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Overview for Elmer Bernstein
Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein



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Also Known As: Died: August 18, 2004
Born: April 4, 1922 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Music ... composer conductor pianist dancer painter actor


An extremely prolific composer of more than 100 film scores, Elmer Bernstein was a child prodigy, performing professionally as a dancer and actor and winning several prizes for his painting before gravitating by his own choice to music. Henriette Michelsen, a Juilliard teacher who gave him a scholarship and would guide him in his career as a pianist, had the 12 year-old prodigy play some of his improvisations for Aaron Copland, who in turn selected Israel Citkowski to help further the boy's music education. Bernstein began his concert career in 1939, touring as both a pianist and conductor, only to have it interrupted by World War II. By the time he left the armed services, he had composed the scores for more than 80 radio shows for the Armed Forces Radio Network but returned to the concert stage as a civilian until given the opportunity to write the scores for two programs for United Nations Radio in 1949. These broadcasts caught the attention of Columbia Pictures' vice president Sid Buchman who brought Bernstein to Hollywood to score "Saturday's Hero" (1950).

During the early 50s, Bernstein willingly took any job, which explains his name on the credits of "Robot Monster" (1953), but he attracted his first real attention for his stylish score for the Joan Crawford-Jack Palance thriller "Sudden Fear" (1952). Critics praised his ability to translate dramatic action into musical idiom and he exhibited tendencies that would recur throughout his career: the use of exotic instruments and a reliance on solo instruments like the piano and flute. He firmly established himself with his progressive jazz score for "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955) and his vastly different Wagnerian orchestrations for DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956) pushed him into the front rank of Hollywood composers. His reputation soared as he proved himself a man for all genres with a rousing Western score for "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), yet when film tastes changed in the late 60s, he recognized his over-arranged scores as anachronistic and shifted gears, redefining soundtrack comedy in movies like "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) and "Ghostbusters" (1984). Whether it's the good-humored but genuinely creepy horror of "An American Werewolf in London" (1981) or the robust action of "True Grit" (1969), Bernstein has provided stirring, imaginative music snugly rooted in the folksy traditions of Americana and the contemporary trappings of pop culture.

Though his collaborations were many, Bernstein returned to work again and again with three directors. He provided music with an epic sweep for John Sturges ("Magnificent Seven"; "The Great Escape" 1964; "The Hallelujah Trail" 1965 and "McQ" 1974) but toned it down to an insinuatingly idiosyncratic patter for the quietly intense, claustrophobic dramas of Robert Mulligan ("To Kill a Mockingbird" 1963; "Love With the Proper Stranger" 1964; "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" 1965 and "Bloodbrothers" 1979). John Landis gave him the chance to stretch his comic wings ("Animal House," "American Werewolf" and "The Blues Brothers" (1984) and helped revitalize his career. Since then, he has not slowed down, creating scores of understated lyricism for the Irish films, "My Left Foot" (1989) and "The Field" (1990), underlining the innate romanticism of "Rambling Rose (1992) and "A River Runs Through It" (1992) and accenting the repressed passion of Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence" (1993).

Bernstein did not confine himself to writing exclusively for films. He won an Emmy for his music for ABC's "The Making of the President: 1960" (1963) and scored the themes for "The Big Valley" and "Gunsmoke" as well as such miniseries as "The Chisholms" (CBS, 1979), "Moviola" (NBC, 1980) and "Gulag" (HBO, 1985). He earned Tony nominations for his involvement in two Broadway productions, "How Now, Dow Jones" (1967) and "Merlin" (1973) but managed only one Academy Award, in spite of his dozen nominations, for his original score for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967).

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