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Music That Changed Me: Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein is one of the film industry's most respected composers. In a career that has lasted more than 50 years, he has written music for over 200 films and television programs. A 13-time Academy Award nominee, Bernstein won the award in 1967 for Thoroughly Modern Millie. His music can be heard at the Blue Peter Prom—Fiesta! on September 8 and he conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an 80th birthday concert at Royal Albert Hall on October 9.

Elmer Bernstein is one of the film industry’s most respected composers. In a career that has lasted more than 50 years, he has written music for over 200 films and television programs. A 13-time Academy Award nominee, Bernstein won the award in 1967 for Thoroughly Modern Millie. His music can be heard at the Blue Peter Prom—Fiesta! on September 8 and he conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an 80th birthday concert at Royal Albert Hall on October 9.

As a four-year-old, I’m told, I used to climb up on to a chair and play records on our wind-up machine. My father collected opera and jazz recordings. My earliest musical memories are a mixture of Enrico Caruso, Louis Armstrong and a very popular song, La Paloma, which apparently I used to sing around the house.

By the time I’d reached some age of reason—ten years old—my parents took me to piano, chamber and choral concerts which opened a door on a whole new world. I heard Bach‘s St Matthew Passion in church, which made an enormous impression on me. It was sung in English, and the audience was given a libretto. It was a shorter concert version, but still a very difficult piece of music for a child. It was instantly mesmerizing: I was thrilled by the drama and the choruses. I didn’t hear a full-length St Matthew Passion until high school. I went with friends to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. He conducted it in two parts. After the first half, we had dinner then came back to listen to the rest! I own six recordings, but the one I’m particularly partial to is the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan. I didn’t know him personally. Maybe he was terrifying in rehearsals, but watching Karajan conduct is like watching a string quartet. There’s a togetherness, a feeling that this is the way it’s supposed to be.

We spent a year in Europe when I was 11. We mostly lived in Paris, but also stayed in London, near Russell Square. I’d already started piano lessons. In Paris I began to take them much more seriously. My parents were passionately interested in the arts. We heard opera concerts in the park. Halévy‘s La Juive, my father’s favorite, always reminds me of Paris.

From the age of 14, music was clearly going to be what I would do and Mahler had come into my life. I saved my pennies to buy recordings of his music. The first time I heard Das Lied von der Erde I was absolutely stunned by Kathleen Ferrier and the conductor Bruno Walter. There’s a kind of madness in Mahler’s music which is very attractive—think of the amazing first movement of his English Symphony! I’ve been very influenced by Mahler’s orchestral concepts and colors, but I’m not sure that you could write a script to his music. Mahler had a very long-form vision which is difficult to use in film music. There are always moments of longueur in his symphonies, but there are also things which take your breath away.

My parents, with a nod to practicality, thought I should take a teaching credential in music. I studied at New York University, but the war interrupted everything and I never graduated. After the war, I started playing concerts while studying with Stefan Wolpe, whose works are now being revived and celebrated this year—his centenary. He was married to a brilliant pianist who was intrigued by Béla Bartók, another very influential composer for me. I was attracted by the energy and rhythmic excitement of his music. I believe I gave one of the very first concert performances of Bartok’s Piano Sonata in New York City. Listening to his Dance Suitetaught me a great deal about the use of orchestral color.

Aaron Copland was my biggest single musical influence. Apart from my teacher, he was the first person to hear anything I wrote. Copland was good friends with my teacher who took me to meet him in his apartment. I was 12. Copland was 30, but not yet famous. My teacher made me play for him, asking if he thought I had any talent. “Let’s give him some lessons and find out!” he replied. That’s really how my composition career started. If I was only allowed one Aaron Copland disc, it would have to be the Appalachian Spring with Leonard Bernstein.

I still have “Eureka!”moments in music. It happened with John Adams when I first heard his “Shaker Loops” in the arrangement for string orchestra. When Nixon in China opened in Los Angeles, the audience was open-mouthed. Everyone leapt to their feet at the end of the first act, which is unusual for Los Angeles. It took me back to how I felt when I heard my first St Matthew Passion at ten years old.

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