Fifty years and 200 film scores later, Elmer Bernstein has turned 80. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been able to do many different things — big splashy costume-dramas and Westerns have kept life interesting.” On October 9 two Royals — the Albert Hall and the Philharmonic — combine to welcome ‘the man with the golden touch’ to conduct his film and concert music. What’s the film score process?
“When you’re doing anything creative, you start with a personal response, even if you don’t mean to. A script gives you an idea but I’ve learned there can be a great difference between the script and the film, so I wait for the film to direct me. What I try to do is find the core of a film and make the music support that.” And those incredible tunes? “The memorable ones tend to come quickly and in a way that can’t be explained. They come from God! When I hear the tune, I hear it orchestrated. Some scores take a long time; it took weeks for me to realize that To Kill a Mockingbird was about adult issues seen through the eyes of children, while Age of Innocence meant getting behind the music of a particular era.” Steve McQueen’s cooky character cued The Great Escape’s indomitable main title now heard on football terraces — “I’m happy with that.”
Bernstein and eclecticism seem synonymous. “I teach at the University of Southern California and tell my students to learn everything about music, everything. I’ve always been curious, interested in music through the world. That’s simply because of my own sense of adventure.” Of the directors that Bernstein has worked with, “John Sturges [The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven] told you the story and then left you alone. With Martin Scorsese you can discuss musical things. I’ve just finished a score for Todd Haynes; a film called Far from Heaven. We talked about the film, the music, we sat around the piano and I played things for him. That’s rare.”
The October 9 concert includes Far From Heaven and “all my signature pieces — The Ten Commandments, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, the jazz pieces. And I’m doing for the first time in the UK something that is not film music, a Concerto for Guitar; also there’s a piece based on movie themes for an electric instrument I’ve used many times, the Ondes Martenot.” Fans of Messiaen’s Turangalida need no introduction to this eerie-sounding, glissando-expressive device. “It’s more versatile than people think. One always hears it in the upper register or employed as a magical sound. My piece shows it in a very different way.”
Bernstein studied with Roger Sessions. “I started with Copland, who invented American music. When I went to Sessions, his music was conservative; it was learning nuts and bolts, doing harmony and counterpoint exercises. His music became very dense” Has Bernstein’s style changed? “It’s altered in some rather unpleasant ways. So many American films today are made for the summer season. The big companies use the kind of music that 14-year-olds like, so there’s a tendency to stuff scores with pop songs.” Irritating thump-thump! “You said it, not me! But I support what you’re saying; it’s heartless, artless and too loud. In dark moments I have the feeling that the art of writing film music is dead. Then you find Thomas Newman or a film like Road to Perdition and you hear a real score, but that’s become rare.”
Far from Heaven excites Bernstein. “The reviews for the film and the music have been ecstatic; they’re probably the best reviews I’ve ever received. I suddenly realized the reason is reviewers have gotten tired of hearing electronic scores, so they think what I wrote for this film is revolutionary. It’s a very personal statement.” The Royal Albert Hall date brings a concert premiere for it. Then Mr. Bernstein has engagements in the States and a tour of Australia. Adventures indeed.
*Elmer Bernstein’s Birthday Concert is at the Royal Albert Hall on October 9.
—Edited by Michael Darvell