Best known for his film music.
Composer in Hollywood: Elmer Bernstein
by Jeffrey Dane
© Jeffrey Dane
Who portrayed Moses in The Ten Commandments? Charlton Heston, of course. Who composed the music for the film? Most moviegoers are more familiar with his work than with the name of the man who wrote the score for Cecil B. DeMille’s last film and magnum opus.
To obviate confusion, composer Elmer Bernstein became known in some musical circles as Bernstein West, to distinguish him from another man of similar name: the NY Philharmonic’s Conductor Laureate, Leonard Bernstein (Bernstein East). They weren’t related, and even the pronounciations differ: Elmer opted for BernSTEEN while Leonard preferred the Germanic BernSTYNE (as in Steinway pianos).
Though he spent most of his adult life in California, Elmer Bernstein’s roots are in New York generally and in Brooklyn specifically, having entered the world on April 4, 1922. His father, Edward, taught English at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School for decades.
His artistic bent manifested itself even during childhood. He had marked musical ability and a talent for what is now almost a lost art: improvising at the piano. By the time he was 12 he knew he wanted to be a concert pianist. He made such progress that at 13 he was taken to the dean of American composers, Aaron Copland. This took place two years before Copland even met another young man who was destined to become his most exponential interpreter: Leonard Bernstein. If anyone had the ability to recognize talent it was Copland, who recommended his own pupil Israel Citkowitz as a teacher for young Elmer.
The development of his musical proficiencies paralleled his periods of study, all on scholarships, in musical composition with composers Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe at the Juilliard School in New York. Long after Bernstein’s time there, the author of this article, during his own period of study at the Juilliard, would frequently see Roger Sessions at the school, reminding himself on each such occasion that Elmer Bernstein had studied with him. Another of Bernstein’s teachers at the Juilliard, Henriette Michelson, guided him through his entire period of piano study. She had been a child prodigy in Vienna. In 1988 the composer told the author that when Michelson was a young girl she was taken to a concert where she heard Brahms’ B-flat-Major piano concerto — with the composer himself as the piano soloist. This can give a specialty to the realization that the great composers were as alive then as we are today.
A love of learning and a thirst for knowledge, traditional Hebraic propensities, were reflected in young Bernstein’s quest to further his education at New York University. His studies were interrupted by World War II, but fortunately for him and posterity he was assigned to Special Services, where his musical skills enabled him to function most fully and make the most optimum contributions.
His abilities led to work arranging for an ensemble whose namesake was a young major who had led the group until he was lost in action: the Glenn Miller Orchestra. This got Bernstein an assignment as an arranger for Armed Forces Radio; soon he was given the opportunity to write an original score for the Army Air Corps radio show. By the time he left the service Bernstein had written about 80 such scores (his Hollywood soundtracks have long since exceeded that number). In 1949 he composed for the United Nations Radio Service the music for a program, narrated by Henry Fonda, about the UN’s role in the Israeli armistice.
Several of Bernstein’s chamber music compositions, three suites for orchestra, and two song cycles have all been performed, and his sonata for viola and piano earned a prize from NY’s Chatham Square Music School. For a few years after his military service he continued activities as a concert pianist. Not long afterward Bernstein found himself in Hollywood, where his skills had more of an outlet. There he met a vice president of Columbia Pictures, Sidney Buchman, who gave him the opportunity to begin composing music for films. Though it was not his first film score, the movie that first established him as an important composer was The Man With The Golden Arm, in which he used the jazz idiom dramatically.
Until his sudden and unexpected death on August 18, 2004 — he passed away in his sleep — Bernstein was still very active in scoring films, which include the classic and the popular. He worked on well over 200 film scores, among which are those for To Kill A Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, Israel (a documentary), Ghostbusters, Airplane, Birdman of Alcatraz, several of John Wayne’s films (including True Grit, for which Wayne won his only Oscar, and The Shootist, Wayne’s last film), Cape Fear (the music of which is based on Bernard Herrmann’s score for the 1962 film), and Animal House (in a portion of which Bernstein uses a Brahms-like orchestration of which the great composer himself would surely have approved).
The themes from some of the scores, such as The Man With The Golden Arm and The Magnificent Seven, assumed a life of their own and became very popular in their own right. During his more than five decades in the film colony, more of Elmer Bernstein’s film music has been recorded than that of any other composer who worked in Hollywood. He is the only composer in Hollywood to have been nominated for an Oscar at some point during each decade from the 1950s onward.
