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‘Salesman’ Revives Forgotten Composer North: Rainer File

Alex North
Oscar-winning film composer Alex North began scoring Hollywood movies in the early 1950s, after composing for documentaries and the New York stage, including, most famously, "Death of a Salesman." Source: Film Music Society via Bloomberg

Two decades after his death, the great film composer Alex North has a hit on Broadway.

North’s plaintive, haunting music underscores Mike Nichols’s superb revival of “Death of a Salesman.” It’s the same music North composed for the original 1949 Elia Kazan production.

Coincidentally, “Ghost the Musical” features “Unchained Melody,” the song that graced the 1990 Demi Moore-Patrick Swayze weepie. The melody was composed by North for the 1954 prison movie “Unchained,” where it was nominated for an Oscar. (The lyrics were by Hy Zaret.)

North’s music gets good mileage.

Born Isador Soifer in 1910 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, North won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in 1929 and later studied at the Moscow Conservatory. He was the first American to become a member of the Union of Soviet Composers.

In an interview replayed on a marvelous 2010 public radio centennial tribute to North by music scholar Jon Burlingame, North described how his time in Moscow was “morose and sad” because he “wasn’t writing like me.” His hero was Duke Ellington, not the Soviets.

Langston Hughes

North studied with Aaron Copland, spent time in Mexico, and began composing for documentaries, modern dance (Martha Graham, Agnes DeMille) and the concert hall. His “Negro Mother” cantata, based on a Langston Hughes poem, is a stirring and soulful choral piece. Unlike many composers of his generation, especially those who ended up in Hollywood, North’s musical influences were light on the Germanic and heavy on jazz and other distinctly American genres.

Benny Goodman commissioned him to write a jaunty three-movement jazz concerto. He wrote several symphonies. All this got him noticed by Kazan, who hired him for “Death of a Salesman.” Responding to the play’s dark themes, North scored for only four instruments -- alto flute, trumpet, cello and clarinet. Years later playwright Arthur Miller inscribed North’s program with words of thanks for his “blessed flutes” that turned “Willy’s dreams into music.”

(Some of the music was used for Laslo Benedek’s 1951 film adaptation, starring Frederic March.)

‘Too Carnal’

North continued his collaboration with Kazan on the film of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where his music, influenced by time he spent sopping up sounds in New Orleans, was deemed “too carnal” by the Legion of Decency. The toned-down score on the final version of the film, with its suggestive clarinets, is still plenty carnal.

North’s early experiences in Mexico proved useful for his score for Kazan’s “Viva Zapata!,” which features a peasants’ anthem heavy on the percussion.

In 1952, at the height of the McCarthy era, Kazan named names at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. North, who had flirted with Communism in the ‘30s, never spoke to him again.

In Hollywood, North was regarded as the go-to composer for a “sophisticated” sound, as in the ballet music he composed for Leslie Caron in “Daddy Long Legs.” (In 1954 North composed a mock ballet score for a skit on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows”). He wrote music for literary adaptations of works by Carson McCullers and William Faulkner.

Martial Grandeur

North also specialized in scoring epics. His music for Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus,” which was arranged for over 100 players, is perhaps his best film work, equally powerful in its martial grandeur and its lyricism. (The love theme became a jazz standard by pianist Bill Evans.) Less successful were his scores for the Taylor/Burton lovefest “Cleopatra” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”

His shimmering score for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” available on CD, was dropped by Kubrick in favor of Gyorgy Ligeti and Richard Strauss.

North reunited with the Liz and Dick show on Nichols’s film debut, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” where he jettisoned his original jazzy approach for something, as he said, “simple, melancholy, quasi-baroque.”

The last great long-term collaboration of North’s career came with director John Huston, for whom he scored “The Misfits” (reuniting him with its screenwriter, playwright Miller), “Wise Blood,” “Under the Volcano,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” and “The Dead,” Huston’s valedictory.

North was nominated 15 times for an Oscar. In 1986, the Motion Picture Academy awarded him an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar, one of only two film composers (the other is Ennio Morricone) to have been so honored.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

Muse highlights include James Russell on architecture and Richard Vines on restaurants.

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