skip navigation
Alfred Newman Biography
share:
Remind Me
 Alfred Newman

Alfred Newman Biography

Alfred Newman's career as a composer and conductor could almost be used as an example of the history of American musical entertainment in the twentieth century. Born at the start of the new century, he worked in symphony orchestras, small-time theaters, the vaudeville circuit, Broadway, and Hollywood from the early days of the Talkies until his death in 1970. Born in New Haven, Connecticut on March 17, 1901, he was the eldest of ten children born to a produce dealer and his wife, who had a great love of music. She sent Alfred to a local teacher for piano lessons when he was six, and because the boy showed signs of being a prodigy, he began to attract attention. As Christopher Palmer wrote in his book The Composer in Hollywood when Newman was nine years old, a local businessman named Thompson "not only arranged an audition with the Polish pianist Sigismond Stojowski in New York, but when Stojowski offered the boy a scholarship, persuaded a ticket inspector with whom he was on friendly terms to allow the budding pianist to use the same train ticket more than once on his trips to and from lessons." He attended the Von Ende School of Music, where he studied piano with Stojowski and "harmony, counterpoint and composition with Rubin Goldmark and George Wedge".

By the time Newman was twelve, he was supporting his entire family, which by now had moved to New York City. Newman worked many different jobs at that time. He did five shows a day at the Harlem Opera House for songwriter/playwright/performer Gus Edwards and worked as a piano soloist at the Strand Theater. It was here that he met the great Polish violinist and future statesman Ignace Paderewski who was in the United States during World War One building support for his country. Paderewski heard Newman at the Strand and asked him to play at a benefit concert given in support of the Polish Relief Fund. After his run at the Strand, he worked at Reisenweber's Restaurant where vaudeville star Grace La Rue heard him and signed him as her accompanist.

Alfred Newman, at the age of 13, was off to tour the vaudeville circuit. He would later become the pianist for the show Hitchy-Koo in which La Rue starred with Raymond Hitchcock and Irene Bordoni. During the next two years he would work on many shows which would occasionally give him the opportunity to conduct during matinee performances. His tutor was William Daly, himself an experienced Broadway music director.

At the age of seventeen, Alfred Newman became the youngest music director on Broadway. From 1920 to 1930 he conducted several Gershwin musicals ,George White's Scandals of 1920 and 1921, Funny Face (1927); Jerome Kern's Criss Cross (1926); and The Greenwich Follies of 1922 and 1923. His work impressed legendary Cincinnati Symphony conductor Fritz Reiner enough to invite Newman to be a guest conductor.

During his time on Broadway, Newman had become friends with several of the composers, including Gershwin (who he had known when the latter was still a song plugger at Remick's Music Store) and Irving Berlin, who would be the catalyst for Newman's Hollywood career. While conducting the Rodgers and Hart musical Head's Up in 1930, Newman was invited by Berlin to come to California to work as musical director for a film he had co-written for Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., called Reaching for the Moon. Newman agreed and left for Hollywood, where he would remain for the rest of his career. Tony Thomas wrote, "As soon as Reaching for the Moon was completed, Goldwyn asked Newman to stay and arrange the music for several of his pictures. In agreeing to do so, Newman set the course of his life's work. So continuously busy did Newman become that he was never able to return to Broadway or to realize his ambition of becoming a symphonic conductor."

While working for Goldwyn at United Artists, he had met Darryl F. Zanuck, whose fledging 20th Century Pictures shared studio space with Sam Goldwyn at United Artists. Newman became General Music Director for 20th Century Pictures for two years until 20th Century merged with Fox Films to become 20th Century Fox, in 1935 - the year that Newman wrote the now famous 20th Century Fox Fanfare, which plays over the studio logo at the beginning of each film. By now Zanuck had moved his company out of Hollywood to what would become Century City, and Newman continued to work at various studios including Goldwyn, RKO, and MGM. In 1939 he became musical director at 20th Century Fox, with occasional work at other studios until 1942. For the next eighteen years, until his resignation in 1960, all of his musical scores would be for 20th Century Fox.

It was during his time at Fox that Newman did what was arguably his best work. He wore many hats at the studio, being a composer, arranger, music director and conductor. (On two notable occasions, he was also an actor, making cameo appearances - as a conductor - in the short film The CinemaScope Parade (1954) and in the Marilyn Monroe film How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953.)

Part of the job of being head of the Music Department was finding and nurturing talent. Christopher Palmer wrote that "it is reported that composing never came easily to Newman - a fact not readily apparent from his music's fluency. According to Bernard Herrmann, Newman's great achievement was that he was the first composer (and in many ways perhaps the last) to match in his music the highest technical finish of film performance. This perfectly proportioned and scrupulously varnished element is one which commands admiration....He did not write every note of the scores assigned and credited to him, as head of department he could not be expected to. He surrounded himself with an expert staff and was not afraid to delegate. Nor was he afraid to employ composers regarded by other studios as untrustworthy on account of their supposedly progressive inclinations: David Raksin [most famous for his haunting score of Laura, 1944], Hugo Friedhofer and Bernard Herrmann [whose scores for Alfred Hitchcock would cement his career in the 1950s]."

John Williams, perhaps the single most famous film composer because of his scores for countless blockbusters from The Poseidon Adventure (1972) to the Harry Potter series, began his film career at twenty-six working as a pianist for Alfred Newman on South Pacific (1958). He later recalled that Newman "had a wonderfully expressive technique, a great feeling for nuance and shading. To watch him in action was often to be reminded of [British conductor] Sir John Barbirolli. He could easily have made a career as a concert conductor if he'd wanted to, but on the other hand his brand of musicianship was much needed in Hollywood. He was specially adept at shaping music to the rhythm of a picture, molding and mixing it in with the grain and texture of a sequence."

During his long career in Hollywood totaling 250 films, Alfred Newman was nominated for a staggering thirty-six Academy Awards. In 1940 he earned four nominations for four different films. Nine times, he took home the gold statue: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Tin Pan Alley (1940), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Mother Wore Tights (1947), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Call Me Madam (1953), Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), The King and I (1956) and Camelot (1967).

Alfred Newman created something of a musical dynasty in Hollywood, hiring his brothers Lionel (composer and conductor, most famously on the Omen series and Alien, 1979) and Emil (musical director most famously on The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Rancho Notorious (1952) and Hondo, 1953) to work with him at 20th Century Fox. His sons, Thomas and David have followed in their father's footsteps: both are composers, working on such films as The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Finding Nemo (2003) and Jingle All the Way (1996). Thomas Newman was born in 1955 while his father was working on The King and I, and his birth coincided with his father's work on the Small House of Uncle Thomas sequence, which is how he got his name. Composer Randy Newman is Alfred Newman's nephew by his brother Irving, who was himself a physician and part-time songwriter. There is a new generation of Newmans in Hollywood: Joey Newman, Lionel's grandson, has made a name for himself working on series such as The West Wing and Once and Again as well as the film Seabiscuit (2003). Alfred Newman's name will also live on through the Alfred Newman Recital Hall at the University of Southern California, for which his wife Martha Montgomery made a $1 million dollar donation in his memory.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Sources:

Laurence E. MacDonald, The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History

Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood

www.imdb.com

www.joeynewman.com

http://www.mfiles.co.uk/composers/Alfred-Newman.htm