Great Composers - Elmer Bernstein

The Great Composers CD cover Elmer Bernstein has been creating film music for about half a century and is still going strong. This album is just a small selection of his vast output, and displays a number of dimensions to the composer's work. The first of these dimensions is the one for which he is perhaps best remembered: The Western. Opening with The Magnificent Seven we hear one of his early successes and the one for which he is perhaps best remembered. There follows three films featuring John Wayne in cowboy mode from the 60s and 70s, The Shootist, The Commancheros and True Grit. Then to close this section we have a film which is only loosely a Western in the classic sense, Wild Wild West. Undoubtedly Bernstein was employed on this film simply to give it that authentic Western feel, and this he certainly did, but sliding into pop mode for a small section featuring keyboards and drumkit.

The next dimension we hear from the composer's repertoire is in complete contrast to this, with a selection of film music which is delicate, gentle and sensitive. Firstly there is the main title from To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic in every sense. My Left Foot is just as delicate, without the child-like innocence but full of simple humanity. Frankie Starlight has a number of simple themes, engaging and warm. Then The Age of Innocence speaks of a time constrained by social custom, the music is beautifully lyrical, even elegant, and hints at Brahms and Elgar.

The next section of themes are happy, good-spirited pieces, suitable for fell-good movies or comedies. Lost in Yonkes very much has a spirited jazz band feel, while A Rage in Harlem pays homage to the Blues though in a happy rather than a sad sense. Bernstein has used hesitant, light-hearted themes before as a comedy backdrop (such as in Ghostbusters) and his theme for The Grifters is a good example of this style. It has a care-free air with touches of seriousness thrown in for good measure. The Black Cauldron is a Disney animated film, also light and good-humoured as befits its intended audience, but with some tongue-in-cheek darkness to reflect its subject matter.

The next section of themes probably fit into the "miscellaneous" category. Firstly we have The Great Escape whose march theme keeps up the spirits of its prison camp inmates while sticking out its tongue at their keepers. Buddy is full of good tunes, reminiscent in style to some of his Westerns, but with the same heart evident from his more delicate music. The final track on the album is a suite from The Ten Commandments dating back to 1956. This type of epic movie is more often associated with Miklos Rozsa. Here Bernstein demonstrates that he can also produce music in this vein, though bringing his own skills for melody and humanity.

This is a great collection of music by a legendary film composer and highly recommended. It is available from: in the UK, or in the US.

Track listing:

  • The Magnificent Seven - needs no introduction
  • The Shootist - percussive and rhythmically complex
  • The Commancheros - another stirring main theme in Magnificent Seven mode
  • True Grit - an excellent musical portrait of John Wayne's "Rooster Cogburn"
  • Wild Wild West - the Will Smith vehicle
  • To Kill a Mockingbird - the world as seen through the wide innocent eyes of a child growing up
  • My Left Foot - featuring woodwind, harp, piano, a few strings, solo violin and synthesiser?
  • Frankie Starlight
  • The Age of Innocence - plenty of strings and orchestral interplay
  • Lost in Yonkers - very light jazz band in a playful mood
  • A Rage in Harlem - a touch of the blues
  • The Grifters - prominent keyboard theme and synth effects
  • The Black Cauldron
  • The Great Escape
  • Buddy
  • The Ten Commandments