (Gilroy) (mus, + bit ro)


Slap Shot (Hill) (mus supervision)


Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann (Waletzky) (doc) (ro)


Digging to China (Hutton) (score pr, orch)


By BERNSTEIN: articles—

Filme Cultura (Rio de Janeiro), May/June 1969.

"What Ever Happened to Great Movie Music?," in High Fidelity (New York), July 1972.

Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Fall 1974.

"The Annotated Friedkin," in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Winter 1974.

Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Winter 1974–75.

Interview with Irwin Bazelton, in Knowing the Score, New York, 1975.

Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Spring 1975.

Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Summer 1975.

"Film Composers vs. the Studios," in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 2, no. 1, 1976.

Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), nos. 2 and 3, 1976.

"On Film Music," Journal of the University Film Association (Carbondale, Illinois), Fall 1976.

Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 2, no. 4 and vol. 3, no. 1, 1977.

Interview with Jerry Goldsmith, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 3, no. 2, 1977.

Interview with John Addison, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 3, no. 3, 1977.

"The Aesthetics of Film Scoring," in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), no. 1, 1978.

Interview with Henry Mancini, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 4, no. 1, 1978.

Interview with Bronislau Kaper, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 4, no. 2, 1978.

Films and Filming (London), March 1978.

In Film Score, edited by Tony Thomas, South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1979.

Millimeter (New York), April 1979.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), June and September 1983.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), March 1986.

Soundtrack (Belgium), March 1992.

On BERNSTEIN: articles—

Godfrey, Lionel, "The Music Makers: Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith," in Films and Filming (London), September 1966.

Focus on Film (London), January/February 1970.

Films in Review (New York), December 1971.

Thomas, Tony, in Music for the Movies, South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1973.

Dirigido por . . . (Barcelona), January 1974.

Scheff, Michael, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Winter 1974–75.

Ecran (Paris), September 1975.

Séquences (Montreal), October 1980.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), Summer 1981.

Fistful of Soundtracks (London), July 1981.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), December 1981.

Score (Leystad, Netherlands), March 1982.

Cinefantastique (New York), January 1985.

Palmer, Christopher, in The Composer in Hollywood, New York, 1990.

Positif (Paris), July-August 1993.

Walsh, J.S., "The Ten Most Influential Film Composers," in Film Score Monthly (Los Angeles), January/February/March 1996.

Sight & Sound (London), May 1996.

Wolthius, J.J.C., and R. Valkenburg, "Elmer Bernstein," in Score (Ak Lelystad, Netherlands), June 1996.

* * *

In 1967, Elmer Bernstein won an Oscar for scoring Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is ironic because it is not typical of his work and is far less interesting than his other Oscar-nominated scores, among them The Man with the Golden Arm, The Magnificent Seven, Summer and Smoke, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hawaii, and The Age of Innocence. The first of these was marked by an arresting use of jazz colors and rhythms; the theme from The Magnificent Seven remains possibly the most recognizable of all Western movie themes; and the score for To Kill a Mockingbird is generally thought to be the most evocative for any film set in the Deep South.

Bernstein showed artistic aptitude as a child. He won a number of prizes for paintings but by the age of 12 it was apparent that his major talent was music. He studied piano with Henrietta Michelson of the Juilliard School of Music but she was so impressed with his ability to improvise that she took him to see Aaron Copland. He arranged lessons in composition with Israel Sitowitz, resulting in a scholarship that enabled Bernstein to study with Roger Sessions.

Completing his music education at New York University, Bernstein was still intent on a career as a concert pianist and began giving recitals in his late teens. At 21 he was inducted into the Army Air Corps and assigned duty as an arranger with the Armed Forces Radio Service. One of his first jobs was making arrangements for Glenn Miller's newly formed Army Air Corps band. In time he was given assignments scoring radio documentaries and in the course of the next three years arranged and composed for about 80 of them. He returned to being a concert pianist after his military service but in 1949 he accepted an offer to score a radio program for the United Nations, which led to similar film offers, and finally one from Columbia Pictures.

