HISTORY & SURVEY OF FILM MUSIC

Alfred Newman

(1900 - 1970)

1935   Twentieth-Century Fox Fanfare

1939   The Hunchback of Notre Dame

1939   Wuthering Heights

1943   The Song of Bernadette

1953   How to Marry a Millionaire

1962   How the West Was Won

1970   Airport

Alfred Newman was the music director at 20th Century Fox from 1942-1960, and was the recipient of nine Academy Awards. Newman’s early years were spent conducting small orchestras on the vaudeville circuit and Broadway productions in New York. Like many of the first generation of Hollywood composers, Newman’s initial experience was rooted in popular forms of music, not in music for the concert hall. He moved to Hollywood in the early 1930’s, and worked for various studios until becoming music director at 20th Century Fox in 1939. In all, he composed for over 200 films, working right up until the final year of his life, on the movie  Airport (1970). His music is in a very lush, “Neo-Romantic” style, and was well suited to the many religious-themed movies he produced music for. 

Other than composing, Newman was involved as a conductor on many films, and helped to develop younger film composers, such as David Raksin and Bernard Herrmann.  The orchestra sound stage on the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles is named for him.

Twentieth Century Fox Theme - composed by Alfred Newman

“Al used to say that composing, which he described as "sitting in a room, wearing out pencils," was too lonely a life to really satisfy him; as a gregarious man, he clearly preferred conducting. His enjoyment of this talent was apparent on the recording stage at 20th Century-Fox Studio, where he had assembled a virtuoso orchestra. There was in his conducting style a mixture of sentiment and romantic turbulence, of precision and passionate intensity that is next to impossible to duplicate. Our mutual friend, Elmer Bernstein, told me that when he recorded an album of the music of Wuthering Heights it was one of the most difficult tasks he ever undertook. I can bear him out. After all my years with Al, as well as many years of my own on the podium, I have come to realize how much of his music was in the performance. Part of that was in the way he could maintain pace and intensity despite the very slow tempos of which he was so fond; and equally important was his style of rubato conducting, which means a way of varying the time value of notes and the stress upon them. The purpose is to achieve a high degree of expressiveness. A criticism frequently leveled at film music is that it overdoes expressiveness, and all too often this is true. When Newman conducted some of my earlier movie scores at 20th-Century Fox, we often disagreed as to the degree of volatility that was appropriate. But there was never any doubt in my mind that he could do wonderful things with whatever we put before him, as well as with his own music. I think you will be able to feel this when you hear the music in the pictures we will be showing.”

— David Raksin          

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

The Song of Bernadette tells the story of a young peasant girl who has a vision of the Virgin Mary in a Grotto. The film is set in 1858, in the village of Lourdes, France. The film, starring Jennifer Jones, won multiple academy awards, including best cinematography , best actress, and best score.  Alfred Newman’s score gracefully captures the right mood to convey a deeply religious film. Newman went on to score many other religious-themed films that were popular during this era in Hollywood film.

The Song of Bernadette - Apparition of the Virgin Mary

Innovations in Film Music Production

Newman helped establish many film recording procedures still utilized today, including the use of punches and streamers for music and film synchronization. Punches were literally holes punched into the film stock in order to give the orchestra conductor a visual cue when recording the music. Streamers were lines cut or drawn diagonally across 2-4 seconds of film to give the conductor a warning that a punch was about to arrive. 


Click tracks found their way into film music sessions in the late 1930’s, pioneered by composers such as Max Steiner. Combined with punches and streamers, a click track gave the film music conductor a full set of tools to synchronize music to picture.

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Punches and streamers used in the film The Red Violin (1998)