Composer Elmer Bernstein - by Jeffrey Dane

Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments The movie-goer-at-large certainly knows that Charlton Heston portrayed Moses in the film, The Ten Commandments. Ask that movie-goer who designed the Academy Award-winning special effects, or who furnished the inscriptions for the tablets of the law seen in the movie, or where the stone itself actually came from, or who wrote the score for the film -- and the response might be a vacant stare accompanied by silence. The true film-music aficionado would of course know the answer to the last question -- the real film buff might know them all -- but the average person is more familiar with the work than with the actual name of the man who composed the music for Cecil B. DeMille's last epic film.

Composer Elmer Bernstein became known in some musical circles as Bernstein West, to distinguish him from another man of similar name: the NY Philharmonic's Conductor Laureate, Leonard Bernstein (Bernstein East). They weren't related, and even the pronounciations differ: Elmer opted for BernSTEEN while Leonard preferred the Germanic BernSTYNE (as in Steinway pianos).

The Early Years

Elmer Bernstein with Cecil B. DeMille during the making of The Ten Commandments Though he spent most of his adult life in California, Elmer Bernstein's roots are in New York generally and in Brooklyn specifically, having entered the world on April 4, 1922. His father, Edward, taught English for decades at Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High School on Ocean Parkway, a thoroughfare planned by Frederick Law Olmsted, who had also designed Manhattan's Central Park. The boy spent his early years living in an apartment at 157 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, across the street from Prospect Park, also designed by Olmsted; and later, the family moved to Manhattan, living on Riverside Drive -- yet another Olmsted creation.

Bernstein's artistic bent manifested itself even during childhood. He had marked musical ability and a talent for what is now almost a lost art: improvising at the piano. It's worthy of mention that today, virtually without exception, piano concerto cadenzas -- tone for tone -- are completely notated, memorized by the performer, and so played at performances, while in the classical age cadenzas were invariably improvised on the spot by the player. We can easily imagine the stir this feat would cause if a pianist did this today in our era of focused specialization.

By the time he was 12 he knew he wanted to be a concert pianist. Franz Liszt, as a pre-teen in the 1820s, was brought by his teacher, Carl Czerny, to play for Beethoven himself. Similarly, young Elmer made such progress that at 13 he was taken to the dean of American composers, Aaron Copland (who himself would compose several film scores). If anyone had the ability to recognize talent it was Copland, who recommended his own pupil Israel Citkowitz as a teacher for young Elmer.

Two years later, Copland would meet another young man who was destined to become his most exponential interpreter: Leonard Bernstein.

The development of young Elmer's musical proficiencies paralleled his periods of study, all on scholarships, in musical composition at the Juilliard School in New York with composers Roger Sessions, and with Stefan Wolpe (who for whatever reason avoided key-signatures in his own scores). Long after Bernstein's time there, the author of this article, during his own period of study at the Juilliard, would frequently see Roger Sessions at the school, and would remind himself on each such occasion that Elmer Bernstein had studied with him.

The author Jeffrey Dane with Elmer Bernstein backstage at the Meadow Brook Music Festival in Troy, Michigan USA, June 1988 Like Miklos Rozsa and Franz Waxman before him, Elmer Bernstein was conservatory-trained in the classical traditions. Waxman had studied at the Dresden Music Academy and then at the Berlin Conservatory, and Rozsa at the Leipzig Conservatory. While I knew Miklos Rozsa fairly well, I met Franz Waxman by chance, and spoke with him for only about twenty minutes as we walked along Seventh Avenue in Manhattan -- but with Elmer Bernstein I had the pleasure of spending a good part of a long and very memorable weekend. By the rapport that developed between us I got to know him as well as anyone could in such a relatively limited time, and we kept in consistent touch until his untimely passing.

Over the years I was also the fortunate beneficiary of several personal but unsolicited considerations from him, including a CD of his then-newly-recorded Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra, and the score of Arthur Benjamin's Storm Clouds Cantata, a relatively short work but for large forces, composed for Hitchcock's 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much and performed again in the 1956 remake, with Bernard Herrmann conducting.

During a private chat soon after we met, Bernstein told me something that stunned me, and gave a specialty to the realization that the great composers were as alive then as we are today. -- His own piano teacher at the Juilliard, Henriette Michelson, had guided him through his entire period of piano study. She had been a child prodigy in Vienna, and as a teenager had been taken to an orchestral concert at the Musikverein, the city's premiere concert hall, where she heard Brahms' second piano concerto in b-flat-major. The soloist on that occasion was the then-dominant musical figure in Austria: Johannes Brahms. That Elmer Bernstein's own teacher had heard Brahms himself as the piano soloist in one of his own works made me realize the links in the chain that binds us to our own musical history seem larger, stronger, and more immediate when we reflect on such connective facts.

