Film composer Alex North was born in Chester, Pennsylvania to Russian Jewish parents. Alex North studied at the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, then won a scholarship to Julliard in New York (1929) and, later, the Moscow Conservatoire (1933). He became the first-ever American to become a member of the Union of Soviet Composers. This background helped him establish himself as an innovative, modernist film composer. In his score to A Streetcar Named Desire, we see for the first time the appearance of the all-jazz score for a motion picture, while, in films such as Spartacus, and Cleopatra, North introduced modernist elements derived from the music of Stravinsky, Bartok and his idol, Prokofiev.[1]

Spartacus ScoreEdit

Spartacus was one of the first major productions to openly hire members of the "Hollywood Ten" who had been convicted of contempt for refusing to "name names" in 1947, Howard Fast and Dalton Trumbo, Alex North was delighted by the opportunity to work on the film after being hired by Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas.

With Spartacus being a Hollywood epic film the score needed to reflect the same scale and grandness that was present in the film. In order to accomplish this North resorted to composing a soundtrack that was heavily based on mood building. He used percussion and horns in order to achieve a bigger sound. He also used instruments that created metallic sounds in order to achieve a musical dissonance between the horns section and the pulsing percussion sounds. This same kind of musical composition technique in found in another epic film of the time period, Ben-Hur, and the score to Spartacus is seen to be a direct reaction to Miklos Rozsa’s score of Ben-Hur.

The perpetual mood building is something that is present throughout the film whether it expresses the themes of love or war. Such is the case with the brass instruments as they represent the might of Rome and its legion. This is in stark contrast to the music that is played during the scenes between Spartacus and Varinia which feature violins that complement the tenderness of their meetings.

Cleopatra Edit

In the score for Cleopatra North went even further with instrumental experiments than in Spartacus. He enriched the orchestra with an enormous number of various percussions. In the score there are sequences composed for the whole family of saxophones, or four alto flutes. With this rich and exotic instrumentation, the music in Cleopatra effectively captures the mystique of ancient Egypt and the power of ancient Rome.Thus, one could say that North's score for Cleopatra is more ambient and experimental than dramatic. Director Joseph Mankiewicz deemed that North's music contributed enormously to the film. Regarding the scene of Caesar's assassination, which was one of North's personal favorites, Mankiewicz said, "If it has succeeded, much of the credit must go to the vividness and understanding of Mr. North's musical collaboration."[2]

Notable Achievements/Other Film WorksEdit

Alex North was a prolific film composer who changed the way scores were made after his soundtrack to A Streetcar Named Desire, it is this same innovative nature that would lead him to other adventurous works in Swords & Sandals Films. He is widely regarded to be one of the best in the genre, only being rivaled by the Miklos Rozsa and his score for Ben-Hur.[3]

  • Accumulated 15 Oscar Nominations.
  • Won a Lifetime Achievment Award for his contributions to filmmaking.
  • Was the first American to become a member of the Union of Soviet Composers.
  • Was the first to use an all-jazz score for a motion picture.
  • Wrote the song Unchained Melody.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
  • Spartacus (1960)
  • Cleopatra (1963)

References Edit

  1. McDonagh, Michael and Anne North. Alex North, Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.
  2. Henderson, Sanya Shoilevska. Alex North, Film Composer: A Biography, with Musical Analyses of A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, The Misfits, Under the Volcano, and Prizzi's Honor. McFarland, 2009 
  3. McDonagh, Michael and Anne North. Alex North, Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.