Elmer Bernstein Collection Comes to USC

The archive of one of the top names in music history offers a rich resource of scores fashioned for films, television and Broadway.
By Dan Knapp
The collection, which contains numerous treasures, ranging from original scores to mementos, is valued at more than $5 million.

Photo/John Livzey
Few composers have had as big an impact on Hollywood as the late Elmer Bernstein.

Bernstein, who died in August 2004 at the age of 82, taught at the USC Thornton School of Music for more than eight years. His prolific career spanned seven decades and earned him an Oscar, an Emmy Award, two Golden Globe Awards and 14 Academy Award nominations.

To honor Bernstein’s lifelong commitment to musical education and to celebrate his connection to the USC Thornton School, his family has donated his personal archive to the university’s Cinema-Television Library, one of the premier units of the USC Libraries.

The Bernstein collection, which contains numerous treasures, ranging from original scores to mementos, is valued at more than $5 million. A significant portion of the collection including photographs, scores and audio recordings eventually will be digitized so that students, aspiring musicians, composers and fans will have easy access to it.

“Studying Elmer’s scores and sketches will provide students with great lessons on film scoring from one of the true masters of our time,” said Brian King, director of the Thornton School’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television (SMPTV) program. “Having the ability to reference this work will provide students with answers to many of the how-to questions when it comes to learning the art and craft of scoring music for film.”

Bernstein was born in New York City in 1922. At the age of 12, he was given a scholarship in piano by Henriette Michelson, a teacher at the Juilliard School of Music, who guided him throughout his career as a concert pianist.

Michelson also introduced the young Bernstein to composer Aaron Copland, who, after hearing Bernstein play some improvisations, selected Israel Citkowitz as a teacher for the promising boy.

During World War II, Bernstein composed scores for the Army Air Corps radio shows. Following the war, Bernstein wrote film scores at Columbia Pictures, including “Saturday’s Hero,” “Boots Malone” and “Sudden Fear.”

Director Cecil B. DeMille hired Bernstein to create the dance music for “The Ten Commandments” and was so impressed with Bernstein’s abilities that he had the young composer score the entire movie after the original composer took ill.

Other notable works by Bernstein include the groundbreaking jazz score for “The Man With the Golden Arm,” the rousing anthem of “The Magnificent Seven” and the jaunty march of “The Great Escape.”

From comedies (including “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Airplane!,” “Trading Places” and “Ghostbusters”) to dramas (such as “The Sweet Smell of Success” and “The Age of Innocence”), Bernstein was always keenly aware of the perfect music to enhance the scene.

Bernstein also composed the music for many westerns, such as “Hud,” “The Sons of Katie Elder” and “True Grit.”

In 1967, he won an Academy Award for the musical comedy “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Bernstein kept working into his eighties, writing the score for the 2002 film “Far From Heaven,” which earned him his 14th Oscar nomination.

He also received Golden Globe Awards for the films “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Hawaii.” Both scores were among his Academy Award nominations.

Industry experts have called Bernstein one of the last of a vanishing breed of film scorers who composed music to enhance storytelling rather than merely sell soundtracks.

“[Bernstein] had an uncanny ability to examine an unfinished film, understand its inner workings and discern what music would best convey the emotion or ideas intended,” said Jon Burlingame, a journalist with an expertise in film music and an adjunct assistant professor at the USC Thornton School. “He wrote music that not only enhanced the films, it also proved effective outside its original cinematic contexts, finding life on records and in the memories of millions of listeners.”

“Hundreds of composers have written music for movies over the years. But only a handful have had a genuine impact on the profession and then managed to translate that into even wider success in terms of public recognition,” Burlingame said.

Bernstein’s career extended far beyond the silver screen. He composed music for numerous television series, documentaries and made-for-TV movies, including “Johnny Staccato,” “Riverboat,” “Julia,” “The Rookies” and “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.” In 1963, he won an Emmy for the documentary “The Making of the President: 1960.”

“Bernstein scored more than 150 films and more than 80 television projects,” Burlingame said. “He spent more than 50 years in Hollywood and consistently remained in demand all of that time despite the trends and musical fads that came and went over the years.”

He also composed music for Broadway and concert halls. His works for the stage include Tony-nominated scores for “How Now, Dow Jones” and “Merlin,” as well as ballet music for “Peter Pan.” Among his numerous concert materials are “Concertino for Ondes and Orchestra” (1983), “Songs of Love and Loathing” (1990) and the much-celebrated “Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra” (1999).

This fall, the USC Libraries and USC Thornton School of Music will collaborate on celebratory events, including an exhibition and concert, to recognize Bernstein and the generous gift of the Bernstein family.