Alfred Newman (1901-1970) - head of a musical dynasty

Alfred Newman - How the West was Won soundtrack CD cover The story of Alfred Newman starts from humble beginnings. He was the eldest of 10 children and his family were poor, but his interest in music was recognised at an early age and, on a shoe-string budget he received his first piano lessons, walking a round trip of 10 miles every day to practice on an instrument belonging to a friend of his mother's. His musical talents blossomed and he seemd to develop a particular fondness for Beethoven and Chopin. He played the former's Moonlight Sonata and Fur Elise at a concert at a very young age, and seems never to have looked back. He earned some money from recitals and was able to continue his musical education in New York supported by a scholarship and a kind teacher who taught him piano and harmony. There he also played in theatres and restaurants before getting a job as an accompanist to Grace La Rue in her vaudeville act. The novelty of a young teenager accompanist, meant that Newman was part of the act and frequently dressed in costume for the part. The vaudeville act went on tour, leading to further work for the talented pianist at the Harlem Opera House and on Broadway. By the time he was 20, Newman had struck up a friendship with George Gershwin and this relationship later led to his conducting some of George and Ira Gershwin's musicals including "Treasure Girl" and "Funny Face". He also conducted Rogers & Hart's "Spring is Here" and "Heads Up", and Jerome Kern's "Criss Cross" among many other works for the stage. At this time he contributed the occasional song to musicals, and other compositions included his adaptation of some of Chopin's Nocturnes for Ballet.

Stage musicals were to lead to film musicals when Irving Berlin persuaded him to go to Hollywood, and thus Newman found himself working in Hollywood as a conductor in the 30s, during the early days of the talkies. He worked for United Artists for a while and as director for Sam Goldwin. His influence on music from Hollywood extended considerably when he was appointed as Music Director for Fox studios, then called 20th Century Pictures, where he remained as head of their music department for nearly two decades. Over this period he contributed an enormous amount to film music as a composer, arranger, musical director and conductor. The role involved employing composers and other musicians for Fox's films, and Newman played a key role in identifying and nurturing the talents of other composers starting out in the industry including David Raksin, Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. He also employed two of his younger brothers in the industry, Emil Newman and Lionel Newman. There have been Newmans in Hollywood ever since, since two of Alfred's sons David Newman and Thomas Newman and his nephew Randy Newman are all established and accomplished film composers. One of his earlier tasks in his position at Fox was to write the 20th Century Fox Fanfare which is heard at the start of the studio's movies. This means that his music has probably been heard more times than that of any other film composer! To underline his huge contribution to the development of film music both before, during and after his stint at Fox, note that Newman received nine Oscars and countless Oscar nominations.

Alfre Newman - Man of Galilee soundtrack CD cover As a composer he has produced a significant amount of incidental music, but seemed to retain a particular interest in musicals. He played key roles in "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" as musical director, "The King and I" as conductor and "South Pacific" as musical supervisor! One of Newman's biggest projects, indeed one of the biggest film projects of the time with numerous directors and a host of stars, was kicked off soon after he left Fox. "How The West Was Won" required a large amount of music to fit its considerable duration and, together with Ken Darby his frequent collaborator, Newman provided a score which linked together the various story elements integrating them with a number of song arrangements. Watch out for versions of "Shenandoah", When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Greensleeves and the hymn Rock of Ages by Thomas Hastings.

"Airport" is one of Newman's last soundtracks and notable for the composer's departure from the traditional old style of grand lush orchestral music. Although there are moments of suspense and comedy, most of the soundtrack uses an easy-listening jazz influenced idiom to depict the day to day activities in the airport.

Films by Alfred Newman:

  • The Prisoner of Zenda
  • Alexander's Ragtime Band - musical director
  • Beau Geste
  • Gunga Din (1939) - based on the Rudyard Kipling poem
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - there's some fantastic music in this score, well worth getting the version reconstructed by John Morgan and conducted by William Stromberg on the Naxos "Film Music Classics" label at or
  • Wuthering Heights - a lush romantic theme for Cathy in this score dominated by strings, here is the violinist Itzhak Perlman playing Cathy's theme on youtube
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Mark of Zorro - 1940 and 1952 versions with exciting Spanish/Mexican sounds, compare with the later Mask of Zorro by James Horner
  • The Black Swan - like "The Mark of Zorro" this finds Newman in swashbuckling mood in the style established by Korngold
  • How Green was my Valley - directed by John Ford and set in a Welsh mining community, the oscar-winning score features the Welsh hymn-tune Cwm Rhondda
  • The Song of Bernadette - Oscar-winning music, and one of many scores for film director Henry King
  • Desiree - Newman provided the title waltz theme and the score was penned by Alex North
  • All About Eve
  • Leave Her to Heaven
  • How to Marry a Millionaire
  • The Robe - a cue from this was re-used on "Demetrius and the Gladiators" otherwise scored by Franz Waxman
  • The Egyptian - this score was a collaboration with Bernard Herrmann and the result is extraordinary - check out the reconstruction by John Morgan conducted by William Stromberg at or
  • There's no Business like Show Business - musical director
  • Daddy Long Legs - musical director
  • The Seven Year Itch
  • Anastasia
  • The King and I
  • South Pacific - musical supervisor and conductor
  • The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) - Newman's music emphasises the positive aspects of Anne's plight with courage and hope - Michael Nyman produced music for a later version of the story
  • How the West was Won - there is a huge amount of music in this, and several song arrangements by Newman and Ken Darby
  • The Greatest Story ever Told
  • Airport - one of Newman's last soundtracks

Alfred Newman - Recommendations:

We can heartily recommend "Man of Galilee" (see our review) which is a 2 CD album of music composed by Alfred Newman displaying the breadth of his talents. The album is named after a Symphonic Cantata (included within) based on his music for "The Robe" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told". Another double album worth considering is an extended one featuring the music of "How the West Was Won". This is available from Amazon sites using these links: or