Bernstein was brought to Hollywood in 1951 and given two films, Saturday's Hero and Boots Malone. After a dozen modest films Bernstein drew comment with The Man with the Golden Arm, plus a goodly sale on the record album, and his success thereafter was assured. His music for DeMille's The Ten Commandments proved his ability to handle the mightiest of screen fare, but it was with his scores for films of Americana, such as Desire under the Elms, God's Little Acre, and Summer and Smoke, and such Westerns as The Magnificent Seven, The Scalphunters, True Grit, and The Shootist that Bernstein seemed truly at home. As the years passed, he has remained an active and vital force in the film industry, easily adapting himself to changing tastes. After working on National Lampoon's Animal House in 1978, Bernstein went on to score a number of comedies starring Saturday Night Live alumni (including Meatballs, Stripes, Trading Places, Ghostbusters, and Spies Like Us). Meanwhile, he continued working on more serious films, winning acclaim for his evocative scores of My Left Foot, The Grifters, A River Runs through It, and Age of Innocence, and his adaptation of Bernard Herrmann's original score of Cape Fear, commissioned for Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake. In the late 1990s, approaching his eightieth birthday, Bernstein remained ever-active, composing the scores for films as varied as Francis Coppola's The Rainmaker, Robert Benton's Twilight, Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West, and Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. Active as a guest conductor with symphony orchestras and for a ten-year period the president of the Los Angeles Young Musicians Foundation, Bernstein has also been involved in film music preservation, starting his own record label, Film Music Collection, in 1974 and recording scores by the likes of Rozsa, Newman, Tiomkin, Steiner, and others. Few men have done more to maintain high standards in film scoring than Bernstein. "Music really is an art whose life begins where pictures and words leave off," he has declared. "You receive it through an emotional medium. Music is basically an emotional fantasy. It is for this reason that I think it functions so ideally in film."

—Tony Thomas, updated by Rob Edelman

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Bernstein, Elmer

Elmer Bernstein


For the Record

Selected discography


One of the most influentialand prolificcomposers for American films, Elmer Bernstein has created some of the most memorable movie scores of all time. It is hard to imagine such great films as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) without the distinctive musical backdrops woven by Bernstein. Somewhat ironically, the only Bernstein score to win an Academy Award was the one he wrote for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), hardly his most innovative or memorable work. Over the half century that Bernstein has been composing for film and television, he has written the musical scores for more than 200 major motion pictures and television productions.

The son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Bernstein was born on April 4, 1922, in New York, New York. His father, Edward, a high school teacher, had emigrated from Austria-Hungary, while his mother, the former Selma Feinstein, had come to the United States from Ukraine. Raised in a family that valued the arts, Bernstein first showed his artistic talents as a painter, winning a number of prizes for his work. Encouraged by his parents, he also tried his hand at dancing and appeared in community theatrical productions. By the time he was 12, however, it was apparent to all that Bernsteins first love was music.

Bernstein attended the King Coit Drama School for Children from 1932 to 1935 and began his piano studies with Henrietta Michelson at the Juilliard School of Music. Michelson, impressed with the 12-year-olds gift for improvisation, introduced him to world famous composer Aaron Copland, who in turn arranged for Bernstein to study composition with Israel Citkowitz. He later studied composition with Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe as well. Bernstein graduated from New York Citys Walden School in 1939 and embarked on a career as a concert pianist. During this time, he also attended classes at New York University from the fall of 1939 until the spring of 1942.

The following year, with World War II raging, Bernstein enlisted in the Army Air Corps. It was while serving in the military that Bernstein first had an opportunity to put his lessons in composition to practical use. He arranged American folk music and wrote dramatic scores for Army Air Corps radio productions. He also scored arrangements for Glenn Millers Army Air Corps band.

After leaving the military, Bernstein returned briefly to his career as a concert pianist, but in 1949 was asked to provide the scores for two United Nations (UN) radio shows. This work caught the attention of Sidney Buchman, a vice president with Columbia Pictures. It was Buchman who first hired Bernstein to write for the movies, assigning him to score Saturdays Hero (1950) and Boots Malone (1951). Bernsteins music for films

For the Record

Born on April 4, 1922, in New York, NY; son of Edward (a high school teacher) and Selma (Feinstein) Bernstein; married Pearl Glusman, 1946; divorced; married Eve Adamson, 1965; children: (with Glusman) Peter Matthew, Gregory Eames, (with Adamson) Emily Adamson, Elizabeth Campbell. Education: Studied piano with Henrietta Michelson at Juilliard School of Music and composition with Israel Citowitz, Roger Sessions, and Stefan Wolpe; graduated from New York Citys Walden School, 1939; attended New York University, 1939-42.

Began career as a concert pianist; worked as a musical arranger during military service in the Army Air Corps; scored radio program for the United Nations, which eventually brought offers from film companies, 1949; went to Hollywood to score Saturdays Hero, 1951; first attracted serious attention with his score for The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955; composed scores for highly successful films The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1960s; began composing for television, 1970s; continued composing for film, 1970s-; professor at the University of Southern Californias Thornton School of Music.

