National Geographic Fanfare
1922 – 2004
We begin tonight’s program by celebrating America and its remarkable diversity of music with an iconic theme song: Elmer Bernstein’s National Geographic Fanfare. Bernstein was regarded as one of the leading theme song composers in the industry. This is partly due to his extensive career as a film score composer that spanned over five decades. Bernstein’s substantial career led him to compose over 100 film scores for iconic films such as To Kill a Mockingbird, True Grit, and Ghostbusters. Throughout his career, Bernstein was awarded several Academy, Grammy, and Emmy awards for his captivating compositions.
Bernstein was born and raised in a Jewish family in New York City. As he began to nurture his composition career, he was often mistaken by music appreciators for one of his contemporaries, Leonard Bernstein—another prolific American composer. Although the two Bernsteins were not related, Elmer and Leonard developed a fruitful friendship with each other. Elmer took piano lessons at a young age and was later awarded scholarships to continue his music studies. He had the rare opportunity to perform one of his compositions in front of the pioneer of Americana, Aaron Copland. Nothing was reported of Bernstein’s encounter with the composer, but he credits him being one of his influences in the development of his own voice. Bernstein was drafted into the United States Air Force during World War II and was tasked to write music for the Armed Forces Radio.
Following the war, Bernstein moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s, where he entered the film score industry. He began writing music for films and worked alongside various movie directors. Some of his early film scores include movies like The Great Escape, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Ten Commandments. Over time, Bernstein developed a style of composition that employed recognizable and memorable themes.
One such work that exemplifies these characteristics is his National Geographic Fanfare—a short theme song written for the National Geographic television program in the early 1960s. The short yet profound theme is scored for a full symphonic orchestra, prominently led by the brass. The brass opens the work by playing the iconic fanfare theme in C major. Following this opening, the rest of the orchestra reciprocates the fanfare theme. There are moments where Bernstein experiments with some angular harmonies, but he smoothly returns to the opening key at the end, finishing the fanfare. This theme song has reached the hearts of many individuals, both in and out of the United States. Bernstein’s National Geographic Fanfare celebrates our country, its citizens, and its exquisite nature.
notes by Dr. Philip Hoch
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