I can’t listen to Elmer Bernstein’s score for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD too often. It’s not that I have any particular memories associated with the film. But the music haunts me and brings up a well of human emotion that feels personal yet universal.
Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film stars Gregory Peck in his signature, Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending a black man (Brock Peters) against an unjust rape charge of a white woman in the Depression-era South. The film unfolds through the eyes of Atticus’ children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Philip Alford).
This is a film in which the elements are all part of a cohesive whole, with every not one false note, from the performances and Robert Mulligan’s direction, to Horton Foote’s exquisite Oscar-winning screenplay and Bernstein’s classic score.
As the story is seen through the eyes of children, Bernstein had to score the music that way so as not to be at odds with the tone of the film. “I decided to focus on the kind of particular and peculiar magic that is the imaginative world of the child,” he said. ” Simplicity was the keynote.” But simplicity does not mean simplistic. Bernstein’s score shines as a model of subtle, lean scoring.
The memorable main title sequence beautifully sets the stage for the drama. We hear a little girl’s voice humming as she opens her treasure box filled with crayons, marbles, a key, some carved, wooden dolls. Disparate items from her collective memory that only she understands, yet images that immediately place us in her world.
Bernstein’s main theme is a waltz, first stated in the piano, followed by a flute solo, until the full orchestra swells in warm, rich strings and a lovely French horn countermelody. Bernstein’s score is orchestrated mainly for chamber orchestra, focusing on the piano, strings, woodwinds, accordion, and harp, whether solo or in small groups. Brass and percussion punctuate the music only rarely, mostly during darker moments associated with the children’s fear.
In his comments for Films In Review, even the normally acerbic Page Cook was not immune to Bernstein’s musical magic: “Only Aaron Copland could have come as close to creating the musical Americana that Bernstein put into his score.”
No matter the memories or the images they may dredge up, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a true American classic in every sense of the word.