Alex North (1910-1991) took home a Lifetime Achievement Oscar from the Academy Awards in 1986, honoring a career that produced scores for over 50 feature films and over 80 documentaries. Classically trained, he made no stylistic distinction between his film music and his output in other genres, which included ballets and dance pieces, chamber music, cantatas, and two symphonies.
North studied at the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School, and the Moscow Conservatory. From Moscow he became the music director of the German Theater Group and the Latvian State Theater, and was the only American member of the Union of Soviet Composers.
Back in the U.S. in 1935, he studied composition in New York with Aaron Copland and Ernst Toch. Turning his attention to ballet, he created scores for Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Agnes de Mille, and Anna Sokolow. In 1939 he went with Sokolow to Mexico, where he studied with Silvestre Revueltas.
During World War II, North served as a captain in the U.S. Army and wrote scores for numerous documentaries for the Office of War Information. After the war, his clarinet concerto Revue was premiered by Benny Goodman and the City Symphony of New York under Leonard Bernstein. His theater scoring expanded to include stage plays, which led directly to his first feature film assignment. After writing music for Elia Kazan's stage production of Death of a Salesman in 1949, North was invited by Kazan to score the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the first jazz-based symphonic scores.
He subsequently received 15 Oscar nominations for a list of films that includes The Bad Seed, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Journey into Fear, Prizzi's Honor, and Good Morning, Vietnam. He wrote an original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, only to have it removed just before release (he later reworked much of that music into the score for Dragonslayer). His "Unchained Melody," from 1955's Unchained, has been recorded over 500 times, by artists ranging from the Righteous Brothers and Elvis Presley to LeAnn Rimes, Sarah McLachlan, John Lennon, and James Galway.
"Fear is a problem with film music and films," North said after receiving his Lifetime Achievement Oscar. "People want to be conventional, and there's more commercialism today. If you are not daring in your art, you're bankrupt."
One of North's most daring works was the score for the "intimate epic," Cleopatra. This was a monumental effort, not only in terms of length and the size of the orchestra, but also in terms of radical approaches to instrumentation and texture. It requires flutes, reeds and plucked instruments of many varieties to represent Egyptian music, and the brass to represent Rome. In addition, African percussion links to the two worlds of Egypt and Rome.
"Alex North was a genius and this is exhibited across his entire body of work," says Robert Townson, the executive producer for the double-CD restoration of the original Cleopatra soundtrack issued by Varèse Sarabande last year. "I suppose that where Cleopatra may indeed stand out is in the way it allowed Alex's artistry to be expressed with some of the most introspective and psychological writing he had ever done. Then, while working from the same pallet, he would apply strokes of grandeur, celebration, torment, and destruction, all within the unity of the structure of this one score."
In January 2001, John Mauceri led the storied Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the premiere of a symphony based on Cleopatra. "I just wanted to report the extraordinary success of the Gewandhaus program," Mauceri wrote to the online magazine Film Score Monthly. "It was already sufficient to hear this great orchestra, which traces its history back to Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms, play the music of Bernard Herrmann and Alex North. But I was not prepared for the full houses for these non-subscription concerts, which contained people of every age, from young teenagers to rather old folks. Their intensity and concentration were palpable."
Though he was quite adept at action music - the complex cue for the sea battle in Cleopatra is almost 15 minutes long - North personally preferred music motivated by characterization. Reflecting the structure on the film, Mauceri created a two-part symphony focused on the two central dramatic relationships: Caesar/Cleopatra and Antony/Cleopatra.
"North's music is both lush as well as frequently non-tonal," Mauceri says. "His atonality derives from his interest in contemporary classical music as well as the complex harmonic pallet of the jazz world of the mid-twentieth century. (It's hard to know if this music comes out of Duke Ellington or Alban Berg. Probably both.) Significantly, one of his principal orchestrators was Henry Brant."