In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Elmer Bernstein

  • Introduction
  • General Film Music Histories
  • Books and Dissertations
  • Book Chapters
  • Articles on Films and Film History
  • Music for Films by Charles and Ray Eames
  • Music for Television, Concert Hall, and Broadway
  • Interviews with Bernstein in Books
  • Interviews with and Features on Bernstein in Magazines and Newspapers
  • Interviews with Bernstein’s Orchestrators
  • Representative Reviews
  • Obituaries
  • Legacy, Influence, and Reception
  • Television Appearances
  • Recordings and Websites

Cinema and Media Studies Elmer Bernstein
Stanley Pelkey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0357


Elmer Bernstein, a leading American film and television composer, received fourteen Academy Award nominations and won once, for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Born in New York City (4 April 1922) to immigrant parents, Bernstein enjoyed a lively artistic childhood. He studied piano with Henriette Michelson (Juilliard), who introduced him to Aaron Copland, and later composition with Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe. Bernstein’s father introduced him to jazz, which Bernstein drew upon when composing his influential score for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). After graduating from New York University, Bernstein concertized as a pianist before joining the Army Air Force. During World War II, he arranged for the Army Air Force Band and composed for Armed Forces Radio. Bernstein was then invited to Hollywood to score Saturday’s Hero (1951). Other assignments followed, though Bernstein found himself graylisted due to earlier left-leaning activities. He credited Cecil B. DeMille for reviving his career: hired to write dances for The Ten Commandments (1956), Bernstein was selected to compose for the whole film after Victor Young withdrew. Bernstein’s scores for The Ten Commandments and The Man with the Golden Arm placed him among the leaders in American film music. More successes followed, with scores to The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and The Great Escape (1963). Popular knowledge of The Magnificent Seven’s music was enhanced when it was reused in Marlboro cigarette commercials. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bernstein also composed for television and collaborated with the designers and filmmakers Charles and Ray Eames, activities that have received less scholarly attention. Interviews and biographical accounts often emphasize career cycles during which Bernstein was typecast but subsequently defied industry expectations. Scores for Westerns (e.g., True Grit [1969]) dominated Bernstein’s career in the 1960s and early 1970s, while comedies prevailed in the late 1970s and 1980s (e.g., Animal House [1978], Trading Places [1983], and Ghostbusters [1984]). A final career phase, centered on dramas, began with My Left Foot (1989), included collaborations with Martin Scorsese, and culminated with his Academy Award–nominated score for Far from Heaven (2002). Bernstein worked with important directors, including DeMille, Otto Preminger, John Sturges, John Landis, Jim Sheridan, Scorsese, and Todd Haynes; he often criticized directors with little knowledge of music who questioned composers’ judgments. During the 1970s, Bernstein elevated the art of film music, publishing his Film Music Notebook, producing recordings of important film scores funded by a mail-order club, and championing film composers’ rights to their music.

General Film Music Histories

Bernstein’s reputation as a leading film composer was already established when contemporary scholarly studies on film music emerged in the 1980s. Prendergast 1992 and Brown 1994 refer to Bernstein and some of his scores, but with Hickman 2006, Cooke 2008, and Wierzbicki 2009, Bernstein’s numerous and varied contributions to different film genres receive more comprehensive treatment. Kalinak 1992 and Donnelly 2001 represent the tendency for Bernstein to be mentioned in film music histories because of his jazz-inspired film music and/or aesthetics. Burlingame 2000 offers a relatively extensive treatment of Bernstein’s writings and film music advocacy work as part of Burlingame’s summary of broader commercial developments in film music since 1970.

  • Brown, Royal S. Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520914773

    Brown includes some discussion of Bernstein’s film scores in his general film music history. In interviews with select film music composers included in this book, Miklós Rózsa and David Raksin list Bernstein, John Williams, and Jerry Goldsmith among the most significant film composers active in the final years of the twentieth century.

  • Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. New York: Billboard Books, 2000.

    Burlingame offers a multipage entry on Bernstein, with a listing of recordings of his representative soundtracks. In his general history of American film music and commercial developments related to soundtrack recordings in the 1970s, Burlingame also discusses Bernstein’s efforts to increase interest in film music through his Film Music Notebook and to record important scores for his Film Music Collection.

  • Cooke, Mervyn. A History of Film Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511814341

    Cooke briefly addresses Bernstein’s music for more than a dozen films, including The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Airplane! (1980), and Ghostbusters (1984). Each score is treated as an exemplar highlighting themes from film music history.

  • Donnelly, K. J. “The Hidden Heritage of Film Music: History and Scholarship.” In Film Music: Critical Approaches. Edited by K. J. Donnelly, 1–15. New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781474467810-003

    Donnelly surveys Hollywood film music history and introduces the history of film music scholarship up to 2001. Bernstein is referenced for his 1950s jazz scores.

  • Hickman, Roger. Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

    Hickman provides a relatively thorough summary of Bernstein’s life and career, a lengthier discussion of the music for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and less extended assessments of the composer’s scores for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Ghostbusters (1984). Scores are situated in relationship to prevailing musical trends in their respective decades or genres.

  • Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Kalinak references Bernstein primarily in relation to his aesthetics (especially in light of changing film music practices in the 1960s) and his influential score for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).

  • Prendergast, Roy M. Film Music: A Neglected Art. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1992.

    Prendergast offers some discussion of Bernstein’s music and touches upon the borrowing of music from The Magnificent Seven (1960) for Marlboro’s television commercials.

  • Wierzbicki, James. Film Music: A History. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203884478

    Drawing upon Bernstein’s essays and interviews, Wierzbicki discusses Bernstein’s film music style and aesthetics. This helps Wierzbicki parse the history of musical changes in Hollywood film scoring after the 1960s. Individual film scores by Bernstein receive less attention.

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