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When he died early 1999, Ernest Gold was best remembered as one of Hollywood's most successful film composers and one of the busier composers in television during the '70s and '80s. If things had been different in the world of the '30s, however, Gold might've been one of the last of the post-romantic composers on the European continent, making his way melodically in stark opposition to a musical world increasingly dominated by atonalism and jarring non-melodies. What made that impossible, and sent Gold (like such older contemporaries of his as Miklós Rozsa and Franz Waxman) to the United States, was Hitler. So Ernst Gold (as he was born and raised in Austria) came to Hollywood as Ernest Gold, and became one of the last European romantic music figures to carve a name for himself in film music.
Gold was born on July 13, 1921, to a Viennese family with long connections to music. His maternal grandfather was a student of Anton Bruckner and subsequently became the president of the Society of Friends of Music, a fraternal organization founded by Johannes Brahms. His mother was a singer and his father an amateur violinist who had once studied music with the operetta composer Richard Heuberger. The family was not only musically inclined but very open-minded in what they permitted the boy to aspire to — reportedly, even at the age of ten, just about at the point when music was entering talking pictures in a serious way, he expressed the desire to become a film composer in Hollywood, no less, and as a teenager he was known for attending movies simply to hear the scoring. Among those whose work impressed the young Gold was Max Steiner, a fellow Viennese descended from an equally well-established family, some 40 years older than he, who had made his way in Hollywood very nicely.
Gold started playing the piano and violin at age six, and by the time he was eight he'd begun composing songs. He might've been a younger rival to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer-performer prodigy of 30 years earlier (who also ended up in Hollywood), writing a full-length opera when he was 13, but for the fact that the Vienna of the '30s was too chaotic a place for a boy of any talent — especially from a Jewish family — to make too much of an impression. In the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there had been room for the young Korngold to make a name for himself as a latter-day Mozart, but in the Austria of the mid-'30s, there was mostly danger for someone of Gold's ethnic and religious heritage. Hitler's rise to power in 1933 in Germany put a mortal threat just across a lightly guarded border, maintained more by good manners and a very shaky and unenforceable treaty from World War I, which fell with the first approach of German troops five years later.
Gold attended the State Academy of Music in Vienna until the beginning of 1938, when he and his family fled Europe. They arrived in New York in 1938, where the 17 year old resumed his music career by presenting a piano concerto that received a performance that same year at Carnegie Hall. The NBC orchestra also performed one of his symphonies, and he seemed to have the beginnings of a music career, except that the kind of music that Gold wrote was out of favor with the critics of the day. They all seemed to compare his composition to "movie music," and meant it as an insult.
Gold didn't think it an insult, however, and liked what he heard of film music, and so he ultimately moved to Hollywood. He arrived there in 1945, a year in which all of the major studios were anticipating a major business downturn, yet his work was impressive enough to land Gold a job, initially as an arranger and orchestrator, mostly in B-movies and low-budget genre films. Had he been born a little earlier and arrived at the end of the '30s, Gold might've followed the route of men like Hans J. Salter into the ranks of the music department of Universal Pictures or one of the other major studios, for a permanent, full-time job that offered the possibility of getting bigger, better movies at some point. Instead, in 1945 Gold's early movie work carried him from programmer to programmer, at smaller majors like Columbia Pictures and larger B-studios like Republic Pictures, mostly involving Westerns, melodramas, and the occasional crime thriller, such as Universal's Smooth as Silk. For Lippert Pictures he scored the sci-fi adventure Unknown World, which has retained some interest among genre enthusiasts, but most of Gold's first ten years in Hollywood were a struggle to make worthwhile music while making a living and setting the stage for a real career — during the course of his early years in Hollywood, he also married vocalist Marni Nixon. Gold's best opportunities during this period came as an arranger and orchestrator, for which he got to work on two high-profile Columbia Pictures productions, Knock on Any Door and In a Lonely Place, both directed by Nicholas Ray and both scored by George Antheil.
Gold had studied with Antheil, his older contemporary, and served as his orchestrator on a wide range of film projects, including the music for such odd films as John L. Parker's hour-long chiller Daughter of Horror (best known as the movie that is being shown in the theater in the Steve McQueen movie The Blob, when the monster of that title attacks). Antheil himself took a step up as a composer when he was engaged by Stanley Kramer to score the high-profile melodrama Not as a Stranger and engaged Gold to orchestrate the music. More work for the two followed from Kramer, including The Pride and the Passion in 1957. By 1958, Gold had gotten his first film composition assignment from Kramer in the form of The Defiant Ones, which received multiple Academy Award nominations and represented a huge step up for Gold from the B-movies he had been scoring — when Antheil fell ill that same year and was unable to work on Kramer's film On the Beach, the music director's spot went to Gold. On the Beach was as high a profile film as you could make in 1958, dealing with a controversial subject (nuclear annihilation) and with a true all-star cast. Gold was able to come up with an expressive score despite the edict imposed on him by the producer that the Australian anthem "Waltzing Matilda" was to be used as often as possible in the background music. Gold became Kramer's preferred composer for the next 20 years, working on every major picture that the producer made. The big break for Gold as a popular composer came in 1960, and not from Kramer, oddly enough — that year, he scored one major film for Kramer, Inherit the Wind, which was a hit with critics and the public. But it was Gold's music for Otto Preminger's production of Exodus that yielded his first (and only) enduring popular music hit.
Ironically, Exodus was also one of the most involved film projects of Gold's career — rather than hiring the composer to score the movie after it was shot, Preminger hired Gold during pre-production and had him present during and around the actual shooting of the movie, which meant that Gold spent almost a year on the film, an unusual luxury for a movie composer (strangely enough, Miklós Rozsa had a similar arrangement in working on Ben-Hur at just about the same time and also got superb results). The film, dealing with the creation of the State of Israel, was a box office monster, but even more successful was Gold's main theme, a rousing, memorable, almost-Straussian piece that was covered by hundreds of artists in arrangements for everything from full orchestra to electric guitar, perhaps most successfully as a piano duet by Ferrante & Teicher.
After that, Gold's name was made in Hollywood and popular music circles. Kramer used Gold on most of his films from then on, including Judgment at Nuremberg and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, all of which sold extremely well, based on their own merits and the connection, by way of the composer, to Exodus. Ironically enough, United Artists, which released the film Exodus, never had the original soundtrack, which belonged to RCA Victor — the label eventually released a re-recording, and after Exodus they held onto the soundtrack rights of anything Gold wrote for any movies released by UA.
Gold's film work for the remainder of the '60s was focused on such high-profile Kramer productions as A Child Is Waiting, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Ship of Fools, and The Secret of Santa Vittoria; the composer was equally adept at comedy and drama, and well able to write in various period styles as well. Gold took a break from film work in the late '60s to write the score for the Broadway musical I'm Solomon, and after Kramer's theatrical film output slackened with the dawn of the '70s, he turned increasingly to writing for television. Made-for-TV features such as the excellent Footsteps and Tom Horn were sandwiched around occasional theatrical features such as Cross of Iron and Fun with Dick and Jane. During the late '70s, as Gold's career was beginning to wind down, his son Andrew Gold emerged as a successful pop recording artist with the songs "Lonely Boy" and "Thank You for Being a Friend." Gold kept himself busy when he wasn't writing film scores with the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Senior Citizen's Orchestra, which he founded in the 1980s. He died in 1999, 11 years after writing his final film score, for the television adaptation of Gore Vidal's Lincoln.