February 20, 2019

Notes from a Master

With the release of “Star Trek: Insurrection,” composer Jerry Goldsmith has completed his fourth orchestral score for a “Star Trek” feature film. During the past 35 years, the composer has written some of the most memorable film and television music ever. His 100-plus film scores are remarkably diverse, including “Alien,” “Chinatown,” “Basic Instinct” and last summer’s “Mulan.”

Born in Los Angeles in1929, Goldsmith studied with Jakob Gimple and Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco in the 1940s. He went on to write for such television shows as “Gunsmoke” and “The Twilight Zone” before writing his first film score for the 1956 western “The Black Patch.”

In a rare break in his schedule — he has written six scores since January — Goldsmith spoke with The Jewish Journal at his home in Beverly Hills.

Jewish Journal: How did you begin in music?

Jerry Goldsmith: My grandfather gave my parents a piano for a wedding present. I started taking piano lessons when I was 6. More piano lessons, and then I started getting serious about it when I was 12. When I was 14, I really thought I was going to be a concert pianist and I was composing little pieces, and that was it: I decided I wanted to be a musician, wanted to study music.

JJ: Has anti-Semitism been an obstacle to overcome in your career?

JG: I may have lost some job somewhere along the line because I’m Jewish, but I don’t think so, because most of the people I have worked for are Jewish. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. There are many self-deprecating Jews out there who are sorry they are Jews. I’m sure it’s there. It has never gone away.

There was one old-time director, a great director, and I did his last picture — why am I being coy? He’s dead. It was Howard Hawks. I just read his biography, and it said he was an anti-Semite. It was a shock to me. He was very nice to me. He was very old and sort of out of it, but he couldn’t have been nicer. He gave me a hand-tooled belt as a present. Maybe he didn’t know I was Jewish. I don’t know. I hear more stories about it in the past than I do today.

JJ: How has being Jewish influenced your work?

JG: I’m very aware of my Jewishness. As I’ve gotten older and older, I find that I’m more secure in it and more comfortable with it. I think my son’s bar mitzvah was the third-happiest day of my life, the first being when I married his mother, then his birth, then his bar mitzvah.

My wife has just turned 50 and just got bat mitzvahed. My wife has probably made me more aware of my Jewishness, making sure that we get to High Holy Day services and we light the candles every Friday night and observe the Sabbath to a certain extent.

As far as the music is concerned, it’s interesting the two major things that I’ve done were “QB VII” and “Masada.” I just felt like nobody else could have written this music and done what I did. There’s some gene or something particularly Jewish or, at least, that I’m Jewish that I have this affinity for this kind of music that only a Jew can do. It seems like a pompous and arrogant thing to say. I really think that only Jews can relate to this kind of feeling.

In the score for “First Knight,” the final battle scene was temp-tracked with the ubiquitous “Carmina Burana.” The director said, “We’ve got to have a chorus singing in this big battle of six or seven minutes.” I didn’t know what a chorus was going to do. He said, “Don’t even bother writing it. We’ll just use the ‘Carmina Burana.'” At that time, it seemed rather a great idea because I was so pressed for time. Actually, it was a combination of my agent and my wife who said: “Don’t do it. Don’t take the easy way out. Do it right.” So I said, “OK, I’ll do music for it, but the chorus has to say something.” So I sat there for hours with the director, who’s also Jewish, and I said, “Give me some words for the chorus to sing, and I’ll get it translated into Latin, and we’ll be off and running.” So we picked the “Shma.” So if you listen to the big battle scene, it’s the “Shma” translated into Latin with orchestra and chorus.

JJ: Do instruments belong in the synagogue?

JG: Yes, I think so. I find a correlation, a similarity between synagogues and concerts. The trick is to get young people involved. I’ve been a member at Steven S. Wise for 25 years, and there has always been an emphasis on the musical aspect of it. I was shocked the first time I went there and the cantor was playing a guitar, and it was very hip…and they’re constantly writing new music. Michael Isaacson is the music director there and really a beautiful singer. I’d like to write something for it if I have enough time…if only we spoke Latin instead of Hebrew.

I think our older liturgical music has been steeped in Christian-sounding music. I used to hear these chorales, as a kid, that could have been used in a Presbyterian church as far as I was concerned. Just translate the words into English. Then I heard some of the new music being written, and it was wonderful, so I went and I saw a lot of younger faces and a tremendous congregation. I didn’t know it could be that way. It caught one of the great aspects of Judaism. And they do instrumental music. I remember, on Yom Kippur, hearing the Kol Nidre on cello. It was very moving.

JJ: What is the role of electronics in the classical music of the future?

JG: I don’t know yet. My enthusiasm has certainly waned from the mid ’80s, when I thought it was the end-all to everything and the new salvation of music. The role that I had always hoped electronics would be is a means and not an end. I had hoped it would be an adjunct to the orchestra, a new section. As much as I use electronics, in concert I try to use the real thing. Right now, I’m in limbo about electronics.

JJ: When Samson lost his long hair, he lost all his strength and was enslaved. What would happen to Jerry Goldsmith if he lost his famous ponytail.

JG: I’d be unrecognizable. I’m thinking about getting it cut after this concert season. Who knows?