To Kill a Mockingbird: Musical Score

Movie music is fascinating. Most of it is average at best; functional, but not memorable. Bond films, Hitchcock suspense, the themes from Jaws, The Exorcist, Rocky and Breakfast at Tiffany’s – all magical film moments.

We can all think of our favorite film scores, whatever generation we represent. Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Lionel Newman – giants in the industry.

Elmer Bernstein is also in that class. The man wrote hundreds of scores, a few are instantly recognizable to film fans, and one (in my view), transcends the connection between film and music: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Why am I so drawn to his To Kill a Mockingbird score? The score has a simple, but incredibly effective motif, evoking childhood innocence and achingly, haunting remembrance. Bernstein’s main theme is almost like a nursery rhyme, simple and direct. And highly effective, also for the adult accessing those experiences, now as memories. Bernstein’s score transports me back to my own childhood where I feel that same sense of wonderment, joy and terror.

Film is both a communal and a deeply personal experience. Favorite film scores? I have mine. I’m less of a film song admirer, and more appreciative of music written specifically for scenes, characters or moods.

Below are a few versions of Bernstein’s Mockingbird suite, including the original film score. Then some interview excerpts and a few of my comments, followed by several of his other classic film scores. Take a few moments to savor the magic.

From Bernstein’s original score.
This is one of the best performances of the main theme from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Interviews and Notes.

Gregory Peck said of Bernstein’s score for To Kill a Mockingbird, “I was very, very lucky with that one. Elmer’s music never repeated the emotional values that were already on the screen. It extended them with insight and subtlety.”

“No film has lent itself more happily to this composer’s flair for lyrical intimacy; and in few films has any composer made so determined an attempt properly to penetrate a child’s mind…Children’s music in films is often the equiuvalent of the patronizing manner adopted by adults who have little understanding of or sympathy with children. Bernstein has the happy knack of writing children’s adult music, not adults’ children music.”

From the liner notes of the 1978 LP album of the soundtrack. | Christopher Palmer

“I certainly didn’t love writing the score for To Killing a Mockingbird. It was very hard. Scores that you love writing sort of write themselves.”

Cynthia Millar | The Guardian, 2002

“It was probably the most difficult job I’ve had because I couldn’t figure out what to do about the score because there were certain things that were obvious, but they were too obvious. For instance, it was a film about really serious themes. Racism, big theme. The bringing up of children, you know, was the other big theme. But while those things were obvious, oh and there was one other very important thing. It was the South, which geographically leads one some place musically. Like South, blues, things of that sort. So there were a lot of obvious things, but they were kind of too obvious, and I didn’t want to go there instinctively, but I didn’t know where else to go for a long, long time. And it took me about six weeks actually. I laugh now because six weeks today you’re expected to do an hour and a half score. But one day it suddenly hit me that what really the film was about, it was about all those things. It was about racism. It was about poverty. It was about the farmers. It was about bringing up children, but it was all these very adult issues seen through the eyes of children. That was the thing. Once I got that in my head then I started to think about, you know, this piano being played one note at a time, you know, that kids do. Uh, childlike sounds, a lot of harps, a lot of bells, solo flutes.”

Jamie MacDougall | BBC Glasgow interview

Who Was Elmer Bernstein?

In a 50 year career, of more than 250 television and film credits, Bernstein’s scores spanned the scope of different genres, from action to drama to suspense to comedy, his films could paint lush soundscapes or ring deeply personal. His scores could be epic and rousing to melancholy and aching.

Elmer Bernstein’s film scores included: Sudden Fear (1952), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Great Escape (1963), Hud (1963), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), True Grit (1969), Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), Airplane! (1980), The Blues Brothers (1980), Stripes (1981), Trading Places (1984), Ghostbusters (1984), Spies Like Ups (1985), Three Amigos (1986), My Left Foot (1989), The Grifters (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Twilight (1998), and Far from Heaven (2002).

Today’s films soak the viewer in emotional cues, as if viewers are incapable of feeling anything on their own. Composers like Bernstein only use music to sweeten or create a majestic theme. Music is used economically and less is really more.

Elmer Bernstein conducting the orchestra performing the theme fro The Great Escape.
An orchestra presentation of The Magnificent Seven.

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