Peter Bernstein on Elmer Bernstein

In offering advice on writing film scores, my father once said, “If it feels overwhelming, break it down into smaller and smaller increments until they reach a size that you can handle and expand from there.”

Feeling completely overwhelmed in preparing this, I began by looking for single words to describe him: will power, life-force, joy, intensity, passion, wonder, irreverence, graciousness, more, …belief.

He was indeed a believer.

He once said, “Music is the soul of life, but each soul sings with its own song.” He believed that, in his creative process, in his life as an artist, and in the music of his soul. His standard answer when asked how he went about beginning a score was that he watched the film over and over until “something happens.”

He simply listened until he got the message that he absolutely believed would come and be right. When you believe like that, confidence is easy. He was a fundamentalist in his own inner religion. He said he was proud to keep a childlike sense of wonder, that as an artist is was part of the job description and that it helped drive his creative process.

He was always careful to make the distinction between his creative process and everything else involved in his work. His word was “mechanical.” Conducting a score, writing music under pressure from the podium, fixing mistakes made by rookie orchestrators (I was one of them). Always graceful, all seemingly effortless but all on the outside. Mechanical.

The grace and ease with which he did all this was also a product of his will, because he certainly did not start out that way. He willed that into existence. On the other hand, the passion so evident in all his music needed only the path from inside that he provided.

He had a relentless optimism about each new project, every endeavor, and the world at large, with the occasional exception of the US government and the Dodgers. It was so rare to hear him complain about a film he was working on, and so normal to hear him talk about the challenges it presented. And there was always another project ahead to either erase a previous disappointment or build on a previous success; or try out something new or record somewhere else with someone else.

He missed the more collegial days of the Hollywood that he started out in. He loved the company of his colleagues. He deeply believed in the artistry of his profession and worked in many ways to perpetuate it: The guilds, academies, foundations, schools, too many to list here, and in furthering that cause he did not shy away from a fight as some of us know first-hand.

He helped a lot of people get started and he loved doing it. People would suddenly find themselves with responsibilities that would directly affect the quality of his work that he cared so much for. I have heard the story from so many people over the years.

I should add that he also believed in his ability to fix anything that went wrong there.

For the record, his mother’s family emigrated from Talne in the Ukrane in 1905 and homesteaded in Oklahoma. Family lore holds that there is a marker there which reads in part: “The first Jew to live and die in Muskokee.” He always loved that. They made their way to New York City by way of St. Louis, where they managed an apartment building. His father’s family came from Lemberg in the old Austo-Hungarian Empire, and had a hardware store in New York City at one time.

He was the poster boy for the gifted only child. His father was a public school English teacher and during the depression, that meant a good job and security. His mother, my grandmother, he eulogized 14 years ago and three things stand out there: how she used to move the family around New York every year or so because she didn’t want to stay in one place too long; how he was taken to an endless succession of social and cultural events in the city; and how he finished each section of her life’s story with the phrase “and the party continued.”

He was always on the move, too.

Being with him felt special. The party was continuing to continue. He lived what we might call a rich and complicated life (or several lives) in his 82 years, at an amazing pace. Every interest and hobby was lived with the same intensity and as always with two more of his favorite words: grace and joy.

I found a letter he wrote me in the mid 60s. It goes like this: I’m flying to somewhere to record something after which I’m flying somewhere else to do something else then I’ll be home for two weeks after which we’ll be vacationing in…etc.. But that letter could have been written anytime during the last 45 years. He used to describe his life as a pretty good crack of the whip and that always felt fitting.

Anyone who thinks that he could be overly formal with words never received a letter from him. There was found all the same passion and love that he put into his music and it was directed at you.

The first time I became aware of his particular uniqueness it was at the recording of the theme for the Magnificent Seven. I was 9, and there was my father transformed, exploding with energy conducting it. It was not the sort of moment that fades with time. An hour or so later I was picking a cigar butt off the floor to put in an ashtray and Bobby Helfer, his contractor, came running up telling me I shouldn’t do that because it was going to ruin the acoustics of the room. It was an unusual day for me.

A typical childhood image: We’re driving to a baseball game at the LA Coliseum. It’s 1958 and we’re in his old XK model Jag. The top is not working so it’s permanently down. The interior leather door pulls are gone, so the doors are permanently closed. He’s not wearing a shirt. We pull up on somebody’s front lawn, vault over the doors, he pulls a shirt out of the back, puts it on and we walk in.

Then there were the boats and the horses and the cars and the ranch and the travel and always with the same feeling of somehow being special for his presence.

He was an irreverent joker who could laugh with all the passion he could write with. There was one tension-packed recording session I was working on which had, a few days earlier, featured one of his famous kicking-over-the-stool-and-storming-out-of-the-room incidents. This day, the orchestra returned from a liquid lunch and sounded awful. (My apologies to those orchestra members who are here tonight.) He had two reactions: First, he pulled me into the next room and we laughed hysterically; then, when he regained his composure, he walked his walk back into the booth and announced, “OK we’ll keep that. Moving on to the next cue….”

If he can see this now I am sure that he his working on irreverent remarks that he would love to make. But I think he would make them privately later and enjoy this now.

He never let up when he fell ill. There was still more. He still believed. Typically optimistic, he withdrew a little on the theory that he would soon be better and no one would need to know. He traveled, we went to baseball games, he composed, did interviews, worked on memoirs, thought about organizing his works, collected a few lifetime achievement awards, appeared at the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Hall, started practicing piano, bought two new dogs, a car, and moved. A slow year for him.

I still pick up the phone to call him. I still think “Oh man, I have to tell my dad that.” He always had something to say that was worth listening to as a father, friend or colleague. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice is telling me that he is simply on one of his extended boat trips. I will miss the warmth and grace and of being around him. And the specialness of the times we worked together, and how we understood that those were unique moments in both of our lives.

Very near the end he told me that he was happy with the long and full life he led; he was pleased to see his family thriving, had very few regrets, was at peace and ready for the end when it came. He said that if he is capable of conscious thought on the other side, he will miss only the people he loves and the creative process.

As I was getting up to leave his very last word to me was “more.”

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