Articles

Excerpt from “The Elmer Bernstein Collection”

Introduction

In a perfect cinematic world, film composers create great melodies, enhance emotions with poignant underscore, highlight action with unforgettable rhythmic drive, and pen songs that stand the test of time. Success in any of these elements ensures a good score, but one composer did it all and made it look easy: Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein (1922-2004) composed timeless themes for classic films in a career that encompassed more than 200 scores. He received Academy Award® nominations in six different decades—still a record—and garnered fourteen Oscar® nominations, winning for best Music Score for the film version of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Elmer began his professional musical life as a critically acclaimed concert pianist, but found that performing the same program over and over on tour was not artistically satisfying. One of his earliest personal struggles involved his decision to stop concertizing in favor of a more creative outlet: composing. To give up his developing concert career in favor of an unknown future required a leap of faith, but he never looked back. When a new acquaintance would ask him what he did for a living, Elmer responded simply, “I am a composer.” He loved his profession, and he wrote for every occasion: film, theater, musicals, television, tributes, charities, dedications, personal gifts and just for the simple joy of creating. Over the years he said that he wanted to continue composing to the very end, which in fact he did, premiering his last orchestral piece Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl just ten weeks before he died of cancer in 2004 at age 82.

Elmer demonstrated his new film themes on piano for directors, his assistants, and family. The first time he met with his orchestrator on a new project, Elmer would often take a seat at the piano and say, “The tune goes something like this.” What followed was an exquisite piano setting which perfectly captured the essence of his score. His ability to translate a large work into a smaller setting without losing any of the piece’s character was vintage Elmer Bernstein. It is also the reason that the selections in this folio work so well in their piano and vocal settings. Many of these arrangements were created or edited by Elmer Bernstein himself, even though he didn’t place an arranger credit on the original published versions. I’ve left them as he did, only distinguishing when I or another person created a setting that you find in this volume.

One piece in this folio occurs in two settings. To Kill a Mockingbird has a lovely adaptation by Roy Phillippe, which Elmer went over and changed very little. The other setting Elmer made himself as a gift to his daughter Emilie on the occasion of her tenth birthday. He said that he wrote Mockingbird from a child’s point of view, and it seems appropriate to include his own setting intended for children to play. Elmer enjoyed children, responding to any child’s request with kindness and affection, and helped many young people (including me) on their career paths.

Elmer knew his own worth as a composer, yet was genuinely modest about his own achievements. He felt that if he could lift someone’s spirits just for an hour, he had done his job. Once, he and his wife Eve were visiting the small town of La Bisbal near Barcelona, Spain in the intense summer heat. They pulled over in the small village plaza and ordered a cool drink on the café veranda. A little boy on the porch inserted a coin in a mechanical horse ride, which bounced jauntily to the strains of The Magnificent Seven. Elmer realized that if his music played even a small part in people’s everyday lives, his efforts had made a difference. After you hear this volume of best-loved music, no doubt you will agree.

Patrick Russ Symphonic orchestrator

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