Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein (April 4, 1922  August 18, 2004) was an American composer and conductor known for his film scores. In a career that spanned more than five decades, he composed "some of the most recognizable and memorable themes in Hollywood history", including over 150 original movie scores, as well as scores for nearly 80 television productions.[1] Examples of his widely popular and critically acclaimed works are scores to The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Great Escape (1963), The Rookies (1972–76), Animal House (1978), Airplane! (1980), Heavy Metal (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), The Black Cauldron (1985), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Wild Wild West (1999) and Far from Heaven (2002).

Elmer Bernstein
Bernstein guest conducting the U.S. Air Force Band in 1981
Background information
Born(1922-04-04)April 4, 1922
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedAugust 18, 2004(2004-08-18) (aged 82)
Ojai, California, U.S.
GenresFilm scores
Occupation(s)Composer, conductor, songwriter
Years active1951–2004

Bernstein won an Oscar for his score to Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and was nominated for 14 Oscars in total. He also won two Golden Globe Awards, an Emmy Award, and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Early life

Bernstein was born to a Jewish family[2] in New York City, the son of Selma (née Feinstein, 1901-1991), from Ukraine, and Edward Bernstein (1896-1968), from Austria-Hungary.[3]

Contrary to popular assumption, he was not related to the celebrated composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, but the two men were friends.[4] 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).[5] They also pronounced their surnames differently. Elmer pronounced his "BERN-steen", and Leonard used "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.[6]

Elmer was drafted into the United States Army Air Forces during the World War II era where he wrote music for the Armed Forces Radio.

Elmer 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.

He had a lifelong 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.


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, Ghostbusters and the fanfare used in the National Geographic television specials.[6]

His theme for The Magnificent Seven is also familiar to television viewers, as it was used in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. Bernstein also provided the score to many of the short films of Ray and Charles Eames.

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.[7]

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.


Along with many in Hollywood, Bernstein faced censure during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Bernstein was called by the House Un-American Activities Committee when it was discovered that he had written some music reviews for a Communist newspaper. After he refused to name names, pointing out that he had never attended a Communist Party meeting, he 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.[6][8]

Association with John Landis

John Landis grew up near Bernstein, and befriended him through his children. Years later, he requested that Bernstein compose the music for National Lampoon's Animal House, over the studio's objections. He explained to Bernstein that he thought that Bernstein's score, playing it straight as if the comedic Delta frat characters were actual heroes, would emphasize the comedy further.

The opening theme to the movie is based upon a slight inversion of a secondary theme from Brahms's Academic Festival Overture. 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".

Cape Fear

When Martin Scorsese announced that he was re-making Cape Fear, Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann's original score to the new film. Bernstein leapt at the opportunity to work with Scorsese, as well as to pay homage to Herrmann.[9] 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.[10]


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.

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. In addition, 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.[11]


Over the course of his career, Bernstein won an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and two Golden Globe Awards.[12] In addition, he was nominated for the Tony Award three times[7] and a Grammy Award five times.

He 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. Bernstein was recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with Golden Globes for his scores for To Kill a Mockingbird and Hawaii. In 1963, he won the Emmy for Excellence in Television for his score of the documentary The Making of The President 1960. He is the recipient of Western Heritage Awards for The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965).[12]

He received five Grammy Award nominations from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and garnered two Tony Award nominations for the Broadway musicals How Now Dow Jones and Merlin.

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 US, 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.[13][14] 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[13] and with the NARAS Governors Award in June 2004.

His scores for The Magnificent Seven and To Kill a Mockingbird were ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth and seventeenth greatest American film scores of all time, respectively, on the list of AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores. Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, and Jerry Goldsmith are the only composers to have two scores listed, and are therefore in second place for the most scores on the list, behind John Williams, who has three. Other Bernstein film scores nominated for the list are as follows:

Personal life and death

Bernstein was married three times, first to Rhoda Federgreen. Their marriage lasted from 1942 to 1946.[15] Bernstein's second wife was Pearl Glusman, whom he wed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 21, 1946.[16][17] After the couple's divorce in 1965, Bernstein married Eve Adamson. They remained together for 39 years, until his death.[17]

The Bernsteins in the 1990s resided in Hope Ranch, a suburb of Santa Barbara, California.[9] Later, they moved to a home in Ojai, California, where Elmer died from cancer on August 18, 2004, at age 82.[18] His publicist Cathy Mouton simply stated at the time that Bernstein had died following a lengthy illness.[17][19] He was survived by his wife Eve and their two daughters, Emilie and Elizabeth; by his two sons, Peter and Gregory Bernstein, from his earlier marriage to Pearl Glusman; and by five grandchildren.[17][19]



He influenced Alan Silvestri, Georges Delerue, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Dick Hyman, Hans Zimmer, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Trevor Jones, Mark Isham, Bear McCreary, Danny Elfman, Alan Menken, and Randy Newman.

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Elmer Bernstein among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[20]

List of works















  • Cecil B. De Mille – American Epic (2004; Television film)

Broadway theatre


  1. ":BIOGRAPHY", Official Site of Elmer Bernstein, The Bernstein Family Trust. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  2. The Guardian: "Elmer Bernstein - Prolific Hollywood composer whose scores ranged from The Magnificent Seven to Far From Heaven" Michael Freedland 19 August 2004.
  3. Biography Archived 2009-07-21 at the Wayback Machine
  4. "Great Escape composer dies at 82". BBC News. August 19, 2004.
  5. "Introduction". Bernstein West. Retrieved 2012-04-10.
  6. Biography Archived 2010-06-22 at the Wayback Machine songwritershalloffame.org, retrieved December 21, 2009
  7. Internet Broadway Database listing ibdb.com; retrieved December 21, 2009.
  8. Susman, Gary (August 19, 2004). "Goodbye". EntertainmentWeekly.com. Retrieved 2009-02-27. "Composer Elmer Bernstein Dead at 82". Today.com. Associated Press. August 19, 2004. Retrieved 2009-02-27.
  9. Woodward, Josef (1991). Sounds Around Town — Elmer Bernstein: A First in His Career: Composer: From 'Cape Fear' to 'The Grifters,' all of his film scores this year are different. On purpose. Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1991.
  10. "Talk on the Wild Side" bernardherrmann.org, June 2003.
  11. Patrick Russ, liner notes for Christopher Parkening • Elmer Bernstein • Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra for Two Christophers (Angel CD 7243 5 56859 2 6), New York, Angel Records, 2000.
  12. Internet Movie Database listing, Awards imdb.com, retrieved December 21, 2009
  13. Biography filmreference.com, retrieved December 21, 2009
  14. Hollywood Star Walk - Elmer Bernstein, Composer Star on the 7000 block of Hollywood Boulevard
  15. ": FACT SHEET". Elmer Bernstein. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  16. "Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Marriage Indexes, 1885-1951," database with digital image of original Elmer Bernstein-Pearl Glusman marriage license 826434, December 21, 1946; FamilySearch, archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  17. Severo, Richard (2004). "Elmer Bernstein, a Composer of Scores Capable of Outshining Their Films, Dies at 82", The New York Times, August 20, 2004. Retrieved August 1, 2018.
  18. "Great Escape composer dies at 82", BBC News, August 19, 2004.
  19. Luther, Claudia (2004)."Elmer Bernstein, 82; Composer Who Won Oscar 'Could Do It All'", Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2004
  20. Rosen, Jody (25 June 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2019.
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