Alfred Newman (March 17, 1901 – February 17, 1970) was an American composer, arranger, and conductor of film music, who started as a music prodigy, came to be regarded as a respected figure in the history of film music, won nine Academy Awards, and was nominated forty-three times. Newman was the eldest of ten children, born on March 17, 1901, in New Haven, Connecticut, to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia shortly before his birth. His father, Michael Newman, was a produce dealer, and his mother, Luba, took care of the family. Her father had been a cantor in Russia, which contributed to her love of music. She sent Newman, her first born, to a local piano teacher to begin lessons when he was five. At one point, in order to take lessons, he walked a ten-mile round trip. And with barely enough to live on, his parents once had to sell their dog to make ends meet.
By the age of eight Alfred had become known locally as a piano prodigy. His talent led virtuoso Ignacy Jan Paderewski to arrange a recital for him in New York, where Sigismund Stojowski and Alexander Lambert, at different periods, took him as a pupil. To save Newman commuting cost, Stojowski convinced a ticket inspector to let young Newman sometimes travel free. Stojowski offered him a scholarship, after which Newman won a silver medal and a gold medal in a competition. He also studied harmony, counterpoint and composition with Rubin Goldmark and George Wedge. By the time Newman was twelve, his parents’ meager income was not enough to support his large family, which led to him searching for ways to earn an income from music to help his family. He then began playing in theaters and restaurants, including the Strand Theater and the Harlem Opera House, with a schedule that often had him playing five shows a day. During the shows, he typically accompanied singers as pianist. Grace La Rue, star of one the shows, was taken by Newman’s talent and signed him on as her regular accompanist.
Newman, then 13, also attracted the attention of author Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who wanted to promote him to those who could further his music ambition. She greatly admired his ability to play Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner and other composers, and with equal skill, in her opinion, as noted pianist Paderewski. He began traveling the vaudeville circuit with La Rue’s show when he was 13, where she billed him as “The Marvelous Boy Pianist.” While on tours, he was sometimes allowed to conduct the orchestras. This led to him making conducting his career goal, an ambition furthered by William Merrigan Daly, an experienced music director and composer who taught Newman the basics of conducting. By the time he was fifteen, he was regularly conducting performances for matinee shows. Cincinnati Symphony conductor Fritz Reiner was so impressed by Newman, he invited him to be a guest conductor.
When Neweman was nineteen, he began conducting full-time in New York City, the beginning of a ten-year career on Broadway as the conductor of musicals by composers such as George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Jerome Kern. He conducted George White’s Scandals in 1919, Funny Face in 1927 and Treasure Girl in 1929. In 1930 songwriter and composer Irving Berlin invited him to Hollywood to conduct his score for the film, Reaching for the Moon. Although the musical film was originally planned to include songs written by Berlin, problems developed between him and director Edmund Goulding, which led to most of his songs being taken out. Newman was kept on and received credit for directing the music, which became his Hollywood debut. Soon after Newman arrived in Hollywood in 1930 and finished directing the score for Reaching for the Moon, producer Samuel Goldwyn offered him a contract to continue on as a movie composer. His first complete film score was for Goldwyn’s Street Scene in 1931. The score mirrored the busy and frantic sounds of everyday life in New York’s Lower East Side in the 1930s. He later used that music theme in other films, such as How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953, which opens with him conducting an orchestra. The theme is also used in Gentleman’s Agreement, I Wake Up Screaming,The Dark Corner, Cry of the City, Kiss of Death, and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
In 1931 Charlie Chaplin had Newman to orchestrate his film, City Lights, and used him again for Modern Times in 1936. Newman became Goldwyn’s favorite composer, while his style evolved with each new film he scored. He scored numerous adventure stories and romances, historical pageants and swashbuckling epics, as did his contemporary, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Newman also began taking lessons with Arnold Schoenberg, who emigrated to the U.S. from Europe in 1934. He received his first Academy Award for Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1938. In 1939, he wrote the music for Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. His score was unique in the way it included different musical themes and created different motifs for the key actors, which helped frame the action. The theme for Cathy, for instance, consisted of a glowing pastoral with strings, while Heathcliff’s theme, in contrast, produced a darker, more serious image. Also in 1939, he composed the music for Gunga Din, and Beau Geste. Among Newman’s specialties were films with a religious theme, although he himself was not known to be religious. Among the films were The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), starring Charles Laughton.
