Music Cue Archetypes in the Film Scores of Elmer Bernstein


  • Donald C. Meyer Lake Forest College



Bernstein, Elmer


At first glance, Elmer Bernstein's compositional style seems far removed from the musicodramatic legacy of the nineteenth century. Unlike the first generation of film composers like Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, Bernstein (1922–2004) and most others of his generation learned their craft by scoring for radio, not the Broadway or operatic stage. The leitmotif-heavy scores of composers like Erich Korngold were becoming outdated by the time Bernstein began scoring films in the 1950s. Although Bernstein created one of the great traditional film scores of the 1950s in The Ten Commandments (1956), in later interviews he suggested that this was not in accord with his own compositional instincts; the Wagnerian approach he used in that film was demanded of him by the film's director, Cecil B. DeMille. Indeed, Bernstein was one of the leaders in the move away from this older style, helping to redefine the role of jazz in film music (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955) and demonstrating the effectiveness of the smaller, more intimate chamber-music score (To Kill A Mockingbird, 1962). Still, it is also true that Bernstein wrote some of the most memorable themes in the history of film music, and thus it is possible to see traces of older film composing strategies in his scores. Especially in the comedic films of the late 1970s and early 1980s--which Bernstein insisted should be scored "straight"--we hear music cues that are clear descendants of the generic theme types that appeared in such Silent-Era books as The Sam Fox Moving Picture Music, themes that J.S. Zamecnik might think of as "Festival Marches," "Hurries," and one of any number of exotic types. Bernstein's great gift as a melodist, his astute judgment regarding the placement of music in the films he scored, and above all, his sophisticated dramatic and comedic instincts have ensured a prominent position for him in the history of film composition, but this position is best understood in terms of historical continuity rather than revolution.

Author Biography

Donald C. Meyer, Lake Forest College

Associate Professor and Chair Department of Music Lake Forest College.


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How to Cite

Meyer, D. C. (2013). Music Cue Archetypes in the Film Scores of Elmer Bernstein. Journal of Film Music, 5(1-2), 153–163.