Awards: Western Heritage Award for scores for The Magnificent Seven, 1960, and Hallelujah Trail, 1965; Golden Globe Award, Best Original Score for To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, and Hawaii, 1966; Academy Award, Best Original Score for Thoroughly Modern Millie, 1967; Los Angeles Film Critic Association Career Achievement Award, 1991; star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, 1996; World Soundtrack Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, 2001; Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Founders Award, 2001.

Addresses: Agent Sam Schwartz, Gorfaine Schwartz Agency, 13245 Riverside Dr., Suite 450, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423. Management Robert Urband, 831 South Spaulding Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036. Website Elmer Bernstein Official Website:

first won wider attention in 1952, when he composed a distinctive score for Sudden Fear, a motion picture starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance.

Bernsteins left-leaning political sentiments all but put his career on hold in the early 1950s. Forced to take a lower profile during Senator Joseph McCarthys infamous investigations into possible Communist infiltration, he was reduced to working on low-budget films until the political climate changed. Remarkably, two of the films he scored during this periodCat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Robot Monster (1953)became cult favorites.

No less a Hollywood giant than Cecil B. DeMille brought Bernstein back into the mainstream when he hired the composer to write the dance music for his screen epic, The Ten Commandments (1956). Bernstein had hardly begun work on this project when he was asked to score the entire film, a project that consumed almost a year. On the heels of that assignment, Otto Preminger sought out Bernstein to score The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on the strength of a recommendation from the directors brother, who had been impressed with Bernsteins work on Sudden Fear.

To underscore Premingers film adaptation of Nelson Algrens novel about a heroin-addicted drummer, Bernstein proposed something that had never been done before: an all-jazz score. He hired Shorty Rogers to put together a big band, featuring Shelly Manne on the drums. The result was electrifying, perfectly conveying in music the feelings of the films tortured hero, played by Frank Sinatra. Critic Jack Moffitt, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, said: Elmer Bernsteins historic contribution to the development of screen music should be emphasized. Until now jazz has been used as a specialty or a culmination of a plot point. It remained for Bernstein to prove that it can be used as a sustained and continuous story-telling element in underscoring the mood elements of an entire picture.

Bernsteins success with the jazz-based score for The Man with the Golden Arm set off a wave of movie and television soundtracks built around jazz and earned Bernstein his first Academy Award nomination for an original score. Not surprisingly, the composer was in high demand for more jazz scores, the two most notable being The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Walk on the Wild Side (1962). In an altogether different vein, however, was his work on the score of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the motion picture adaptation of Harper Lees wildly popular first novel. The music he composed for the film brilliantly conveyed the sleepy wonder of a childhood in the rural South of the 1930s. The score begins with nothing but a piano and flute as the opening credits roll. This sparse orchestration marked a decided departure from the full, lush, European-style movie themes that dominated the late 1930s and 1940s.

Earlier in his career, Bernstein had broken new ground in scoring the popular western film The Magnificent Seven (1960), creating a heroic theme that became one of Hollywoods first hit instrumentals and later, the musical foundation for a long-running Marlboro advertising campaign. So effective was his score for The Magnificent Seven that Bernstein was later tapped to score the movies sequel and to provide the music for John Waynes last seven films. These included the score for True Grit (1969), and an original song for the movie (cowritten by Don Black) that earned him an Academy Award nomination. Bernstein also scored Hallelujah Trail (1965), which earned him yet another Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, and The Shootist (1976), the last motion picture made by Wayne.

Bernsteins first Academy Award came in 1967 when he won an Oscar for Best Original Score for his work on Thoroughly Modem Millie. His score for that film also earned him a Golden Globe Award nomination in 1968. That same year, the composer was nominated for a Tony Award for best musical play for How Now, Dow Jones. A decade and a half later, Bernstein was nominated for another Tony for Best Musical Score for his work on Merlin (1982). Although work on films continued to occupy most of his time, Bernstein also managed to compose music for a number of television productions, including Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law (1971-1974) and Ellery Queen (September 1975-April 1976), and a handful of miniseries, including Captains and Kings (1976) and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980).

