Elmer Bernstein Honored by ASCAP—April 24, 2001

In Honor of Elmer Bernstein: A Speech by James Newton Howard

A long time ago before he became concerned with defending the rights of individuals to possess automatic weapons and handguns, Charleton Heston did a rather stylish turn as Moses in Cecil B. Demille’s, “The Ten Commandments.” And from the perspective of a wide-eyed five year old, the scene of Moses removing his shoes and approaching the burning bush was a wonderous and moving visualization of what I imagined God to be. As time went on, I came to realize that the emotion bursting forth from that scene had to do with several dynamics working together: part of it was the then state-of-the-art special effects used to create the wonderously glowing bush; part of it was the resonant voice commanding Moses to remove his shoes, for he was on holy ground; but mostly, it was the music. The glorious ensemble of strings never sounding more heavenly, exquisitely restrained in their execution, yet resonating with a level of humanity that spoke at once of awesome power and gentleness—that spoke beyond any specific conflict to the human condition itself. It was the music which coalesced the disparate elements in the scene into a timeless moment of filmic storytelling.

The composer of that music we all know is Elmer Bernstein. Elmer Bernstein has influenced my work as much or more than any composer, and I mean any composer. Really very little need be said about Elmer’s work other than this: He is one of the greatest film composers ever. What Elmer Bernstein has done is create a massive body of work, which includes many definitive examples of film compositional styles. It’s been like a how-to book for up-and-comers like me.

When I consciously reach back through murky childhood memories of noticing music in movies, I realize that I began paying attention to the music about the time I was ten. Along with Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklos Rozsa and Alfred Newman, the composer catching my attention was Elmer. I probably saw “The Magnicent Seven” ten times, three of which at Lawrence Kasdan’s behest before I began composing the score for “Wyatt Earp.” Larry especially wanted me to pay attention to a scene near the beginning of the movie, in which Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are riding in a wagon, delivering a casket. It is about two minutes long. The startling thing about the scene is that you realize the tension and complexity of that moment is deriving almost entirely from the music, as there is virtually nothing going on on-screen other than these two guys riding on a wagon. Elmer’s score turns what would have been an unremarkable event into a rivoting, nervous experience. It is a splendid example of understated, economical writing in this age where directors don’t often trust their movies and demand that composers score them wall-to-wall. I remember my mom taking me with her to see “The Rat Race,” “The Comanceros,” and “The Bird Man of Alcatraz,” another score which exhibited the delicate and restrained touch of a master. No doubt because of the subject matter, I didn’t see “The Man with the Golden Arm” until I was much older. But, when I did, I was mesmerized by the distinct, angular personality of this seminal jazz score. It wove itself inextricably and effortlessly into the movie and helped create a world which was at once surreal and moving. Certainly, “effortless” is one of the words which comes to mind when I consider Elmer’s work. With his scores, one never has the feeling that the music is working too hard. Somehow, he has always been able to achieve gigantic effect with the most gentle and graceful gestures. Never has that been put to better use than in his incomparable score to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t discover that movie until I was in my 30s, but when I did it changed my life. Like all of us in this room, I remain in awe of the poetry and power of that score. It has been borrowed from, stolen, copied, and imitated as much as any work in the pantheon of great musical ideas, and for my part in that, Elmer, I apologize. Elmer’s continued output in recent years, with scores such as “The Grifters,” “Trading Places,” “My Left Foot,” and “The Age of Innocence,” are enough to make a guy feel like Salieri. Elmer, I am honored to have this opportunity to speak on your behalf. Congratulations.

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