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Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein is a name in music that continues to be synonymous with creativity, versatility and longevity. The year 2001 marked his 50th anniversary as a feature film composer who wrote the music for over 200 major film and television scores, the only composer to have achieved such longevity. He practiced his craft for the past half century, gracing virtually all creative media with his work.

Mr. Bernstein was born in New York City, April 4, 1922. During his childhood he performed professionally as a dancer and an actor and won several prizes for his painting. He gravitated toward music by his own choice 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. Fortunately for Bernstein, Miss Michelson thought she detected other talents and took him, at the age of twelve, to play some of his improvisations for composer Aaron Copland. Mr. Copland was encouraging and selected Israel Citkowitz as a teacher for the young boy.

Recognized with countless awards for his work in film, television, stage and audio recording, Bernstein was a fourteen-time Academy Award nominee, winning the Award in 1967 for his score for Thoroughly Modern Millie. Other nominated scores include The Man with the Golden Arm, The Magnificent Seven, Summer and Smoke, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Return of the Seven, Hawaii, True Grit, Trading Places, The Age of Innocence and Far From Heaven. His Oscar-nominated songs include "Walk on the Wild Side," "My Wishing Doll" from Hawaii and "Wherever Love Takes Me" from Gold.

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 was awarded the Emmy for excellence in television 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). He received five Grammy nominations from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and garnered two of Broadway's coveted Tony Award nominations for How Now Dow Jones and Merlin.

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 State 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.

Bernstein attributed his remarkable longevity to the superb musical training he received from Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, and his mentor, the renowned teacher Israel Citkowitz. Beginning as a virtuoso concert pianist, Bernstein performed extensively between 1939 and 1950, representing the United States on a worldwide basis as both a pianist and conductor. Bernstein's unconditional love of all styles and forms of music underscores how the man who composed much of the ballet music in Jerome Robbins' 1954 stage production of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, as well as the ballet music for the film Oklahoma, could, 30 years later, score the video of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

Bernstein discovered his love of music growing up with a family interested in the arts and he was encouraged by them in his various creative pursuits. World War II provided him with the chance to arrange American folk music and to write dramatic scores for the Army Air Corps Radio Shows. In 1949 Mr. Bernstein was asked to do two shows for United Nations Radio which brought him to the attention of Sidney Buchman, then a Vice President of Columbia Pictures. Mr. Buchman offered him the opportunity to write the music for Saturday's Hero in 1950 and Boots Malone in 1951. He first attracted attention in 1952 with his unusual score for the motion picture Sudden Fear featuring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance.

He suffered the fate of many of the great talents during the Fifties when his career with the studios was slowed by the McCarthy era. Having been sympathetic to left-wing causes, he found himself "gray-listed" in Hollywood. During this time, Bernstein was forced to work on two low-budget science fiction films, which became, and remain today, cult favorites, Robot Monster and Cat Women of the Moon. In spite of these small budget movies, or maybe because of it, Bernstein established himself a true innovator, pioneering early experiments in the use of electronic music.

Bernstein credited Cecil B. DeMille with bringing him back into the mainstream. Originally hired to write only the dance music for The Ten Commandments, Bernstein was soon hired to compose the entire score for this great epic. During the year-long process of scoring The Ten Commandments, Bernstein was hired by Otto Preminger to score The Man with the Golden Arm after Preminger's brother heard Bernstein's score for the film noir Sudden Fear. Bernstein proposed a Hollywood first, an all-jazz score. Played by a big band assembled by Shorty Rogers, with Shelly Manne on the drums, the hot jazz sound perfectly externalized the emotions of Preminger's tormented hero, a heroin-addicted jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra.

The maestro first made his mark as a film composer with these back-to-back scores of The Ten Commandments and The Man with the Golden Arm. This work is credited with virtually changing the sound of American film music, creating new colors and tones for a whole generation of composers who would follow him.

After The Man with the Golden Arm, jazz became the rage in film and on television. Bernstein was then tapped to create jazz scores for other films such as The Sweet Smell of Success and the Academy AwardŽ-nominated Walk on the Wild Side. In the latter, his music electrified the opening titles, designed by Saul Bass, which depicted an alley cat prowling the back streets of New Orleans.

It was during this time that Bernstein changed musical direction from jazz to score a variety of musical genres. He worked in association with Alan Pakula and Robert Mulligan on a series of films, which culminated in To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962.

No one film can sum up Bernstein's incomparable career, but To Kill A Mockingbird represents many of the virtues that made him one of Hollywood's most venerable and respected composers. The score, one of Bernstein's personal favorites, depicts a distinctively American sound, reminiscent of Bernstein's mentor Aaron Copland. Recognized for its sparse orchestration, the score begins with a piano and solo flute over the main credits. As Bernstein had previously done with The Man with the Golden Arm, this score marked a radical departure from the more lush European style of movie music so prevalent in the late thirties and forties.

Bernstein's music created another new trend when the score from The Magnificent Seven defined the sound of the Western. During the sixties and seventies he scored the last seven films of John Wayne, including True Grit, earning Wayne an Oscar, and Wayne's last film, The Shootist filmed in 1976. Bernstein also continued to work with then new directors, including John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, and The Gypsy Moths).

It was his collaboration with George Roy Hill that resulted in the dramatic score for Thoroughly Modern Millie, which won Bernstein his only Academy AwardŽ.

Always looking for new challenges, Bernstein kept breaking new ground, scoring some of the biggest blockbuster comedies of the Seventies and Eighties, including John Landis' National Lampoon's Animal House. Bernstein became highly sought after for high-profile comedies, composing the music for such blockbusters as Slap Shot, Meatballs, Airplane!, Ivan Reitman's innovative animated feature Heavy Metal, Stripes, Trading Places, which garnered Bernstein his twelfth Oscar nomination, Ghostbusters, Three Amigos, and Funny Farm!