During the late 1970s and 1980s, Bernstein supplied the musical scores for a number of blockbuster film comedies, including National Lampoons Animal House, Slap Shot, Meatballs, Airplane!, Stripes, Three Amigos, Ghostbusters, Funny Farm, and Trading Places, for which he earned his twelfth Academy Award nomination. Somewhat concerned that he might be getting stuck in a creative rut, Bernstein turned his focus away from comedy in the late 1980s, rejecting an offer to score Ghostbusters 2, seeking out instead more character- and message-oriented films. One of his first such projects was My Left Foot (1989). Other Bernstein projects from this period included Da!, The Field, and The Grifters, which marked a complete departure from his usual style. Of his work on The Grifters, Bernstein later said, in comments included at his official website: To me, The Grifters was a quirky film, and that led to the quirkiness of the score, which contained colors different from any score I had previously composed.

In the early 1990s, Bernstein heard that Martin Scorsese was remaking Cape Fear. He called the director to ask if he could adapt the original films score for the remake. Scorsese agreed, and Bernstein went to work, rearranging the score by Bernard Herrmannone of my heroesto fit the much different version of the film envisioned by Scorsese. Although Bernstein composed about six minutes of original music for the film, the bulk of his work involved repackaging the original Herrmann score. The composer collaborated again with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence (1993), which earned Bernstein his thirteenth Oscar nomination, as well as Bringing Out the Dead (1999).

For more than half a century Elmer Bernstein has been charming motion picture audiences with his memorable movie scores. He continues to work, supplying the scores for Robert Bentons Twilight (1998), HBOs production of Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), and actor/director Edward Nortons Keeping the Faith (2000). Even with all his work for motion pictures and television, he manages to compose for the concert stage as well, having written two song cycles, three suites for symphony orchestra, compositions for viola and piano, and a number of compositions for solo piano. As if that were not enough, Bernstein is also a professor at the University of Southern Californias Thornton School of Music, where he teaches a course in scoring for motion pictures and television.

Selected discography

Sudden Fear, Choreo, 1952.

The Man with the Golden Arm, Capitol, 1956.

The Sweet Smell of Success, Decca, 1957.

Some Came Running, Capitol, 1958.

The Magnificent Seven, RCA Victor, 1960.

Summer and Smoke, RCA, 1961.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Ava, 1962.

Walk on the Wild Side, Mainstream, 1962.

The Hallelujah Trail, United Artists, 1965.

Hawaii, United Artists, 1966.

Thoroughly Modern Millie, Decca, 1967.

How Now, Dow Jones, RCA, 1968.

True Grit, Capitol, 1969.

Big Jake, Varese Sarabande, 1971.

Cahill: United States Marshall, Varese Sarabande, 1973.

Meatballs, RSO, 1979.

Ghostbusters, Arista, 1984.

Three Amigos!, Warner Bros., 1986.

My Left Foot/Da!, Varese Sarabande, 1989.

Cape Fear, MCA, 1991.

The Age of Innocence, Epic, 1993.

Devil in a Blue Dress, Columbia, 1995.

How the West Was Won/Classic Western Film Scores, Silva, 1996.

The Rainmaker, Hollywood, 1997.

Twilight, Edel-America, 1998.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, RCA Victor, 1999.

Keeping the Faith, Hollywood, 2000.

Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, Angel, 2000.



Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 32, Gale Group, 2000.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press, 1996.


Cineaste, January 1, 1995, p. 46.


Elmer Bernstein Official Website, (December 28, 2001).

Don Amerman

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Bernstein, Elmer

Elmer Bernstein

During a career that spanned five decades, American film composer Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004) remained at the top of his field. Refusing to be stylistically pigeonholed, his movies ran the gamut from Westerns to epics to comedies to intimate dramas. His innovations included using jazz music in film scores (The Man With the Golden Arm) and scoring a comedy as if it were a drama (Animal House). In 2002, over fifty years after his first movie, Bernstein received his 14th Academy Award nomination, for Far From Heaven. He was 80 years old at the time.

Early Years

Bernstein was born on April 4, 1922, in New York City. He was the only child of Jewish Eastern European immigrant parents, Edward and Selma, and much doted upon. Although his father was a high school English teacher, both parents were extremely interested in the arts, and enjoyed the company of the colorful denizens of that world. As Bernstein fondly recalled for Cynthia Miller of the Guardian Unlimited, "They surrounded themselves with Greenwich Village [New York] drunken poets and painters. It was not uncommon for me to find a poet at the foot of my bed reading to me at midnight from the Bible." So it was hardly surprising that the young Bernstein would find himself drawn to the arts, and his parents encouraged his interest.

