Skip to page content

It is not all that far to go from Alex North's Cleopatra to Elmer Bernstein's Guitar Concerto. There are similarities in the careers of the two American composers, of course. More important, these pieces share a Mediterranean inspiration - overtly in the case of Cleopatra, sublimated in Bernstein's exploitation of Moorish influences on Spanish music and the guitar.

Born in New York, Elmer Bernstein (b. 1922) was trained as a pianist; he attended Juilliard, where he studied composition with Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and arranged and composed music for numerous program of the Armed Forces Radio Service. Further radio work lead to film offers; beginning with Saturday's Hero in 1951, he has composed over 130 film scores. He made a major impact on the art of film scoring with his use of jazz in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and became well-known for action and adventure films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). Bernstein won an Oscar in 1967 for Thoroughly Modern Millie.

More recent scores include Devil in a Blue Dress; Wild, Wild, West; and several films with director Martin Scorsese: Cape Fear (arranging music by Bernard Herrmann), The Age of Innocence, and Bringing Out the Dead. An interviewer once asked Scorsese why he chose to work with Bernstein. "My first thought was: How could I not work with Elmer, when I had the chance? Simply put, he's the best there is - the very best."

Bernstein has also written for the concert hall, including two song cycles, three suites for symphony orchestra, a concertino for Ondes martenot and orchestra, and a string quartet. His guitar concerto was composed for Christopher Parkening and premiered by Parkening in 1999. The note that Bernstein wrote for that performance includes the following remarks:
"The guitar is an instrument that lives happily in the diatonic world, a world in which I am most comfortable. I have made no attempt to force the instrument into what I consider to be unnatural harmonic territory and have instead elected to let the guitar sing comfortably and joyously where it feels most natural. The entire process of the creation was worked through with Christopher Parkening.

"The concerto is in three movements. The piece is harmonically conservative. The beginning of the first movement is based completely on the notes of the open strings of the guitar… Each of the first two movements has a broad melodic line as its centerpiece. The first movement is energetic in character, the second movement is more reflective. The last movement is the shortest of the three and is basically in rondo form."

"The rhythms of the man who wrote The Magnificent Seven are heard throughout the first movement, and the misty gardens of Spain at night seem to haunt the second," says conductor John Mauceri. "The deceptively simple last movement carries on the traditions of Rodrigo, whose Concierto de Aranjuez remains the most popular concerto
composed in the 20th century.

"At 80 Elmer seems to be as fresh and new as ever. And unafraid of writing a beautiful melody, God bless him!"