Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD – Elmer Bernstein



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Universal Studio executives saw the universal critical acclaim afforded Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and purchased the film rights, determined to bring her poignant story to the big screen. The project however stalled creatively and did not gain momentum until a generous budget was allocated and producer Alan J. Pakula took the reigns. He was inspired by the project, hired Horton Foote to write the screenplay, and tasked Robert Mulligan to direct. They brought in Gregory Peck to play the leading role of Atticus Finch, and Robert Duvall secured his debut role as Boo Radley. For Atticus’ children, newcomers Mary Badham was chosen to play Scout, and Phillip Alford to play Jem. Rounding out the cast were Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, James Anderson as Bob Ewell, Cillin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell, and John Megna as Dill Harris.

The story is set in 1930’s Alabama during the era of the great depression. There are two distinct narratives operating in the tale. The first tells the story of a widowed and respected lawyer Atticus Finch, played in exemplary fashion by Gregory Peck, and his laudable but ultimately futile effort to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The equally important second narrative however is more intimate and focuses on Finch’s two young children, Scout and Jem. In many ways it is a coming of age tale as we see through their young eyes the struggle of growing up in the old south during a time where the races were segregated and black people were denied equality and justice under law. Made in 1962 before the civil rights act, the film provided an uncomfortable and potent commentary on the ugly cultural pathology that was still manifest in America many years after the Great Emancipation. The film was a huge commercial success, earning over six times its production cost of $2 million. It also received critical acclaim, earning eight Academy Award nominations, securing three wins for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction. The American Film Institute ranks the film at #34 in its 100 greatest movies of all time.

In 1962 Elmer Bernstein was a successful and established composer with several great scores already to his credit including, The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956), and The Magnificent Seven (1960). In taking on the scoring assignment however Bernstein initially encountered creative difficulty in conceptualizing the score’s emotional narrative. After suffering severe writer’s block, he had an epiphany:

“It took me six weeks to even get off the ground with that score. And so I really scared myself until I finally realized the whole point of the score. What is the score doing here? What type of ambiance is it creating? What I realized was that its real function was to deal in the magic of a child’s world. That was the whole key of that score, and it accounts for the use of the high registers of the piano and bells and harps, things which I associated with child magic in a definitely American ambiance.”

Born from this realization was a score that ultimately became dear to the composer and one of his personal favorites. Indeed it received widespread critical acclaim and was Oscar nominated for best film score, ultimately losing to Jarre’s epic masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia.

Bernstein understood that since we see the film through the eyes of the Scout and Jem, so too must the music emote from their perspective. As such he created five themes to support the film’s narrative including foremost, the Children’s Theme. This core theme permeates the film, serves as Scout and Jem’s identity, emoting with gentility, and a child like innocence. Its articulation throughout the film is varied, carried by a solo flute delicato, high register piano teneri, or sumptuous violins. For me this theme with every listen harkens one’s back to your childhood, it elicits feelings of longing for a less complicated time, that treasured time of innocence. In my judgment this theme is timeless and has earned its right to reside in the Pantheon of great cinematic musical themes. The Play Theme is precious as we hear it but twice in the score. It is playful, full of a joie de vivre, and offers quintessential Americana. Its major modal statement is however tinged with some disquiet and trepidation in the later part of the cue as the kids trespass onto the eerie and foreboding Radley residence.

The Mystery Theme abounds with both mystery, and the wonder of discovery. It is carried by solo oboe delicato and is associated with the mysterious items left in the Radley tree by Boo. The children have over time collected and placed the many items in a keep safe box, which is emblematic of the growing bond between the them and Boo. This is the same keep safe box, which will be highlighted in the film’s opening sequence. Next, we have Boo’s Theme, which is kindred to the Children Theme. Although he presents as a much larger young man, we see that he is a special needs kid and Bernstein speaks to this by emoting his theme with the same child like innocence as Scout and Jem. A solo violin delicato weaves a beautiful melody, which speaks of timidity and gentleness of this man-child. Lastly, we have Ewell’s Theme, which serves as his identity as our story’s villain. He is held in disgrace by the community, loathed as ‘white trash’. He is a mean drunk who sows enmity and hatred, which Bernstein supports with a repeating dark, descending four-note construct carried by low register strings sinistri. Shrill and dissonant woodwinds speak of his malice and malignancy, striking terror to our bones.

