Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, To Kill A Mockingbird won near-universal acclaim and several Oscars upon its 1962 release. Elmer Bernstein’s score was nominated but did not win a statuette (losing to Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia; it would be 1967 before Bernstein won his only Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie). Nevertheless, it remains arguably the composer’s finest work.
Since To Kill A Mockingbird is, in essence, a child’s-eye-view of racial turmoil, Bernstein wisely chose to develop his music around this theme, which he called “the magic of a child’s world.” To this end, the ensemble is small, with just a relative handful of performers and soloists, which lends the score a deceptively simple feel and intimacy. A highlight of this methodology, and the album as a whole, is “Main Titles,” which grows from a simple, halting piano melody into a gorgeous orchestral statement of theme. By adding successive layers of instrumentation, Bernstein builds from the image of a child picking out piano notes to a complex and fully-realized, but still intimate, piece of music.
The theme returns in the score proper in a variety of arrangements, alongside a menacing four-note motif for the villainous Ewell and a theme for Boo Radley. The Ewell material, as heard in cues like “Ewell Regret It,” is the album’s darkest, conjuring up images of a child’s worst fears–darkness, danger, and the menace inherent in them. Boo’s theme is more subdued until “Boo Who?” when a fully fleshed-out arrangement is offered, intermingled with the main and Ewell themes. There are also some sprightly cues near the beginning of the album, notably “Atticus Accepts The Case/Roll In The Tire,” that foreshadow some of Bernstein’s later work in the western genre.
Complicated rights issues meant that the original film tracks were never released; instead, there are several re-recorded albums available. The most definitive is the 1997 Varése Sarabande re-recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Bernstein himself; this recording, which contains music unused in the final film, is still in print and carried by most major soundtrack outlets. To Kill A Mockingbird is highly recommended; in addition to being a beautiful work in its own right, it serves as an excellent introduction to Elmer Bernstein’s writing. While the composer would go on to write many more outstanding scores in every genre, Mockingbird remains his most lyrical and emotional work, and a true gem of film scoring.