Alfred Newman

Zing Went the Newman Strings of My Heart!

Alfred Newman—my guide, guru and guardian angel, at least when it comes to film music. Why? Three words—the Newman strings. Nearly everything you want to know about Newman’s film music can be found in his treatment of the string section of the orchestra. And no string section ever sounded quite like the one that Newman perfected over his 20-year career at 20th Century Fox.

What made the Newman strings so exceptional? No doubt, it had a great deal to do with Newman’s talent as a composer. But kudos should also be shared by his orchestrators, particularly Edward Powell. But arguably Newman’s greatest effect on the strings came from his position on the podium.

By all accounts, Newman was one of Hollywood’s finest conductors. And his position as head of the Fox music department gave him unprecedented power to shape and mold his studio’s orchestra to his liking. Like the orchestras of rival studios M-G-M and Warner Bros., the Fox orchestra had a unique sound, and the lion’s share of the praise rightfully goes to Newman.

For this month’s “9 on the 9th” post, I wanted to look at the ways in which Newman worked with the strings—whether conducting his own music or that of another composer—and how his use of violins, violas, celli, and basses defined the musical timbre over at Fox. There are many more examples than the nine I’ve listed here, but this is a good place to start. The scores are listed in alphabetical order.

All About Eve soundtrack
Anastasia soundtrack
The Best of Everything soundtrack

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s skewering of the stage contains some of cinema’s finest dialog and arguably Bette Davis’ finest hours on film. Because the dialog zings along with one great line after another, Newman stays out of the way for much of the film, choosing instead to focus on those rare moments of the characters’ internal reflection. In the finale of the film, Newman takes Eve’s (Anne Baxter) tender theme from the beginning of the film and supplies it with as much ferocious drive as the character has shown over the last two hours as she tramples over her “friends” on her way to the top. The theme begins with a reminder of Eve’s earlier sweetness and innocence in the violin solo. As the entire violin section takes over the melody, the theme becomes bolder and a bit desperate as another young ingenue arrives on the scene to take Eve’s place.

ANASTASIA (1956)

The fate of Russia’s Romanov dynasty is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. And the fate of young Anastasia, who supposedly escaped from her family’s fate at the hands of a firing squad, provided even more drama. In this adaptation of Marcelle Maurette’s play, Yul Brynner plays a Russian businessman who tries to pass off a mysterious woman as the Grand Duchess. The film brought Ingrid Bergman back into Hollywood’s good graces (and copped her an Oscar) after she ran off with Roberto Rossellini years earlier. In this haunting cue, “Anastasia” walks the banks of the Seine in despair. The first four notes of Newman’s famous theme are passed between the woodwind solos before the violins take over a full statement of the theme proper. Using one of his trademarks, Newman utilizes the entire string section, with all four instruments handing off sections of the theme and countermelody.

THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959)

I first fell in love with Newman’s music hearing the “London Calling” cue on Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Scores compilation devoted to the composer. Newman’s beautiful melody quite simply broke my heart, and still does to this day. The film is Hollywood soap at its slickest in this glossy tale of Madison Ave, but Newman’s music blows away the suds to give the film real emotion. Johnny Mathis’ crooning of the title song is equally smooth, but the melody is even more effective as an instrumental piece. Gerhardt’s handling of the cue is stellar, but next to Newman’s prowess on the podium, it sounds like syrupy soup. Forgiving the disparities in sound quality, Newman’s version downplays the sugary orchestrations and still captures the Fox sound, even without Edward Powell’s participation as orchestrator. No one, not even Gerhardt, has been able to replicate that unique quality that Newman brought to the conducting of his own music. While other conductors have performed other Golden Age greats like Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, and even Herrmann in some facsimile of their original recordings, Newman has by and large eluded modern conductors. These two examples show us just how important Newman’s position as a conductor was.

David and Bathsheba Soundtrack
The Diary of Anne Frank soundtrack
The Greatest Story Ever Told soundtrack

DAVID AND BATHSHEBA (1951)

The two sides of the Biblical character of Bathsheba (Susan Hayward)—lover and seductress—are given musical voice in this cue. Minor keys and chromatic intervals slink side by side. Flute, oboe and tambourine seductively ooze their way under King David’s (Gregory Peck) skin, but as his passion takes over, the violins bring a yearning desperation to his love. The cue is an excellent example of Newman’s trademarks weaving of woodwind and string solos with sectional work, each one seamlessly building on the other until the entire orchestra reaches an intense, passionate climax.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959)