Bernstein is one of the composers whose own distinctly identifiable "sound" is evident in his film scores. As the trained ear can recognize, for example, Chopin or Stravinsky after only a few bars, the genuinely avid moviegoer and soundtrack enthusiast can recognize Elmer Bernstein’s music. His enviable gift for melody, riveting sense of rhythm and acute feeling for drama makes that recognition not only easy but also a pleasure. Music contributes to our enjoyment of a film more than most of us can imagine, and in the impact his films have on us, the unseen role Bernstein plays can’t be understated. In addition to his myriad activities in Hollywood he even served for a time as president of The Composers and Lyricists Guild of America and of the Young Musicians Foundation. On two occasions he gave sonata recitals at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre with violinist Nathan Kaproff, and he conducted film music — his own and that of other composers — at the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere. He frequently performed and recorded his music in London, where he once played the very piano, a Broadwood, on which Chopin had given his last public performance. The composers in Hollywood who came before Bernstein — all these people are gone now — held him in very high regard. His older colleague Miklós Rózsa called his score for To Kill A Mockingbird "absolutely brilliant," and Mrs. Rozsa actually told Bernstein, "You’re my second-favorite composer." In June, 1988, the author had the pleasure of spending several days with Eve and Elmer Bernstein at the Meadowbrook Music Festival near Troy, Michigan, where the composer conducted a concert of his music. A direct remark by Bernstein at dinner one evening remains one of the most memorable compliments this author has ever received: "You’d never make it in Hollywood. You’re too honest."
Cecil B. DeMille’s favorite composer in Hollywood was Victor Young, who died in 1956. Had his health not been failing, it’s certain he would have scored The Ten Commandments. Any number of composers in Hollywood could have done so but DeMille had an interest in the young Bernstein, fostered by Victor Young’s recommendation. Had Young composed the score for The Ten Commandments it would have assumed a parallel but markedly different character. After some auditioning and interviews, DeMille asked Bernstein, "Do you think you could do for film music what Puccini did for opera?" After considering the question, the composer’s reply was, "I can’t be sure — but I would love to try." By design, Bernstein composed his score for The Ten Commandments using the leitmotif principle, a technique featured notably in Wagner’s operas where prominent characters in the drama have their own musical theme, heard in some form throughout the score in conjunction with their appearances. Bernstein acknowledges he planned his score in keeping with the kind of music he knew DeMille wanted for his films.
It may be more than coincidence that DeMille began and ended his survey of historical themes with the same biblical subject. When his first (silent) version of The Ten Commandments was made in 1923 (with Theodore Roberts as Moses) at the even-then-staggering cost of $1.3 million, it was generally believed DeMille had taken grandiose leave of his senses — but the film broke every attendance record in existence, and actually inspired a number of young people to become rabbis, priests and ministers. The re-make of the film more than three decades later officially cost Paramount Studios $13,282,712.35. John P. Fulton won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects for the later version. That it was the only Oscar that went to The Ten Commandments that year was a keen disappointment to DeMille — but when we’re asked to think of a biblical film, The Ten Commandments invariably comes to mind first.
In keeping with his penchant for authenticity in his films, DeMille arranged to have stone tablets cut from the red granite of a peak known in that area today as Jebel Musa (in Arabic, "Mountain of Moses"): Mt.Sinai itself. The tablets, which DeMille kept in his office for a time after the film’s completion, are about 21" long, 11" wide and 1" in thickness; this, according to Henry Noerdlinger, chief of DeMille’s research staff, in a long-ago letter to the author. Bearing little similarity to what we recognize today as Hebrew but having a strong resemblance to the ancient and angular Phoenician alphabet (written only with consonants and no vowels), the symbols on the tablets were written for the film by Dr. Ralph Marcus of the Institute for Oriental Studies at the University of Chicago.
Said Elmer Bernstein at the time of his association with DeMille, "I hope to continue to grow as a musician, but at this moment I cannot even dream of ever again obtaining as important and challenging an assignment as composing the music for The Ten Commandments…. It was a very complex problem since the composition had to express scripture, history and drama in music. The score is composed of symphonic themes identifying momentous events and significant personages as well as the great mass of people through whose trials and triumphs history moves. The music attempts to enhance the experience of actuality and to add to the atmosphere of authenticity. I hope that it also helps to suggest the lasting truth of the film’s inspired message…. Of all the arts, I strongly feel that music is closest to religion. It is hard to explain what happens at the magical moment when suddenly there is music in my heart and mind and I can go to the piano and express it in sound. That is why I feel that music above all other arts can come closest to expressing religious experience and conveying it to others."
A new recording of the film’s sound track was later specially made by Bernstein to fill the need for a stereophonic performance of the music on records. With few changes, Bernstein conducted the new performance using the original film score. In so doing, he fulfilled a prophecy made by DeMille himself, who during the preparation of the original score had told the composer he would someday have occasion to perform and record this music again. Demille’s comment was touchingly foretelling: "Your music will surely outlive me, and possibly even yourself."
Jeffrey Dane is a music historian, researcher and essayist whose work is published in the USA and abroad in several languages. He has written extensively about the composers and has met several of those who worked in Hollywood, including Jerry Goldsmith, David Raksin, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, and Elmer Bernstein. His book about Beethoven’s pianos (now long out of print) was published by New York’s Museum of the American Piano, and his most recent book, A Composer’s Notes: Remembering Miklos Rozsa, was published in September 2006 by iUniverse in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.