The traditional Hebraic propensities for a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge were reflected in young Bernstein's quest to further his education at New York University. His studies were interrupted by World War II, but fortunately for him and posterity he was assigned to Special Services, where his musical skills enabled him to function most fully and make the most optimum contributions.

His abilities led to work arranging for an ensemble whose namesake was a young major who had led the group until he was lost over the English Channel: the Glenn Miller Orchestra. This got Bernstein an assignment as an arranger for Armed Forces Radio; soon he was given the opportunity to write an original score for the Army Air Corps radio show. By the time he left the service Bernstein had written about 80 such scores (his Hollywood soundtracks later well exceeded that number). In 1949 he composed for the United Nations Radio Service the music for a program, narrated by Henry Fonda, about the UN's role in the Israeli armistice.

Several of Bernstein's chamber music compositions, three suites for orchestra, and two song cycles have all been performed, and his sonata for viola and piano earned a prize from NY's Chatham Square Music School. For a few years after his military service he kept active as a concert pianist.

Composer in Hollywood

Not long afterward Bernstein found himself in Hollywood, where his skills had wider outlets. There he met a vice president of Columbia Pictures, Sidney Buchman, who gave him the opportunity to begin composing music for films. Though it was not his first film score, the movie that first established him as an important composer was The Man With The Golden Arm, in which he used the jazz idiom dramatically.

Elmer Bernstein holding his first Academy Award Until his death in August, 2004, Bernstein was still very active in scoring films, which include the classic and the popular. He worked on well over 200 film scores, among which are those for To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, Israel (a documentary), Ghostbusters, Airplane, Birdman of Alcatraz, several of John Wayne's films (including True Grit, for which Wayne won his only Oscar, and The Shootist, Wayne's last film), Cape Fear (the music for which is based on Bernard Herrmann's score for the 1962 film of that name), and Animal House (in a portion of which Bernstein uses a Brahms-like orchestration of which the great composer himself would surely have approved).

Like Rozsa's score for Spellbound, the themes from some of Bernstein's scores, such as The Man With The Golden Arm and The Magnificent Seven, assumed a life of their own and became very popular in their own right. During his more than five decades in the film colony, more of Elmer Bernstein's film music has been recorded than of just about any other composer who worked in Hollywood. He's the only composer for films to have been nominated for an Oscar at some point during each decade from the 1950s onward.

Bernstein is one of the composers whose own distinctly identifiable "sound" is evident in his film scores. As the trained ear can recognize, for example, Chopin or Stravinsky after only a few bars, the genuinely avid movie-goer and film-music enthusiast can recognize Elmer Bernstein's music. His enviable gift for melody, riveting sense of rhythm and acute feeling for drama makes that recognition not only easy but also a pleasure.

The author Jeffrey Dane with Elmer Bernstein after dinner at The Lark restaurant near Troy, Michigan In addition to his myriad activities in Hollywood he even served for a time as president of The Composers and Lyricists Guild of America and of the Young Musicians Foundation. On two occasions he gave sonata recitals at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre with violinist Nathan Kaproff, and he conducted film music -- his own and that of other composers -- at the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere. He frequently performed and recorded his music in London, where he once played the very piano, a Broadwood, on which Chopin had given his last public performance. The composers in Hollywood who came before Bernstein -- all these people are gone now -- held him in very high regard. His older colleague Miklos Rozsa called his score for To Kill a Mockingbird "absolutely brilliant," and the first time Rozsa's wife, Margaret, met Bernstein at the Rozsa home she actually said to him, "You're my second-favorite composer."

In June, 1988, the author had the pleasure of spending several days with Eve and Elmer Bernstein at the Meadowbrook Music Festival near Troy, Michigan, where the composer conducted a concert of his music. At dinner one evening during that weekend, Bernstein offered me a direct remark: "You'd never make it in Hollywood. You're too honest." It remains one of the finest compliments I have ever received.

The Ten Commandments

Cecil B. DeMille's favorite composer in Hollywood was Victor Young, who died in 1956. Had his health not been failing, it's certain he would have scored The Ten Commandments. Any number of composers in Hollywood could have done so but DeMille had an interest in the young Bernstein, fostered by Victor Young's recommendation. Had Young composed the score for The Ten Commandments, the entire film would have assumed a parallel but markedly different character. After some auditioning and interviews, DeMille asked Bernstein, "Do you think you could do for film music what Puccini did for opera?" After considering the question for a moment and realizing a lot was riding on the answer, the composer's reply was, "I can't be sure -- but I would love to try."

