To celebrate, to commemorate: Alex North

Question: What do one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable’s final film appearance, and an unused score for one of Stanley Kubrick’s best known films have in common? Answer: the composer, Alex North (1905-1991), who would have been 105 today.

North is one of those composers who film lovers and musicians rate highly, but whose name remains unfamiliar to many despite his wealth of work. He was the first composer to be given an Honorary Academy Award, and wrote across a variety of genres – everything from jazz to classical and pop music. He was nominated 15 times for an Oscar, but never won.

Alex North was born into an impoverished family in Pennsylvania. The talented musician won scholarships to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and then the Juilliard School. He worked as a telegraphist to pay his way through college, and found this to be unexpectedly helpful when it enabled him to go to Russia, where he combined his telegraphy work with a spell at the Moscow Conservatoire (he was the first American to study there). He was homesick though, and after sobbing when he heard a recording of Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo decided to return home.

On his return he studied with Aaron Copland and Ernest Toch. When Toch headed to Hollywood, his student followed him, and soon became involved in the movie industry. During the war he provided the soundtrack for a number of documentary shorts including a film about the Library of Congress.

His fine 1951 score for A Streetcar named Desire gave him his first Academy Award nomination. It was also notable as being the first time that a jazz score had been fully integrated into a film drama.

North was Oscar nominated 11 times through the 1950s and ’60s. He worked with many of the best directors of the day including Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus, 2001 : A space odyssey), Elia Kazan (A Streetcar named Desire, Viva Zapata!), and John Huston (The Misfits, Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor). 

Ironically, North is perhaps best remembered for the score that never was. In common with most film scores, Alex wrote the score for Kubrick’s 2001, while the film was in production at Shepperton Studios. Kubrick decided not to use North’s score, but to use the music that he had been using as a temp track throughout the production. Famously though, Alex North wasn’t told about this, and only discovered that his score had been dropped when he went to the film’s premiere.

The master recordings of North’s score were destroyed when Anvil Studios closed in the ’80s but, thankfully, the North family had held on to the mono fold down tapes, and so it was eventually reconstructed and recorded in full by Jerry Goldsmith and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. An excerpt from this recording features on the Journey to the Stars CD at the UL (CD.098.56), along with Ligeti’s Atmospheres and Also Sprach Zarathustra  which replaced North’s score. There’s an interesting mock-up of the opening to the film using the unused score here.

North’s greatest popular success was to come from a song he wrote for a forgotten prison drama Unchained. Unchained melody became his most recognised work; reaching No. 1 in the UK charts four times with four different artists. At one point in 1955 there were four different covers in the UK top 20 at the same time featuring acts as diverse as Jimmy Young and Liberace. It’s also one of the most covered songs of all time with an estimated 700 versions in many languages.

There are multiple copies of Unchained melody at the UL in many versions, including accordion, and 3-part female voices. Excerpts from Spartacus, The Rose Tattoo, and The Rainmaker can also be found at the UL. For more information on Alex North, one of the best source’s is George Burt’s The art of Film Music (Pb.735.19B.B3), which can be borrowed from the Pendlebury.


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About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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