Elmer Bernstein (April 4, 1922 – August 18, 2004) was an American composer and conductor who is best known for his many hundreds of film and television film scores, including the scores to The Magnificent Seven, The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ghostbusters, The Black Cauldron, Airplane!, The Rookies, Cape Fear, Animal House, and The Age of Innocence. Bernstein was born on April 4, 1922, to a Jewish family in New York City, NY,, the son of Edward Bernstein (1896-1968) from Austria-Hungary , and Selma (née Feinstein) Bernstein (1901-1991) from Ukraine. He was not related to the celebrated composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein; but the two men were friends, and even shared a certain physical similarity. Within the world of professional music, they were distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard). They pronounced their last names differently; Elmer pronounced his (BERN-steen), and Leonard’s was (BERN-stine).
During his childhood, Bernstein performed professionally as a dancer and an actor, in the latter case playing the part of Caliban in The Tempest on Broadway, and he also won several prizes for his painting. He attended Manhattan’s progressive Walden School and gravitated toward music 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. She took him to play some of his improvisations for composer Aaron Copland, who was encouraging and selected Israel Citkowitz as a teacher for the young boy. Bernstein’s music has some stylistic similarities to Copland’s music, most notably in his western scores, particularly sections of Big Jake, in the Gregory Peck film Amazing Grace and Chuck, and in his spirited score for the 1958 film adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s novel God’s Little Acre.
Having studied composition under Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, and Stefan Wolpe, Bernstein also performed as a concert pianist between 1939 and 1950 and wrote numerous classical compositions, including three orchestral suites, two song cycles, various compositions for viola and piano and for solo piano, and a string quartet.
In the early 1950s, Bernstein found himself composing music for movies such as Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon, a step down from his earlier Sudden Fear and Saturday’s Hero. Bernstein wrote the theme songs or other music for more than 200 films and TV shows, including The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments (1956), True Grit, The Man with the Golden Arm, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robot Monster, and the fanfare used in the National Geographic television specials. Bernstein also provided the score to many of the short films of Ray and Charles Eames. Throughout his life, Bernstein demonstrated an enthusiasm for an even wider spectrum of the arts than his childhood interests would imply and, in 1959, when he was scoring The Story on Page One, he considered becoming a novelist and asked the film’s screenwriter, Clifford Odets, to give him lessons in writing fiction.
In 1961 Bernstein co-founded Äva Records an American record label based in Los Angeles together with Fred Astaire, Jackie Mills and Tommy Wolf. In addition to his film music, Bernstein wrote the scores for two Broadway musicals, How Now, Dow Jones, with lyricist Carolyn Leigh, in 1967 and Merlin, with lyricist Don Black, in 1983. One of Bernstein’s tunes has since gained a lasting place in U.S. college sports culture. In 1968, University of South Carolina football head coach Paul Dietzel wrote new lyrics to “Step to the Rear,” from How Now, Dow Jones. The South Carolina version of the tune, “The Fighting Gamecocks Lead the Way,” has been the school’s fight song ever since. John Landis requested that Bernstein compose the music for National Lampoon’s Animal House, over the studio’s objections. Bernstein accepted the job, and it sparked a second wave in his career, where he continued to compose music for high-profile comedies such as Ghostbusters, Stripes, Airplane! and The Blues Brothers, as well as most of Landis’s films for the next 15 years, including the famed music video to the Michael Jackson song “Thriller.”
When Martin Scorsese announced that he was re-making Cape Fear, Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann’s original score to the new film. Scorsese and Bernstein subsequently worked together on two more films, The Age of Innocence (1993) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Bernstein had previously conducted Herrmann’s original unused score for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 Torn Curtain.
Bernstein was a professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and conductor of the San Fernando Valley Symphony in the early 1970s. In addition, as president of the Young Musicians Foundation, Bernstein became acquainted with classical guitarist Christopher Parkening and wrote a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, which Parkening recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernstein’s baton for the Angel label in 1999. Over the course of his career, Bernstein received 14 Academy Award nominations and was nominated at least once per decade from the 1950s until the 2000s, but his only win was for Thoroughly Modern Millie for Best Original Music Score. In 1963, he won the Emmy for Excellence in Television for his score of the documentary The Making of The President 1960. He was recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with two Golden Globe Awards for his scores for To Kill a Mockingbird and Hawaii. and Golden Globe. In addition, he was nominated for the Tony Award three times for the Broadway musicals How Now Dow Jones and Merlin and a Grammy Award five times, and was the recipient of Western Heritage Awards for The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965).
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 City 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 made his home in Hope Ranch in Santa Barbara, California, in the 1990s and died of cancer in his sleep at his Ojai, California, home on August 18, 2004, following a lengthy illness. He left behind his wife, Eve, two sons Peter and Gregory, and two daughters, Emilie and Elizabeth. He had five grandchildren at the time of his death.
My collection includes the following works by Elmer Bernstein:
The Age of Innocence (1993): Theme.
The Great Escape (1963): Main Title.
The Magnificent Seven (1960): Main Theme.
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955): Main Theme.