By design, Bernstein composed his score for The Ten Commandments using the leitmotif principle, a technique featured notably in Wagner's operas where prominent characters in the drama have their own musical theme, heard in some form throughout the score in conjunction with those characters' appearances. Bernstein acknowledges he planned his score in harmony with the kind of music he knew DeMille wanted for his pictures.

In this film Bernstein used some unusual instruments mainly in the interests of authenticity, rather than to deliberately create any special effect. (An exception involved the "Angel of Death" sequence, in which the composer used the theremin). During the Exodus sequence, a shofar (ram's horn) was heard, symbolizing the slaves' freedom after 400 years in bondage. According to Hebraic tradition, this was the instrument that heralded the Exodus from Egypt thirty three centuries ago, and it still figures prominently in observances today.

Additionally, replicas of authentic ancient Egyptian percussion instruments were used in the film during the Egyptian Dance sequence, (among the first to be scored by Bernstein for this film), such as the tiple, finger cymbals, and sistrum. It's certainly arguable whether this sequence's music was authentically near-or-middle Eastern, but it was nevertheless effective. The music for this memorable film -- made more so by Bernstein's memorable score -- was otherwise orchestrated for the standard, though augmented, symphony orchestra ensemble.

It may be more than coincidence that DeMille began and ended his survey of historical themes with the same biblical subject. When his first (silent) version of The Ten Commandments was made in 1923 (with Theodore Roberts as Moses) at the then-staggering cost of $1.3 million, it was generally believed DeMille had taken grandiose leave of his senses -- but the film broke every attendance record in existence, and actually inspired a number of young people to become rabbis, priests and ministers. The re-make of the film more than three decades later officially cost Paramount Studios $13,282,712.35.

John P. Fulton won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects for the later version. That it was the only Oscar that went to The Ten Commandments was a keen disappointment to DeMille -- but there can be a balance without symmetry: when we're asked to think of a biblical film, what easily comes to mind first is The Ten Commandments.

Music contributes to our enjoyment of a film more than most of us can imagine, and in the impact his films have on us, the unseen role Bernstein plays can't be understated. We can easily determine just how important his music is in the film, particularly in the opening credits, where the music not only sets the mood but actually primes the viewer for the entire feature. Running the film without sound during the opening will prove the point.

In his book The Haunting Melody, Freud's disciple Theodor Reik crystallized in prose an explanation of music that's as good as anything else could be. He said that language is at its poorest when it tries to grasp and communicate human nuances and shades of feeling -- that very area in which music is most efficient and expressive. He added that music is a language of human emotion, the expression of the inexpressible, that its vocabulary is an esperanto of emotions rather than of ideas, and can therefore express what people feel much more than what they think.

By its nature, what's most obvious often escapes our attention. Though DeMille's film clearly has a spiritual theme and humanitarian overtones, it is not "religion" per se. It is entertainment, but with a sincere, heartfelt and significant message. That message is as valid now as it was five decades ago when the film was made -- and by extension, as unabated as when the real patriarch of the Old Testament actually lived.

Certainly by implication and almost by definition, The Ten Commandments has a stronger connection to Hebraic culture and history than do most other films in that genre. It's no accident that this film was DeMille's magnum opus. The spiritual message in his biblical-subject films was deeply felt by him throughout his career, and it manifested itself not only in his work but also in his deeds, actions and behavior. Though it's said he had some Hebraic ancestry he was not of Jewish upbringing per se, but the basic concept of humanity was reflected in the conduct of his life.

He read the Bible almost daily and their stories colored his outlook. Though professionally a stern taskmaster who could treat peers with severity and sometimes even brutally, he also admired honesty and treated underlings with dignity and generosity. He was not perfect. He was human. His proclivity for making biblical-subject films was a feature of his professional life, and by design he'd arrange crowd scenes, particularly around holidays, so that actors would have work and income. These are not the marks of a man devoid of goodness of spirit.


The Ten Commandments: The Red Sea closing upon the Egyptians Visually, the Red Sea sequence depicting the parting of the waters was debatably the most moving in the entire film. Certainly it was the most skillfully done and "realistic" in terms of special cinematic effects. The appearance of the dense "clouds" in the sky was accomplished by producing brit smoke which was then optically tinted and darkened, and superimposed into the appropriate shots. The pillar of fire that barred the Egyptians' way was animated -- as was the fire atop Mount Sinai, which represented God's presence and which (with flash powder) burned the inscriptions into the stone.