This paragraph offers an assessment of the album and film versions of cue one. I am thankful that the wondrous “Main Title” cue is offered on the album as conceived by Bernstein in its full, uncut form. The cue opens with a wistful, twinkling gossamer piano line of gentility. Regretfully most of the prelude (0:18 – 1:02), which introduces the Children’s Theme in the film version was excised, replaced by the wordless singing of a young girl. On album, the piano introduction gives life to a meandering solo flute line at 0:18, which flows as a pastorale, attended by violin chords and gentile arpeggios of harp and clarinet. We then return to the introductory piano melody, now accented with vibraphone and celeste. From out this melody is born the Children’s Theme at 1:03, carried by a sublime solo flute delicato with harp adornment. At 1:36 the theme’s articulation swells on sumptuous strings for a stirring presentation, which brings a quiver and a tear. There is wistfulness in the notes, a subtle sadness, and a palpable nostalgia. At 2:43 we conclude with a transfer of the melodic line to piano teneri, whose twinkling gossamer notes slowly fade in a diminuendo.

In the film version of “Main Title” we open with the Universal Logo supported by a delicate, gossamer like piano introduction. As a young girl’s hand opens a keepsake box she sings and with a crayon colors out on paper the film’s title. Slowly the camera pans the box’s content as the young girl sings and draws with a crayon as the roll of the opening credits begin. We rejoin the cue at 1:03 with the Children’s Theme, carried by a sublime solo flute delicato with harp adornment. We continue to see the girl drawing, and a rolling marble initiates at 1:36 the swelling of the theme’s articulation on sumptuous strings, a stirring presentation, which brings a quiver and a tear. There is wistfulness in the notes, a subtle sadness, and a palpable nostalgia. At 2:43 we conclude with a transfer of the melodic line to piano teneri, whose twinkling gossamer notes slowly fade in a diminuendo as we descend from the tree tops to the street below. In my judgment, Bernstein’s original conception of the main title is superior.

In “Remembering Mama” we see Atticus sharing an intimate moment with Scout, reading before bedtime. The subject turns to keepsakes with Atticus explaining that his watch will pass to Jem, while her mother’s pearl necklace will pass to her. As he retires to the porch, Scout queries Jem about the mother, she was too young to know. Bernstein gently keys in a wistful rendering of the Children’s Theme to support the discussion of their mother. The music perfectly supports Scout’s regret that she died before she got to know her. The cue “Atticus Accepts The Case” is mistitled, as no music plays during the scene. It is late and Judge Taylor visits Atticus and asks him to represent Tom Robinson, a Negro who stands accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. Atticus understands well the implications, dutifully agrees, and we see that the Judge is relieved. The next morning in “Roll In The Tire”, he kids come out to play and we are graced with is a wonderful score highlight, which features the Play Theme. Bernstein studied under Aaron Copland and you can clearly hear his presence in this playful melody, which offers quintessential Americana, and a wondrous joie de vivre. Jem and Dill place Scout in a tire and roll her down the street with the Coplanesque melody carrying her progress. The music darkens at 1:00, becoming foreboding as she rolls into the Radley property and crashes into their porch. She is too dizzy to run and Jem rushes in to save her, but instead of fleeing immediately, he rushes up the porch and bangs his fist on the door. A now more brazen rendering of the Play Theme celebrates his boldness, as they all flee to the safety of their house.

In “Creepy Caper” the kids decide to sneak into the Radley property to try and catch a view of the illusive Boo. As they approach the yard Bernstein sows unease with a hesitant and uncertain rendering of the Children’s Theme attended by eerie bassoon, string and piano effects. At 0:56 a nascent phrase of Boo’s Theme by flute and piano informs us of his unseen presence. Darting flute and chattering xylophone increase the unease as Jem crawls onto the porch. Eerie swirling strings amplify the tension. At 2:12 we segue darkly atop ominous low register piano into “Peek-A-Boo” as a menacing shadow approaches Jem. As Scout screams we crescendo with a frightful power as Jem cowers beneath the dark silhouette. Yet Boo turns away and departs, which provides an opening to escape. Flight music carries their escape, but chirping woodwinds alert us that Jem’s pants are caught on the fence. As Scout and Dill help pull off his pants the flee to their house for safety, eerie flight music carries their progress, with discordant phrases of Boo’s Theme woven into music. A pulsing ostinato, which fades as a diminuendo closes the scene as our three count their blessings.

