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date: 20 February 2020

Newman, Alfredfree

  • Christopher Palmer,
  • Fred Steiner
  •  and Jessica Getman

(b New Haven, CT, 17 March 1901; d Los Angeles, CA, 17 Feb 1970). Composer and conductor. He was a piano prodigy, making his first public appearance at the age of eight. He studied in New York with Rubin Goldmark and George Wedge. In 1914 he was offered a piano scholarship by Sigismond Stojowski for a place at the von Ende School of Music, New York. Family poverty compelled him to abandon a concert career while still young; instead, he played in Broadway theaters and on vaudeville circuits. He studied conducting with William Daly and was the youngest conductor to date to appear on Broadway. As well as serving as music director for the George White Scandals (1920) and for the Greenwich Village Follies (1922–5), he conducted shows by George and Ira Gershwin, Otto Harbach, and Rodgers and Hart. In 1930 Newman went to Hollywood, where he was soon appointed music director at United Artists. He worked primarily in film musicals but gradually became more interested in traditional Hollywood scoring, especially after the success of his score for Street Scene (1931). From 1940 to 1960 he was head of the 20th Century-Fox music department and divided his time between composing and supervising and conducting film scores. He also supported the careers of such composers as Bernard Herrmann and Alex North, whose music was often regarded as unconventional. Newman worked on more than 230 films, winning nine Academy awards and 45 nominations; his last score (for Airport) was completed just before his death. Other activities included recordings with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra and guest conducting appearances with various American orchestras. His brothers Emil and Lionel also composed and conducted film scores in Hollywood, as have his sons Thomas and David Newman, his daughter Maria Newman, and his nephew Randy Newman.

One of the key figures in the history of American film music, Newman was among the first screen composers to establish the romantic symphonic style of Hollywood film scores, prevalent from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s. In comparison to composers such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, he was essentially self-taught as a composer; the few private lessons he took with Arnold Schoenberg in Hollywood had no appreciable effect on his musical style. His musical talents and fine dramatic sensibility, however, enabled him to learn on the job. When he encountered his first truly challenging scores around 1935, he began to show a knack for developing motivic material and an appreciation for the sound track's potential to incorporate new and interesting musical effects. By 1939 his music had developed into the style with which his name is associated. Well wrought and full textured, his scores sometimes (especially in the string writing) attain a high degree of lyrical and dramatic expressiveness. The manner in which certain sequences follow overt or hidden implications of the dialogue resembles the leitmotivic procedures of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Newman's scores for Wuthering Heights, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Captain from Castile, and The Robe represent Hollywood film music at its best. As a conductor he had a great flair for molding music to the texture and rhythm of a picture and for coordinating the elements involved in the preparation and recording of a film musical. In his capacity as studio music director he encouraged the improvement of recording technique; the so-called Newman System for music synchronization, created for him during his United Artists years by musician Charles Dunworth, was still in use in the early 21st century.


(selective list of film scores)

Street Scene, 1931

We Live Again, 1934

The Dark Angel, 1935

Beloved Enemy, 1936

The Prisoner of Zenda, 1937

Beau Geste, 1939

Gunga Din, 1939

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1939

Wuthering Heights, 1939

Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939

Brigham Young, 1940

How Green Was My Valley, 1941

The Song of Bernadette, 1943

Wilson, 1944

Captain from Castile, 1947

The Snake Pit, 1948

Prince of Foxes, 1949

Twelve O’Clock High, 1949

The Robe, 1953

The Egyptian, 1954, collab. B. Herrmann

A Man Called Peter, 1955

Anastasia, 1956

The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962

How the West Was Won, 1962

The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965

Nevada Smith, 1966

Camelot 1967

Airport, 1970


  • DAB (F. Steiner)
  • H. Brown: “The Robe,” Film Music, xiii/2 (1953), 3–17
  • K. Darby: “Alfred Newman Biography and Filmography,” Film Music Notebook: a Complete Collection of the Quarterly Journal (Sherman Oaks, CA, 1974–8), 219–27
  • F. Steiner: The Making of an American Film Composer: a Study of Alfred Newman's Music in the First Decade of the Sound Era (diss., U. of Southern California, 1981) [incl. complete list of film scores]
  • C. Palmer: The Composer in Hollywood (London and New York, 1990)
  • T. Thomas: Film Score (Burbank, CA, 1991)
  • K. Darby: Hollywood Holyland: the Filming and Scoring of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ (Metuchen, NJ, and London, 1992), 163ff
  • M. Cooke: A History of Film Music (New York, 2008)
Dictionary of American Biography (New York, 1928-37, suppls., 1944-)