In 1940 Newman began a 20-year career as music director with 20th Century-Fox Studios, composing over 200 film scores, nine of which won Academy Awards. He wore many hats at the studio depending on the need, acting as composer, arranger, music director and conductor for various films. However, he said that he preferred arranging and conducting over composing because the latter was lonely and demanding work. He composed the familiar fanfare which accompanies the studio logo at the beginning of Fox’s productions, and still introduces Fox pictures today. The Song of Bernadette (1943) is said to be one of Newman’s loveliest scores, recorded over a four-week period with an 80-piece orchestra. Newman’s score for Wilson (1944), a biopic about president Woodrow Wilson, required he devote an unusual amount of time to research.
In the 1940s Newman scored a number of films related to World War II. Among those were A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), To the Shores of Tripoli (1942) and Twelve O’Clock High (1949), which one historian says is Newman’s best dramatic opening theme for a movie. Newman also composed or music directed the score to some of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series of films, including Prelude to War (1942) and War Comes to America (1945). He created the music for The All-Star Bond Rally (1945), a documentary short film featuring Hollywood stars promoting the sales of War Bonds. The previous year he scored another documentary, The Fighting Lady (1944).
Newman often studied period music and assimilated it into his scores. For The Grapes of Wrath (1940), he brought in the folk tune favorite “Red River Valley” throughout the score. For films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), for example, he incorporated Welsh hymns. In 1947 he composed the music for Captain from Castile, which included the famous “Conquest march”, an impassioned score for the Spanish conquistadors. The dramatic score for The Snake Pit, a 1948 film set in a lunatic asylum, was accentuated by Newman’s careful use of effects to intensify the discomfort and fear portrayed by the actors, primarily its star Olivia de Havilland. Newman also orchestrated and conducted the music for a biopic about the life of American composer John Philip Sousa, Stars and Stripes Forever (1952), a film which includes numerous marches for which Sousa is best known.
In 1952, With a Song in My Heart gave Newman his fifth Academy Award. It was presented to him by Walt Disney. The Robe (1953), a New Testament epic, was another of Newman’s scores with a religious theme, with orchestration creating spaciousness, grandeur and simplicity. It was also the first picture to use stereo sound, which allowed Newman to experiment in developing the various moods. The score was one of fellow composer Franz Waxman’s favorites, and he re-worked part of it for the film’s sequel. In 1953, Newman also wrote the “CinemaScope extension” for his fanfare. During portions of the score for Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), he created numbers with a distinctly Chinese sensibility, both with instruments and melodies.
Newman received his eighth Oscar for The King and I in 1956. In 1959 Newman composed the score for The Diary of Anne Frank. Although based on the true-life tragic story of a young girl during World War II, Newman’s score focuses on her optimistic personality, which as her diary attests, she continued to believe that people were good at heart. It was nominated for an Oscar. Newman’s final musical score under his Fox contract was The Best of Everything (1959), and after leaving Fox in 1960, Newman freelanced for the remainder of his career, writing the scores for such films as MGM’s How the West Was Won (1962), which some consider his most familiar and best score where he took folk tunes and transformed them into orchestral/choral works of tremendous power. It is listed on AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores. That film and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), were nominated for an Oscar. Newman remained active until the end of his life, scoring Universal Pictures’ Airport (1970) shortly before his death. Newman died on February 17, 1970 at the age of 68, a month shy before his 69th birthday, at his home in Hollywood, from complications of emphysema.
Newman was among the first musicians to compose and conduct original music during Hollywood’s Golden Age of movies, later becoming a respected and powerful music director in the history of Hollywood.m He and two of his fellow composers, Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin, were considered the “three godfathers of film music.” In a career spanning more than four decades, Newman composed the scores for over 200 motion pictures. Some of his most famous scores include Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Mark of Zorro, How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette, Captain from Castile, All About Eve, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Anastasia, The Diary of Anne Frank, How The West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and his final score, Airport, all of which were nominated for or won Academy Awards. Newman was also one of those rare Hollywood souls who generously nurtured the talents and careers of many other men who became legends in the field of film composition—including Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin and John Williams. Had Newman not been music director at Twentieth Century Fox, composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, and David Raksin, all of whose music was somewhat radical, might never have had such major careers in Hollywood. Newman was also highly regarded as a conductor, and arranged and conducted many scores by other composers, including George Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, and Irving Berlin. He also conducted the music for many film adaptations of Broadway musicals (having worked on Broadway for ten years before coming to Hollywood), as well as many original Hollywood musicals.
My collection includes the following works by Alfred Newman:
The Greatest Story Ever Told : The Nativity.
Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare and Cinemascope Extension.