A noteworthy article on the making of the Red Sea portion of the film exists online, and includes a nearly 10-minute video clip of the sequence (though dubbed in Portuguese):

Twice in The Ten Commandments we hear a voice representing God's. In both cases the voice was of course sonically modified for purposes of drama and impact. One writer proposed it was actually a multiple mixture, while most sources say that the voice heard at the giving of the law on Mount Sinai was that of the late basso-profundo, Delos Jewkes. The voice heard at the burning bush, however, was provided by Charlton Heston himself. Mr. Heston confirmed this long ago in a personal letter to the author, who had queried the actor about it for verification. Though hindsight is easy, in retrospect the delivery and inflections of speech do identify the voice as Mr. Heston's. One need only listen carefully during that sequence in the film to hear this. That more than one such voice was used in the film seems to correspond to the multiplicity of people's spiritual views.


The following details about the tablets of The Ten Commandments used in the film are from the catalog of the Calabasas, California auction house Profiles In History. (The author is indebted to John Stevens of Albury, NSW Australia for publicizing these specifics):

". . . DeMille . . . consulted a number of scholars . . . Respected Egyptologist Henry Noerdlinger was brought in . . . Of additional concern was the order and number of Commandments on each tablet. Early Hebrew writings suggest that the tablets were inscribed with four Commandments on one and six Commandments on the other, the four dealing with Man's relationship with God, and the six on Man's relationship with other men. This order was also incorporated into the film tablets. . . Once the design was researched, the actual prop tablets were created by Paramount Studios scenic artist A.J. Ciraolo using thick, richly-hewn fiberglass with hand-applied paint speckling to resemble the red granite of Mount Sinai, one of DeMille's key requirements. As they were to be carved with God's "fire bolts," Ciraolo made them to be slightly irregular with molded chips, craters and dings. The finished tablets measure 23-1/2 in. x 12 in. x 1-1/4 in., which approximates a "six handbreadths" dimension as noted in ancient Midrash descriptions of the tablets. . . As with most important props, more than one set of tablets was made and used in the production. . . only five pair, including this set, are known to exist. DeMille wrote with great pride in his autobiography that he had one set of tablets cut from the original Mount Sinai granite, used for some of the more famous publicity stills showing Heston holding them in his arms (albeit supported at the lower edges due to their weight); they are quite easy to spot as to their texture, grain and lack of side seams, and were not used in the film. The four sets of lighter-weight fiberglass tablets were used for the Mount Sinai scene and the Den of Iniquity scene when Moses confronts the golden calf-worshipping Israelites. One pair of these prop tablets were sold at Christie's New York in June of 1995 for $81,700. Another pair, which were discovered in a garage and were extremely weathered from exposure to the elements for over 43 years, were sold at our 1999 sale of Hollywood Memorabilia for $63,250. The third pair were sold by Profiles in History in 2004 for $74,750. . . These tablets retain the beautiful red and black speckled patina of the Sinai-inspired granite, with translucent white engraved letters and nearly pristine edges. Four small holes are on the verso of one of the tablets from mounting. . ."

Charlton Heston with the tablets of The Ten Commandments The auction house may have been spotlighting publicity and advertising more than accuracy per se: the tablets they had for sale had an estimated bid range of between $30,000 - $50,000. -- Henry Noerdlinger was a respected researcher if not an Egyptologist per se. He is credited as having worked on several films, three of which were DeMille's: Unconquered (1947), Samson and Delilah (1949), and The Ten Commandments in 1956. The first had no bearing on biblical antiquity, and the second had no bearing on ancient Egypt. The second and third films resulted in books by Noerdlinger, based on his researches: Handbook For The Cecil B. DeMille Production Samson and Delilah (ASIN B0007FDBV8, and being long out of print, very difficult to find), and Moses and Egypt: The Documentation To The Motion Picture The Ten Commandments (University of Southern California Press, June 1956, ISBN: 0884740072).

Detail of the tablets used in the film: The Ten Commandments DeMille kept the tablets in his office for a time after the film's completion. In a long-ago letter, Noerdlinger -- writing from memory -- told the author the tablets ". . . to the best of my recollection were about 21 inches long, 11 inches wide and about 1 inch in thickness." In her 1999 book, Written In Stone, author Katherine Orrison says that [a set of the tablets] ". . . were [eventually] donated to Cecil B. DeMille's church, St. Stephen's, in Hollywood." Since the publication of her book, because of vandalism at the church the tablets have been returned to the DeMille Collection but are no longer accessible for viewing.