In “Ewell’s Hatred” we have a powerful cue, which juxtaposes the innocence of children with the malignancy of racist hatred. Atticus and his kids have driven to the Robinson house to discuss the case with his family. He leaves Jem and Scout in the car as he meets with the family. The scene is seen through the eyes of the kids, and a sweet and gentle rendering their theme carries their progress and arrival at the Robinson house. At 1:00 Tom’s son tentatively approaches the car. Jem breaks the ice and waves, which the young boy reciprocates. Bernstein supports the tender moment with an exquisite duet of flute and oboe. The moment is shattered at 1:30 with the arrival of a drunk and staggering Bob Ewell. The repeating dark and descending phrases of his theme are carried by low register strings sinistri, which frightens Jem, and sends chills down our spine. Shrill and dissonant woodwinds speak of his malice and malignancy as he presses up against the car window. Atticus confronts him and is greeted with the venom of being called a “nigger lover.” As Atticus drives away, we see in the rear view Ewell staggering, with his menacing theme supporting him swearing “nigger lover!”

In “Jem’s Discovery” Atticus leaves Jem alone on the porch to drive Calpurnia home. He becomes frightened by night sounds and runs after the car, giving up in front of the Radley house. A nocturne, which incorporates the Children’s Theme on solo piano, supports the scene. At 1:41 an off key Boo’s Theme on piano reveals an unnerved Jem, and discordant woodwinds carry him home. Yet he stops as he sees something glistening from a tree hole. A pulsing ostinato supports the discovery with the radiant strings of the Mystery Theme, which speaks to its luster. A reprise of Boo’s Theme opening phrase unsettles Jem and a flight variant of the Play Theme carries Jem’s run back to the house. This scene of fear and discovery succeeds because of Bernstein’s music, which really fleshes out Jem’s emotions. At 3:11 a string ostinato and fragment of her theme supports a scene change to the next day where we see Scout pummeling a boy who insulted her father for defending a Negro. “Tree Treasure” reveals the kids discovery of carved wooden figures of themselves in the tree hole. Bernstein speaks to their wonderment with the twinkling ethereal ambiance of the Mystery Theme, which is adorned by solo oboe. At 0:31 the moment is shattered with an orchestral stinger and ominous free form piano when Boo’s father arrives and cements up the tree hole. He frightens them and they run off to safety. Later that night Jem shares the secret of his keepsake with Scout. As he removes the contents to show her, the magic of the Children’s Theme returns anew, a reprise full of gentile innocence.

“Lynch Mob” was excised from the film as the director believed that the dialogue alone best supported the scene. I disagree. A chorale of woodwinds supports Atticus’ lonely vigil outside the jailhouse. The twinkling of a variant of the Children’s Theme carries their stealth progress to the courthouse. At 1:23 dire horns usher in a menacing ostinato as the lynch mob arrives to demand Tom. It raises the specter of violence as Atticus holds his ground, yet the music suffers a diminuendo as the arrival of the children diffuses the crowd. In “Guilty Verdict” I found it most interesting that Bernstein pulled back on the reins of his music during the film’s most dramatic scene in the courthouse. Its absence proved quite effective as it served to help Peck’s impeccable performance. Atticus just shines as he proves that Tom could not have committed the rape with an inspired closing argument. A chorus of plaintive woodwinds enters after Atticus’ concludes his impassioned soliloquy, and the jury deliberates. In the end, the jury chooses race solidarity over fidelity to justice, thus finding Tom guilty. Bernstein creates a religioso aura carried by strings solenne and woodwinds doloroso, which supports Atticus’ counsel to Tom the he maintain hope. In a scene change to Atticus walking home with the kids we are bathed with an exquisite threnody as the Sheriff brings word that Tom was shot dead trying to escape. In this poignant scene, the joining of Peck’s superb acting, his devastation at the news, with the pathos of Bernstein’s music is extraordinary. As neighbor Maudie counsels Jem and Scout to be proud of their father, the tender Children Theme speaks of their sympathy and devotion. The confluence of acting, narrative and music in this multi-scenic cue is a testament to Bernstein’s mastery of his craft.

“Ewell Regret It” was excised from the film. The scene reveals Atticus and Jem driving to Tom’s house to inform them of his death. While there, Atticus is confronted by an angry Ewell who spits in his face. Atticus does not respond in kind, much to Jem’s distress, as he refuses to debase himself. To support the confrontation, Ewell’s Theme is expressed darkly, with repeat phrasing, which carry both his menace, and vile ugliness. I believe the music would have enhanced the scene. In “Footsteps In The Dark” Jem and Scout have participated in their county’s pageant celebrating its agricultural products. They depart home with Scout still dressed in her ham outfit as she lost her clothes. As they stroll home at night along a forest path their theme carries them in a beautiful and moving statement. When Jem hears footfalls, Scout dismisses it as a prank to scare her. However Bernstein continues their theme tentatively with unease, thus reflecting Jem’s perspective. “Assault In The Shadow” reveal the children being attacked by an unknown assailant. Bernstein sows terror with strings and woodwinds sounding the alarm, joined by horns of doom as the attack unfolds. Jem tries to defend Scout but is no match as the man flings him and breaks his arm. Staccato strikes support Jem’s futile resistance. An intensification of the staccato rhythms buttressed by piano furioso commences at 0:28 as a second man comes to Jem’s defense. As the battle unfolds Bernstein’s angry music drives the struggle until a crescendo at 1:02 informs us of the attacker’s demise. We see through Scout’s eyes a man carrying Jem home, which is supported by an eerie pulsing mysterioso. The music twinkles as Scout seeks to understand what has happened, giving way to frantic flight music as he runs home to the safe harbor of Atticus’ embrace.

