Renowned composer Alex North shunned publicity and Hollywood careerism. But he nevertheless accumulated 15 Oscar nominations and a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for his work in the film industry. And he is the first and thus far only composer to have received this honor for his music. On the tenth anniversary of his death, North's work in ballet, theater, symphony orchestra, television, and motion pictures continues to stand up to the toughest metric—time. The world famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and that of Hollywood Bowl have played North's music in concert many times over the past several years.
His hit single, "Unchained Melody", has been recorded over 500 times by artists ranging from the Righteous Brothers to Elvis Presley, Lee Ann Rimes, Sarah McLachlan, John Lennon, and James Galway. And North's epic symphony, Africa, originally composed for a 1967 ABC documentary of the same name, has been re-released as a CD, which includes music not found on the original LP.
North's daring and emotional integrity can be felt in his music, and are reflected in his life choices. His early years in his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, were not easy. His mother took in boarders to make ends meet after his blacksmith father died and saved enough money to send two of his brothers to college.
Though times were lean, the household was filled with music, and North's extraordinary musical talent earned him scholarships to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where he studied piano with George Boyle, and New York's Juilliard School, where he took courses in composition with Bernard Wagenaar from 1929 to 1932. While there he worked nights as a telegrapher, which ruined his health. But his fascination with new Russian music, especially that of Prokofiev, made him interested in going to Russia. The Soviets needed telegraphers. And so North applied, was accepted, and went to Russia where he studied composition on scholarship at the Moscow Conservatory—he was its first American pupil—with Anton Weprik and Victor Biely, from 1932 to 1935.
While he was in Russia North served as music director of the Latvian State Theater, and he would later teach at Bennington, Briarcliffe and Finch colleges in the US. But North was homesick in Moscow—he missed American music, especially jazz, and broke into tears when he heard a recording of Ellington's Mood Indigo. And so he returned to New York in 1936, where he continued his studies with Aaron Copland (1936-39), and Ernst Toch (1938-39)—who would soon move to Hollywood to score films. North wrote scores in New York for the Federal Theater project, worked as Martha Graham's rehearsal pianist—he wrote the 1937 dance American Lyric for her company—and did ballets for Hanya Holm, and most importantly, for Anna Sokolow, who left Graham to form her own company. North became her music director and accompanied Soklolow and her troupe on a tour of Mexico in 1939. While there he also studied with the highly original Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who wrote a number of striking film scores.
One of North's first film scores—he started in 1936—was for Elia Kazan's documentary short People of the Cumberland (1937). The US Army drafted him in 1942 and noticed his flair for film scoring. And so he ended up writing music for over 25 Office of War Information documentaries like A Million Children (1944), and Library of Congress (1945). North also developed musical psychodramas with the innovative psychiatrist Karl Menninger at this time. After the war he returned to New York where he wrote music for the theater and concert pieces like Revue for Clarinetand Orchestra (1946), which Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein premiered with the City Symphony of New York, and Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1941). He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947 to write his first symphony, and wrote another one, in 1968, called Africa—Symphony To A New Continent.
But it was his music for theater productions of Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Innocents (1950) that earned him an invitation to Hollywood to score Kazan's film version of his Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). That groundbreaking film marked the first time that a jazz score was fully integrated into the onscreen drama, and North's success with this music has been credited with opening up film scoring to a new generation of composers. Prior to North's score, jazz had functioned only as background music. The pscho-sexual tensions in North's music here were so intense that the Legion of Decency called it "carnal", and asked that the composer remove his "offending" sax solo in one place.
This was not to be the first surprise North encountered in Hollywood. North's original score for 2001 A Space Odyssey was removed right before the release of the film, replaced with classical music by Strauss. This tragic loss was rectified by the recording and release of the 2001 CD by Varese Sarabande Records.
The orchestra for this recording was conducted by his friend and colleague, Jerry Goldsmith. It is North's emotional integrity that led critic Brooks Atkinson, of New York, to say of one of his theater scores: "Alex North has composed a witch's chorus that is pithy, practical, and terrifying. Give Mr. North a theme, and he goes straight to the heart of it without any musical pretensions." This became one of North's favorite assessments of his work. It concisely explains why North had such a long and successful career. North wrote more than 50 film scores, but despite 15 nominations for Oscars, he didn't return home with a statue until he won the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1986. In a series of interviews after that welcome recognition, North told Steven Smith of the LA Times that "fear is a problem with film music and films; people want to be conventional, and there's more commercialism today. If you are not daring in your art, you're bankrupt."
The diverse body of North's accomplishments is full of heavy dramas and social themes, such as Death of a Salesman, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Rich Man Poor Man and Spartacus, as well as the more light-hearted Prizzi's Honor. One might think that North naturally gravitated to the Hollywood epic, but his widow Anne North, disagrees. "The big epics weren't really his big love. What he always wanted was to write music for films where he was able to relate to the characters."
Even by his own stringent standards, Alex North was a man who had daring and integrity, and his music shows it. Those discovering North for the first time will be amazed by the diversity of his work.