Even with these great successes, Bernstein refused to be limited to a certain genre and told his agent to say "No" to the sequel Ghostbusters 2. Bernstein then sought out independent films that were significant in their messages and character portrayal. "My next period really began with My Left Foot in 1989," he says. Bernstein promised Irish producer Noel Pearson that he would write the score for free for his film about the disabled writer Christy Brown. When Pearson finally got the project off the ground, with newcomer Jim Sheridan directing, Bernstein kept his promise, supplying an offbeat score for the Oscar-winning film. Other independent films that Bernstein scored included the acclaimed Da! and The Field.

Bernstein's collaboration with Martin Scorsese began with The Grifters, a film noir directed by Stephen Frears and starring Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening and John Cusack. "To me, The Grifters was a quirky film," said Bernstein, "and that led to the quirkiness of the score, which contained colors different from any score I had previously composed."

When he heard that Scorsese was remaking Cape Fear, Bernstein called the director and asked to write an adaptation of Bernard Herrmann's original score. "Bernard Herrmann was one of my heroes," he explained, "and I felt it would be a privilege to work on one of his scores. I wrote six minutes of original music for the film, but we used most of Herrmann's original work, and moved the cues around, because Scorsese's version is a very different film." Bernstein even utilized cues from Herrmann's score for Torn Curtain, which had never used by Hitchcock. They had, however, been recorded in the Seventies by Bernstein as part of a series of albums, The Film Music Collection, to preserve the music of Herrmann and other composers and to present them to a new generation.

According to Bernstein, every composer should have the experience of working with Scorsese at least once. He was associated with Scorsese on seven projects. The collaboration on The Age of Innocence is a prime example of how a filmmaker and a composer join forces. "We started talking about the character of the music long before he ever shot a frame of film," he recalls. "We agreed that the sense of period is very important to understanding the people's behavior. I went off to England with a small orchestra and wrote four or five themes; Scorsese started using two he particularly liked as he was editing. Halfway through the editing process I recorded twelve pieces, which became the temp score until the picture was locked." Bernstein then scored Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead starring Nicholas Cage.

Similarly, working with Francis Ford Coppola on The Rainmaker was also a process of experimentation and creative give-and-take. Bernstein explained, "Musically his original concept was to use the Memphis sound, but as The Rainmaker evolved we ended up with a sound that has elements of Memphis, but is basically a dramatic score."

For Robert Benton's Twilight, Bernstein felt he wrote a very different kind of score. "It's a film noir with a romantic, smoky feeling," he explained. "The music style is an homage to my esteemed friends Bernard Herrmann and David Raksin."

Bernstein continued to work with interesting and innovative top directors including Martin Scorsese (Bernstein's thirteenth Oscar-nominated score was The Age of Innocence), Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), Stephen Frears (The Grifters), Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose, Lost in Yonkers, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge), Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress), Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker), Al Pacino (Chinese Coffee), Edward Norton (Keeping the Faith) and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Bernstein's fourteenth Oscar-nominated score).

His scores during the past two decades have often included the innovative French musical instrument, the Ondes Martenot. Its distinctive sound can be heard in films as diverse as Ghostbusters, My Left Foot and The Black Cauldron.

Bernstein was active in his community, having served his profession as a vice-president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and president of the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America. He was a founding life member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. For ten years he was president of the Young Musicians Foundation, an organization which promotes new, young talent in the concert world. He was most recently president of the Film Music Museum, an organization devoted to the preservation and storage of film music and a member of the Board of Directors of ASCAP. For many years Mr. Bernstein enjoyed his role of instructor at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, where he taught "Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television."

With more than half his over 200 combined film and television scores available on records or CD, Bernstein is one of the most recorded film composers in the history of Hollywood. To Kill a Mockingbird became a successful sound track album. The Man With The Golden Arm produced Hollywood's first instrumental hit single, and the heroic theme for The Magnificent Seven, already famous in its own right, became part of a long-running advertising campaign for Marlboro. Some of the many-recorded Bernstein scores are Men in War, Drango, God's Little Acre, The Ten Commandments, Walk on the Wild Side, The Sons of Katy Elder, The Return of the Seven, The Great Escape, The Caretaker, The Silencers, The Carpetbaggers, Summer and Smoke, Hawaii, Where's Jack?, True Grit, Desire Under the Elms, The Hallelujah Trail, Baby the Rain Must Fall, My Left Foot, The Grifters, Rambling Rose and The Age of Innocence.

He conducted for, and in collaboration with, Neil Diamond on the RIAA certified gold double CD "The Movie Album - As Time Goes By," released in October 1998. National Public Radio presented the last broadcast of the 20th Century, "Memos to a New Millennium," a meditation written and directed by Norman Corwin, narrated by Walter Cronkite, with music by Elmer Bernstein.

In addition to his work in motion pictures, television and stage, Bernstein composed numerous pieces for the concert hall. In September, 1999, the Honolulu Symphony premiered Mr. Bernstein's "Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra" that featured the world-renowned classical guitarist Christopher Parkening.

A recording of the piece by Bernstein and Parkening, with the London Symphony Orchestra, was released by Angel Records in 2000. Additional performances followed at the Hollywood Bowl in August 2002 and at the UK premiere of the piece at Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in October, 2002.

Bernstein also composed an extensive score for the TCM Documentary, "American Epic: The Story of Cecil B. DeMille," that aired in 2004. His last composition, "Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl," was commissioned by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra as its inaugural piece for the opening of its 2004 season.

Official Biography Courtesy of