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Max Steiner and “Gone With the Wind”


Maximilian “Max” Raoul Steiner (May 10, 1888 – December 28, 1971) was an Austrian-born American composer of music for theatre and films. Steiner was born on May 10, 1888, in Austria-Hungary, the only child of a wealthy business and theatrical family of Jewish heritage. He was named after his paternal grandfather, Maximilian Steiner (1830–1880), the influential manager of Vienna’s historic Theater an der Wien, recognized for staging celebrated works of theatre, opera and symphony since 1801, who is credited with first persuading Johann Strauss, Jr. to write for the theater. Max’s father was Gabor Steiner (1858–1944), Viennese impresario, carnival exposition manager, and inventor, responsible for building the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater, known as the Wiener Riesenrad. Steiner’s mother was a dancer in stage productions put on by his grandfather and owned three of Vienna’s favorite restaurants. His parents sent Steiner to the Vienna University of Technology, but he expressed little interest in scholastic subjects. He then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Music, where, due to his precocious musical talents and private tutoring by Robert Fuchs, Johannes Brahms, and Gustav Mahler, he completed a four-year course in only one year. He studied various instruments including piano, organ, violin, double bass, and trumpet. He also had courses in harmony, counterpoint, and composition. For his early achievement he was awarded a gold medal by the academy

When Steiner was twelve his father let him conduct an American operetta, The Belle of New York, by Gustave Kerker. Steiner first entered the world of professional music when he was fifteen, writing and conducting the operetta, ”The Beautiful Greek Girl.” This first opera led to other shows in other countries, which took him to Moscow and Hamburg and eventually to London in 1906 to conduct Lehar’s The Merry Widow, and that was the start of eight years in England. During his years in England Steiner wrote and conducted both theater productions and symphonies. But in 1914 World War I started and he was interned as an enemy alien then given exit papers to go to America. Steiner soon acquired employment and worked in New York for the next fifteen years as a musical director, arranger, orchestrator, and conductor of Broadway productions. They included operettas and musicals written by Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, and George Gershwin, among others, augmenting his earlier classical training with American popular music. Steiner’s credits include George White’s Scandals (1922), Lady, Be Good (1924), and Rosalie (1928). His final production on Broadway was in 1929, Sons O’ Guns. He also began experimenting with composing and conducting music to silent films such as The Bondman (1915);

During this period, when orchestrating and conducting Harry Tierney’s Rio Rito in 1927, Tierney himself requested that RKO Pictures in Hollywood hire Steiner to work in their music production departments. William LeBaron, RKO’s head of production, traveled to New York to watch Steiner conduct and was “greatly impressed.” Steiner accepted their offer and moved to California in 1929, remaining in Hollywood for 42 years. Soon after arriving, he orchestrated the film version of the musical Rio Rita and another musical, Dixiana (1930), for which he received his first screen credit as an orchestrator. Later that year LeBaron made him director of RKO’s new music production department. Steiner’s next film was a Western, Cimarron (1931), the first film for which he wrote an original composition. He then worked on Bird of Paradise, putting to music almost the entire 85-minute film. In 1932 Steiner was asked by a new producer at RKO, David O. Selznick, to try to improve a film he had just completed, but was still not satisfied with, Symphony of Six Million (1932). The film became a career turning point. Beginning with 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game, Steiner’s music for these films achieved something entirely unprecedented.

The score for King Kong (1933) became Steiner’s breakthrough and brought his name to everyone’s attention and made Steiner one of the most respected names in Hollywood. He continued on as RKOs music director for two more years, until 1936, during which time he composed, arranged and conducted another 55 films, from dramas to musicals. Among those were most of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance musicals. He wrote a sonata used in Katharine Hepburn’s first film, Bill of Divorcement (1932). Steiner was asked to compose a needed score for Of Human Bondage (1934), which originally lacked music. Director John Ford then called on him to score his film, “The Lost Patrol (1934).” Steiner’s composition was nominated for an Academy Award. Having now witnessed the value of music to films, Ford again hired Steiner to compose his next film, ‘’The Informer” (1935). The work paid off, as the film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four, including Steiner’s first. Producer David O. Selznick had set up his own production company in 1936 and the only composer he wanted was Steiner. Steiner wrote the scores for Selznick’s next three films.

In April 1937, Steiner left RKO and signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros., but could continue to work for Selznick. The first of 140 films he would score for Warners was The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). The film starred Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and over the coming years, Steiner would score fourteen more of Flynn’s pictures. Steiner also scored most of Bette Davis’s romantic dramas, eighteen in all. By the middle-late 1930’s, every studio wanted its own Max Steiner. Steiner became a mainstay at Warner Bros., scoring 140 of their films over the next 30 years. He remained with Warners longer than any of his contemporaries. In 1939, Steiner was borrowed from Warner Bros. by Selznick to compose the score for his next film, Gone with the Wind (1939), which became one of Steiner’s most notable successes. Steiner was the only composer Selznick would consider for scoring the film. Despite 1939 being Steiner’s peak year for the number of scores he composed—twelve films in all—he was given only three months to do it. When the film was released, it was the longest film score ever composed, at nearly three hours. The composition consisted of 16 main themes and almost 300 musical segments. The film’s theme song, “Tara’s Theme,” is currently one of the most easily recognizable motifs in the history of film music.

Steiner received his next Oscar nomination for the 1940 film, The Letter, his first of several collaborations with legendary director William Wyler. A further nomination followed the next year for Sergeant York, and was also nominated for Casablanca (1942), which remains one of his most famous scores. He also composed two more Humphrey Bogart films besides Casablanca, which is considered among Bogart’s best: The Big Sleep (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). In 1942, Steiner won his second Oscar for Now, Voyager (1942), one of his favorite scores, and received his third and final Oscar in 1944 with Since You Went Away (1944), set during World War II. Other famous Steiner scores over the years include period swashbucklers like The Three Musketeers (1933) and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948); Westerns like Dodge City (1939) and The Oklahoma Kid (1939); They Died with Their Boots On (1941), also starring Flynn and de Havilland; Mildred Pierce (1945); The Fountainhead (1949);The Glass Menagerie (1950); Cinerama (1952), with its natural settings such as the Grand Canyon; and Spencer’s Mountain (1963), the theme to which Steiner composed when he was 75-years of age, Steiner reunited with director John Ford in 1956 to score The Searchers, widely considered the greatest Western ever made. He returned to Warner-Bros in 1958 (although his contract had ended in 1953) and scored several films, in addition a rare venture into television. He continued to score films produced by Warner until the mid sixties.

Steiner’s pace slowed significantly in the mid-1950s, and he began freelancing, contributing scores to The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Searchers (1955), A Summer Place (1959) and many other films. In 1954, RCA Victor asked Steiner to prepare and conduct an orchestral suite of music from Gone with the Wind for a special LP, which was later issued on CD. In 1963, Steiner began writing his autobiography, which, although completed, was never published. Steiner, perhaps more so than any other iconic Hollywood film composer, remains universally acknowledged as the “father of film music” and is considered one of the greatest film score composers in the history of cinema. He was also the first recipient of the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, which he won for his score to Life with Father. He established the Wagnerian leitmotif convention for cinema and pioneered the click track. Along with such composers as Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman and Miklós Rózsa, Steiner played a major part in creating the tradition of writing music for films. He remained active until 1965. And one of his last films was Youngblood Hawke (1964). Steiner died on December 28, 1971, of congestive heart failure in Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA aged 83.

My collection contains the following work by Max Steiner:

Gone with the Wind (1939): Theme and Suite.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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