Bernstein began his artistic explorations with painting and dance classes. He then studied acting at the King Coit Drama School for Children from 1932 until 1935, and appeared on Broadway as Caliban in The Tempest when he was just 10 years old. His secondary education was obtained from the Walden School, from which he graduated in 1939. Alongside these pursuits, he had been studying piano, even when the family lived in Paris for a year in 1933, and music soon eclipsed his other artistic pursuits.

At the age of 12, Bernstein received a piano scholarship to study with Henrietta Michelson, who taught at New York's famed Juilliard School of Music. His goal was to become a concert pianist, and he gave his first recital three years later in New York's Steinway Hall. Early in his long association (1934–1949) with Michelson, however, she noticed that he also had an interest in improvisation and composition, and she took him for an evaluation by then-rising star Aaron Copland. Copland encouraged Bernstein to take composition lessons and he did so, through scholar-ships at the Chatham Square Music School (1936–1940) and in private study with Israel Citkowitz, Roger Sessions, Ivan Langstroth, and Stefan Wolpe. In addition, he studied music education at New York University from 1939 until 1942. Then Bernstein was called for military service in World War II.

First Employment as Composer

Bernstein's time in the U.S. Army Air Corps played to his strengths. He was assigned to special services, where he was charged with arranging folk music and writing scores for Army Air Corps Radio. Bernstein's first experience with the latter was a rush job to fill in for the regular composer who had gone AWOL. He gamely completed a score overnight and then was too nervous to attend the next day's rehearsal. Once it aired though, Bernstein found the immediacy of the process compelling. "It was instant," he told Miller. "You made the music and they played it right away to millions of people. I found it thrilling."

After his discharge from the army, Bernstein tried to find work as a composer, but found no takers, so he returned to giving concerts as a pianist. His luck turned in the late 1940s, when he was asked to write music for a United Nations Radio show called Sometime Before Morning. The work was brought to the attention of then-vice president of Columbia Pictures Sidney Buchman, who offered him a job composing music for the movie Saturday's Hero (1951). Bernstein thus found himself headed for Hollywood in the autumn of 1950.

Hollywood Transition

Bernstein arrived in Hollywood during its so-called "Golden Age." It was, perhaps, especially convivial for musicians, as studios had their own composers, orchestras, and music departments (the head of which was usually a seasoned composer). There was more time to compose and rehearse, and an autonomy in the creative process that later became largely lost. Commenting on the differences to the Hollywood Reporter in 2001, Bernstein said, "There's a tendency, particularly among young directors, to want to dot every "i" and cross every "t" and listen to every note you're writing as you're writing it. Micromanaging is death to creativity…. I want to hear what the filmmaker thinks his film is about…. But then it's my job to translate all that into musical terms. Tell me about the film, but don't tell me how many trumpets to use."

The Golden Age was not without its dark side, however. The 1950s also encompassed the McCarthy Era, when accusations of Communism could ruin a career almost overnight. After Bernstein completed his first two movies, Saturday's Hero (1951) and Boots Malone (1952), he found that his progressive political views had placed him in the wasteland of being "gray-listed." That is, although he escaped black-listing (total career banishment) by virtue of not being a card-carrying Communist Party member, his politics were considered sufficiently suspect to relegate him to scoring such second-rate, camp films as 1953's Robot Monster and Cat-Woman of the Moon. While Bernstein later joked about it, telling the Hollywood Reporter that one thing "that benefited me was that I wasn't important enough for anyone to get very excited about," it was a frightening time. And interestingly, it was one of Hollywood's most rabidly anti-Communist directors, Cecil B. DeMille, who got Bernstein's career back on track.

Genre Master and Innovator

DeMille was directing the biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956) when his regular composer, Victor Young, fell ill. Bernstein had already been recommended to write the film's dance scenes, so DeMille summoned the young composer to see about his taking over the entire score. First, of course, DeMille had to satisfy himself that Bernstein was not a political subversive. He questioned Bernstein directly about his political affiliations, and apparently accepted the reply. He then delivering a short lecture about the perils of Communism. There seems to be little doubt that DeMille's intervention rescued Bernstein's career.

While scoring DeMille's movie, Bernstein was also working on Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). The story revolved around a man who wanted to be a jazz musician, so Bernstein thought it logical to use jazz music in the score. What he found merely sensible, however, was electrifying in its innovation and impact. Nobody had ever done such a thing before. Critics and audiences alike were enthralled, and the effort earned Bernstein his first nomination for an Academy Award. His once stalled career had kicked into overdrive.

