MAX STEINER (1888 - 1971)
Maximillian Raoul Walter Steiner was born in Vienna on 10 May 1888. After completing, in one year, a four-year course at the Imperial Academy of Music, Steiner’s dramatic instincts guided his musical path toward operetta, and at the age of sixteen he wrote and conducted The Beautiful Greek Girl. Classified an enemy alien while working in London at the outset of the first World War, Steiner was befriended by the Duke of Westminster and was given exit papers to go to America. He arrived in New York in December, 1914, with thirty-two dollars in his pocket.
After spending fifteen years as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor of musical productions written by Herbert, Kern, Youmans and Gershwin, Steiner went to Hollywood to adapt Rio Rita for RKO Radio Pictures. Although in those early years at RKO, the scores mostly consisted of a main title, perhaps a snippet or two during the film, and then the end title, the score that brought Steiner to everyone’s attention was King Kong. As soon as the audience hears that three-note theme—those three massive darkly orchestrated descending chords—it knows it is in for a fantastic experience. In addition to composing scores, such as Morning Glory, the Lost Patrol, The Informer, and well over a hundred others, Steiner also acted as the arranger-conductor on many RKO musicals such as The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat and Follow the Fleet.
In 1936, while under contract to Selznick International, Steiner was lent to Warner Bros. to score The Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn leading the noble Six Hundred, after which Steiner accepted a long-term contract, with the provision that he could work for Selznick when the producer needed him.
It is doubtful if any composer in history has worked harder than Max Steiner. His peak year was 1939, in which he worked on twelve films, including Gone With The Wind for Selznick. Steiner’s career at Warners spanned almost thirty years and included the scores of around a hundred and fifty films. Not unnaturally, there was a fair amount of self-plagiarism and repetition, especially toward the end, but the general level of craftsmanship and the consistent understanding of the musical needs of filmic story-telling added up to an astonishing total contribution. Outstanding among his scores are Dodge City, They Died With Their Boots On, Now Voyager, Casablanca, and Since You Went Away (for Selznick), Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Adventures of Don Juan, The Glass Menagerie, The Searchers, and A Summer Place.
After years of enduring failing eyesight and the agonies of cancer, Max Steiner’s heart stopped on 28 December 1971. The boy who had sat on the lap of Emperor Franz Josef had lived to be almost eighty-four. Often complimented as the man who invented movie music, Steiner would reply “Nonsense. The idea originated with Richard Wagner. Listen to the incidental scoring behind the recitatives in his operas. If Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the Number One film composer.”