In 1956, playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett turned Anne Frank’s famous diary into a Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning stage hit. For the 1959 film version, George Stevens wanted to escape the subject’s doom and gloom. Newman’s music “attempted to evoke the memory of a happier past, the hope for a happier future, the longings of oppressed people and the love of family, one for the other, and most of all, the great dignity and courage of the Frank family and their friends in the face of disaster.” The most emotional moments occur between Anne (Milly Perkins) and Peter (Richard Beymer) exploring young love. Knowing what we do about their outcome makes those scenes painfully poignant. Newman’s music wrings every last tear out of us in the process. In the heartbreaking climax, the two young lovers kiss as the strings yearn heavenward. A full-blown statement of “Anne and Peter’s Theme,” and the French horns seem to cry out a gut-wrenching “Peter, Peter” as approaching Nazi sirens cut off all hope of a future together. In moments such as these, Newman extends the original melody into new thematic and harmonic territory, prolonging our pain and empathy into an orchestral cry of frustration and anger at the senselessness of it all. If any film embodies the best of the Newman strings, this is it.

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

The filming of George Stevens’ star-studded telling of the life of Christ was not a happy one. Weather conditions made filming difficult, the film moved from Fox to United Artists, Stevens spent the entire budget before filming even began and it eventually became the most expensive movie ever filmed in the U.S. up to that time. Stevens, who had so famously maligned Franz Waxman’s music on A PLACE IN THE SUN, created even more havoc for Newman and choral supervisor Ken Darby on this film. (Check out Darby’s fascinating memoir of the experience, Hollywood Holyland, for all the inside dirt.) By this time, Newman was no longer at Fox and the sound of the orchestra, particularly in the hands of orchestrators Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken is decidedly different. Arguably more attuned to today’s contemporary ears than some of Newman’s earlier work, the strings perform the passionate main theme in a typically straightforward manner with Newman, by and large, eschewing excess emotion and grandiose religiosity. Instead, the music, no matter how many instruments are performing it, conveys one man’s personal vision of the story—intimate and non-judgmental, as all religious feeling should be.

A Man Called Peter Soundtrack
The Snake Pit soundtrack
Wilson soundtrack

A MAN CALLED PETER (1955)

Whether biblically based (DAVID AND BATHSHEBA, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD) or fictional (THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, THE ROBE), Newman scored his share of religious films over the course of his career. PETER is a religious biopic based on the life of preacher Peter Marshall (Richard Todd), who later served as chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Newman weaves in quotes of hymns and other period tunes among the lilting music for Peter’s Scottish upbringing. But it is the love theme for Peter and Catherine (Jean Peters) that embodies Newman at his best. Even when repeating the same thematic patterns, Newman generates forward movement and passionate tension using sudden modulations and subito pianissimo dynamics.

THE SNAKE PIT (1948)

Occasionally Newman asked the strings to express something more mentally and emotionally challenging. THE SNAKE PIT was a raw look at one woman’s (Olivia de Havilland) experiences inside an insane asylum. As such, Newman had to portray the searing effects of electric shock in music. The harmonies are unsettled and the strings dig into their bridges, wailing at the top of their tessitura. Likewise, the woodwinds scream in horrifying pain. The sound is mighty unpleasant, as it should be. But it’s incredibly powerful when matched with the visuals. I bet there was a run on rosin by the end of that recording session.

WILSON (1944)

Darryl Zannuck’s big-budget biopic of the controversial 28th President was a flop at the box office. But the larger budget gave Newman the opportunity to do prodigious research into recreating the period musical aura of Wilson’s (Alexander Knox) political campaigns. The score is chock full of arrangements of period tunes. But amid the expected political posturing of the brass sits an exquisite moment for the Newman strings. As Wilson’s wife (Ruth Nelson) lays on her deathbed, Newman arranges “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” into a heartbreaking elegy for the dying First Lady. In the hands of a master like Newman, even the happiest of tunes take on a whole new character—one of memory, pain and unbearable sadness.

WHAT ARE YOU FAVORITE NEWMAN STRING MOMENTS?

  1. The strings………absolutely, the strings that stands Newman apart from the rest.. Interesting enough, the soundtrack from The Diary of Anne Frank was my bedtime music last night… Dramatic, melodius, soothing, hopeful–all at the same time.. And Jim, what is the source for all the soundtrack clips that comprise your blog ? I am very impressed and thankful for this treasure trove of film music…

  2. Very timely tribute here. I sat through another Easter screening of THE ROBE yesterday; and thankfully all that Sunday-School schmaltz is bathed in an Alfred Newman score. The love theme is one of the most beautiful ever written, more so because of the famous Newman string section (and Jean Simmons, too!).