Bearing little similarity to what we recognize today as Hebrew but having a strong resemblance to the ancient and angular Phoenician alphabet (roughly contemporary with the Canaanite era and inscribed only with consonants and no vowels), the symbols on the tablets were written for the film by Dr. Ralph Marcus of the Institute for Oriental Studies at the University of Chicago. He combined historical background with plausible conjecture to render what he believed to have been how the commandments might then have been written.


The background roles these people and a host of others played in the preparation and making of the film contributed significantly -- not only to our enjoyment of Cecil B. DeMille's epic last film, but also to its impact and quality. Both Heston and DeMille have become so identified with historical epics, and with The Ten Commandments in particular, that the images of DeMille as a creator of biblical extravaganzas and of Heston as Moses have become indelibly linked.

In keeping with his penchant for authenticity in his films, DeMille did have a research staff at Paramount Studios, and engaged men of the cloth of various religions as technical advisors on The Ten Commandments. He also arranged to have stone tablets cut from the red granite of the peak known in that area today as Jebel Musa (in Arabic, Mountain of Moses): Mount Sinai itself.

Mount Sinai today. It should be mentioned, however, and even as a kind of footnote, that some revisionists propose that the "real" Mount Sinai is actually Jebel al-Lawz, a mountain -- with a scorched peak -- not on the Sinai Peninsula at all, but across the Gulf of Aqaba, roughly midway between southern Sharm-el-Sheikh and northern Eilat, in what is now the north-western part of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, some who have visited the now politically inaccessible Jebel al-Lawz (it means Mountain of Almonds) have observed some features that correspond to the biblical account -- and interestingly, the remains of chariots have been found in the Gulf of Aqaba. . .

Parenthetically, and mindful of the principle that The Devil Is In The Details, the paucity of information in ancient Egyptian writings about the Israelites -- there is no mention of Moses as the biblical prophet we know -- leads some scholars in that field to deduce that the Exodus was then perceived by the Egyptians merely as a nuisance border incident. We're still faced with the fact that what happened there more than three millennia ago produced historical consequences that are now a matter of historical record.

Specifically identified on the Merneptah Stele, discovered in Thebes in 1896 by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, and now in Egypt's Cairo Museum, is Israel -- but cited as a people, not as a place. Merneptah was a son of Rameses II, by tradition the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and the stele's mention of Israel is the earliest known non-biblical reference to the nation.


The Ten Commandments: The last scene in the film before the final fadeout Said Elmer Bernstein at the time of his association with DeMille, "I hope to continue to grow as a musician, but at this moment I cannot even dream of ever again obtaining as important and challenging an assignment as composing the music for The Ten Commandments. . . It was a very complex problem since the composition had to express scripture, history and drama in music. The score is composed of symphonic themes identifying momentous events and significant personages as well as the great mass of people through whose trials and triumphs history moves. The music attempts to enhance the experience of actuality and to add to the atmosphere of authenticity. I hope that it also helps to suggest the lasting truth of the film's inspired message . . . Of all the arts, I strongly feel that music is closest to religion. It is hard to explain what happens at the magical moment when suddenly there is music in my heart and mind and I can go to the piano and express it in sound. That is why I feel that music above all other arts can come closest to expressing religious experience and conveying it to others."

An LP recording (on the Dot label) of the film's sound track was later specially made by Bernstein to fill the need for a stereophonic performance of the music on records. With few changes, Bernstein conducted the new performance using the original film score (which had been orchestrated by Leo Shuken and Lucien Cailliet). In so doing, he fulfilled a prophecy made by DeMille himself, who during the preparation of the original score had told the composer he would someday have occasion to perform and record this music again.

Demille's comment was touchingly foretelling: "Your music will surely outlive me, and possibly even yourself."

Until his death at 82 on August 18, 2004, Elmer Bernstein was still very active in composing music for films.

As human beings, some people have an innate ability to bring out the best in others. Elmer Bernstein was among them, to which this author bears witness.

The author: Jeffrey Dane

JEFFREY DANE is a researcher, historian and author whose work is published in the USA and abroad in several languages. He has written extensively about the composers, has met several of those who worked in Hollywood, has contributed to a number of books, and his work has appeared here on mfiles. He was a friend of Miklos Rozsa, about whom he wrote a book for the Rozsa centenary, A Composer's Notes: Remembering Mikos Rozsa, published by iUniverse in Bloomington, Indiana USA. That Elmer Bernstein would have written the Foreword for it, had he lived, is far more likely than conjectural. Mr. Dane has co-authored a book, for which he is seeking a publisher, about Texas.