In “Boo Who” we achieve the film’s emotional apogee, a wondrous score highlight. As the doctor is ministering Jem, the Sheriff informs Atticus that Bob Ewell has been stabbed to death. As they contemplate that Jem is responsible, Scout informs them that another man saved theme. When asked who, she points to Boo, who is standing behind the door in shadow. A tender prelude introduces Boo’s Theme, which now is rendered fully. Atticus and the Sheriff depart to discuss the implications. As Boo has at last been seen, so too does his theme finally take form, as he is now accessible and humanized. It is kindred to the Children’s Theme, gentle, childlike, imbued with innocence and carried exquisitely by a solo violin delicato. Scout takes his hand and leads him to Jem, and as Boo caresses him, a warm and reassuring Children’s Theme unites them in friendship. As they join Atticus on the porch, we close with uncertainty as a phrase of Ewell’s Theme sounds, informing us that his death must be addressed.

“End Title” reveals the Sheriff informing Atticus that Boo, not Jem killed Ewell, but that his official report will state that Ewell fell on his knife. He states that Ewell was an evil man, responsible for the death of Tom, and that it is fitting that “the dead bury the dead.” As he departs, Scout informs Atticus that she agrees that prosecuting Boo would be like “killing a mockingbird.” Woodwinds and strings gentile support Atticus thanking Boo for saving his children. As Scout takes Boo by the hand and walks him home his theme on piano ushers in the Children’s Theme, in a stirring affirmation of love, which will forever bond them. The film closes upon what I believe is the most emotionally moving rendering of the Children’s Theme, which achieves a stirring nostalgic confluence with Scout’s narration;

Neighbors bring food with death… and flowers with sickness… and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a knife… and our lives. One time Atticus said… you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough. The summer that had begun so long ago had ended, and another summer had taken its place. And a fall. And Boo Radley had come out. I was to think of these days many times, of Jem and Dill… and Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. And Atticus. He would be in Jem’s room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

We close warmly with Scout in Atticus’ arms as the Children’s Theme fills us to overflowing.

Please allow me to thank Robert Townson and Varese Sarabande for this remarkable rerecording of Elmer Bernstein’s masterpiece “To Kill A Mockingbird”. The sound quality is superb and Bernstein’s conducting of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, masterful. This score as a whole, as well as each individual cue, is perfectly attenuated to the film, characters and narrative. It has a multiplicity of wonderful themes and stands firmly on its own as an enjoyable CD listening experience. The main lyrical Children’s Theme takes its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of immortal themes, thus earning Bernstein immortality. In the film Boo evolves from a mysterious unseen and unknown person, to a fully realized friend. Instructive is how Bernstein matches this evolution with his theme, which begins as a nascent phrase that blossoms for a full rendering as he is at last met, and united in friendship. The juxtaposition of the childlike Children’s and Boo’s Themes and the harsh, and strident antagonist adult music was perfectly conceived and executed. This is one of the finest scores ever written and a masterwork of Bernstein’s canon. I strongly encourage you to add this score to your collection, as it will provide you countless years of great pleasure from each re-listen.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the actual recording, which provides a suite that consists of the Main Title and End Title reprise of the Children’s Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_t98LWNwUhI

Buy the “To Kill A Mockingbird” soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:19)
  • Remember Mama (1:07)
  • Atticus Accepts the Case/Roll in the Tire (2:05)
  • Creepy Caper/Peek-a-Boo (4:09)
  • Ewell’s Hatred (3:30)
  • Jem’s Discovery (3:46)
  • Tree Treasure (4:22)
  • Lynch Mob (3:03)
  • Guilty Verdict (3:09)
  • Ewell Regret It (2:10)
  • Footsteps in the Dark (2:07)
  • Assault in the Shadows (2:25)
  • Boo Who! (2:59)
  • End Title (3:25)

Running Time: 41 minutes 36 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5754 (1962/1997)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Score produced by Elmer Bernstein. Album produced by Elmer Bernstein and Robert Townson.

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