  3. Newman is one of my favorites and his strings in “Anne Frank” are incredibly moving indeed. My list would also include the ending of “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”, the main title from “Twelve O’Clock High” and something from “Song of Bernadette”.

  4. The string section at Fox studios during the post-World War II era throughout the 1950’s was an extraordinary group of talented individuals, featuring Concert Master Felix Slatkin, Assistant Concert Master Paul Shure, 1st Viola Alvin Dinkin, 1st ‘Cello Kurt Reher and 1st Bass M. Rivera.

    Apart from his film scoring, Mr. Alfred Newman also conducted several wonderful classical titles for a Mercury Records mono LP series during this era, employing many in the contract orchestra as the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra. It’s worth noting that their recording of Gershwin’s An American in Paris is particularly good, given Mr. Newman’s personal acquaintance with George Gershwin. It has the right blend of a jazz sound incorporated into the legitimate orchestration in this listener’s opinion. Of course, I have to admit to a very strong bias on this one – I’m very proud that my dad, Frank Beach, was the trumpet soloist for that recording. Mr. Newman scouted for jazz and big band players at the Hollywood Palladium for his orchestra at Fox.
    Many other excellent instrumentalists in other sections were under contract at Fox during this time (John Clyman- trumpet, Russ Cheever-woodwinds, Morrie Crawford-woodwinds, Johnny Williams-piano and Vince DeRosa-French Horn) to name but a few, as well as young up-and-coming orchestrators/composers at the time such as Herbert Spencer and Earle Hagen.

    Mr. Newman’s legacy extended far beyond his own composition, conducting and film scoring. He generously mentored the careers of many other composers (Bernard Hermann and Jerry Goldsmith to name but two) and his stewardship at Fox was legendary in the film industry during a productive era centered in LA.

    1. Hi Nancy, thanks for commenting and bringing to light some of the names involved with the Fox orchestra. Those studio musicians are the unsung heroes that we tend to take for granted so any mention of names is always greatly appreciated.

      And you’re so right about Newman’s legacy extending far beyond his own work into the careers of people like Herrmann, Goldsmith, etc. Though Newman is by far my favorite film composer, it is that enduring mentorship that continued into the next generation of composers that showed not only his generosity but his real effect on film music history. I don’t think any single composer has ever done so much to further the art form, though I doubt he even considered that back then.

    2. Hi Nancy,
      I’m very interested in your father. I want to know more about him.
      Please contact me: jkbennett@mac.com

      Sincerely,

      -Jason Bennett (Bass Trb. Glenn Miller Orch.)

  5. I just discovered your blog yesterday and I spent a good part of yesterday afternoon and this morning enjoyably reading through your posts from the last several years. Like you, I became hooked on film scores as a teenager. One of the first LP’s I ever purchased with my own money, was “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (I know, it’s not the score but it was a soundtrack and I’m a sucker for musicals. Like you, I would love it if Bernstein’s Oscar winning score for that film would be released). But the score that probably really got me hooked on film music was Bernard Herrmann’s score for “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” Elmer Bernstein’s 1975 recording for his Film Music Collection series was one of my most treasured LPs.

    Alfred Newman is one of my favorite composers as well. He is definitely in my Top 5. My favorite score of his would probably be “How Green Was My Valley,” followed closely by “Song of Bernadette,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “Wuthering Heights.” But I also love “The Counterfeit Traitor,” “The Best of Everything,” “Dragonwyck,” “All About Eve,” “Captain from Castile,” “Man Hunt,” “The Razor’s Edge,” and more.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post on the use of strings in Newman’s scores. I also loved the provided audio clips (On some of your older posts, I notice the links to the clips seem to be no longer working). It was nice to hear a clip from “Wilson,” a film I’ve never seen. I know the CD is out of print and fetches high prices for used copies so it was great getting to listen to your selected clip.

    I’ll definitely be following your blog from now on and I look forward to reading through more of your past posts.

    1. Hi Vince. Glad you enjoy the post. It’s always nice to meet a fellow Newman fan. :) If you ever find any audio links that aren’t working just send me a message through the contact page and I’ll fix them. The site has changed so much over the years that the plug-ins sometimes don’t transfer or update.

      1. Alfred Newman’s score for Firecreek
        Lyon Murray
        Why, oh why, wasn’t the soundtrack of Firecreek ever recorded? There’s a simple, classical guitar solo of the main theme which runs throughout the film which ranks with ‘Sweet Breeze’ from ‘Heaven’s Gate’ for beauty. What happened to Alfred Newman’s original score: was it lost and if not, couldn’t it be resurrected?

  6. Greatest Story Ever Told. I love that score so much, definitely a top five. Alfred Newman is one of my favorite composers.

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