As the years went by, Bernstein proved himself not only a master at conforming to myriad musical genres, but also at making them his own. His score for 1960's The Magnificent Seven (also nominated for an Oscar) became the new prototype for Westerns, and its theme became familiar to millions as the signature melody for Marlboro cigarettes. His child's view score for 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird (another Oscar nominee) avoided the then-popular large orchestral accompaniment in favor of the simple sounds of piano and flute alone, and was quickly hailed as a film music classic. From epics to dramas to Westerns to comedies, Bernstein spoke the appropriate musical language and imposed his unique stamp.

Among Bernstein's many notable earlier movies were Sweet Smell of Success (1957), God's Little Green Acre (1958), Walk on the Wild Side (1962, title song nominated for an Oscar), and True Grit (1969). He also did a great deal of television work, including themes and scores for such diverse programs as General Electric Theater, Gunsmoke, Julia, The Rookies, and the famous fanfare for National Geographic specials. By 1974 Bernstein had racked up 11 Academy Award nominations and one win, for 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie, but his pioneering spirit was far from resting.

In 1977 Bernstein was contacted by director John Landis, a childhood friend of the composer's son Peter. Landis had an unusual idea for scoring his comedy, National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), as if it were a drama, and wanted Bernstein to do the honors. Bernstein finally agreed, and another trend was born. That successful innovation led to a spate of comedies that included Airplane! (1980), The Blues Brothers (1980), and Ghostbusters (1984), and introduced the then-60-something-year-old composer to a new generation of fans. Once again, however, Bernstein resisted being pigeonholed and began to look for another set of challenges.

Remained a Contender

Bernstein came back into the public eye with his scoring of the 1989 drama My Left Foot. He then teamed up with eminent movie director Martin Scorsese. To Jeff Bond of the Hollywood Reporter, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker recalled Scorsese's response to a colleague who suggested Bernstein might be past his prime: "[Scorsese] said, 'Yes—that probably means he knows something.'" Bernstein subsequently earned his 13th Oscar nomination for Scorsese's The Age of Innocence in 1993, at the age of 72.

In his later years, Bernstein spent a fair amount of time composing for traditional concert venues. He wrote a guitar concerto for Christopher Parkening, as well as symphony suites and compositions for viola and piano. Then in 2002, Bernstein defied the odds by winning yet another Oscar nod, over five decades after his start in the business, for Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven. At 80, he had once again shown that his work was ageless.

Bernstein's final projects included a performance of his "Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl," celebrating the inauguration of the Bowl's new stage, in June of 2004 and, fittingly, the score for a documentary on DeMille for Turner Classic Movies. He had long been active in his community, from helping to found such organizations as the Young Musicians Foundation (president, 1960–1970) and the Composers and Lyricists Guild (president, 1970–1979), to presiding over such entities as the Film Music Society (1996–2001) and the Film Music Museum (2002–2004). His multiple accolades, in addition to recognition by the Academy, included one Emmy, two Golden Globes, and several lifetime achievement awards.

When Bernstein died on August 18, 2004, in Ojai, California, the film industry lost one of its most enduring lights. Who else could have written music for such different movies and eras as The Man With the Golden Arm, The Great Escape, Desire Under the Elms, The Shootist, Meatballs, and Far From Heaven? It could be that Bernstein himself summed it up best to Time's Barbara Isenberg. "I rarely do anything at the same time each day, simply because anything you do routinely cannot possibly be fresh. I think a life with change in it keeps you young." Perhaps that is why Schoonmaker told Bond, "Elmer always seemed like the youngest person in the room to me, full of energy and optimism and a very bouncy personality." Bernstein's infectious enthusiasm for all kinds of music and quick grasp of what was needed to make a movie work would be his lasting legacy.


Back Stage, August 27, 2004.

Billboard, August 28, 2004.

Daily Variety, January 6, 2003.

Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 2003; September 3, 2004.

Hollywood Reporter, December 11, 2001; August 19, 2004; November 16, 2004.

Newsweek, March 10, 2003.

Time, December 2, 2002.

Variety, August 23, 2004.

World and I, December 2004.


"Elmer Bernstein Awards & Nominations," Elmer Bernstein, (November 24, 2006).

"Elmer Bernstein Fact Sheet," Elmer Bernstein, (November 24, 2006).

"Elmer Bernstein (Part 1)," Guardian Unlimited, October 6, 2002,,6737,808687,00.html (November 27, 2006).

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