Legacy Conversations: David Newman


American composer and conductor David Newman talks about the music of John Williams and the connection to the rich musical legacy of his father Alfred Newman

Hosted by Maurizio Caschetto

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There are very few musicians working in contemporary Hollywood that could rival the same amount of experience, knowledge and family heritage of distinguished composer and conductor David Newman. The only living ones who could stand up to him are people who share the same lineage, such as his brother Thomas Newman and his cousin Randy Newman. In fact, they’re all part of what is considered the richest musical legacy of Hollywood: the Newman family.

David is one of the five sons of Alfred Newman (1900-1970), the legendary composer and conductor, winner of nine Academy Awards and considered one of the founding fathers of the classical Hollywood film music style. Together with Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman established methods, practices and stylings that would became the de facto rules of composing for Hollywood movies that would be used also by other great composers such as Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklós Rózsa, Bernard Herrmann. If Steiner and Korngold became the leading musicians of the Warner Bros. studio, Alfred Newman became the director of 20th Century Fox music department, a post he would held from 1940 to 1959. In that position, he acted in a wide variety of roles depending on the circumstances: composer, arranger, music supervisor, administrator and above all conductor for virtually every 20th Century Fox film, including a wealth of high-profile movie musicals like Carousel (1956), The King and I (1956) and South Pacific (1958). As a composer, he wrote beautiful, richly symphonic scores for Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette, Captain from Castile, All About Eve, The Robe, Anastasia, The Diary of Anne Frank, How The West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told. As David Newman tells, his father Alfred was “a tough taskmaster”, but always strove for excellence from himself and from all the people he worked with (he preferred to work as arranger and conductor rather than as a composer). Under the 20th Century Fox roof, many of the greatest talents of film music of that era worked and contributed: composers Bernard Herrmann, Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, but also lesser-known ones like Cyril Mockridge, David Buttolph, Leigh Harline, orchestrators and arrangers Edward B. Powell, Herbert Spencer, Gus Levene, and Alexander Courage, just to name a few. Through his work ethic and highly-regarded musicianship, Alfred Newman was one of the most respected musicians in Hollywood, a musical figure revered by colleagues and also by young up-and-coming talents such as Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, who were moving their first steps at the Fox department.

Alfred Newman conducting the 20th Century Fox Symphony Orchestra, as seen in a Cinemascope short in 1954. (USC Cinema-Television Library)

Alfred Newman took notice of a very young John Williams in the late 1950s, when the future composer of Star Wars was at the beginning of his career in Hollywood, working as freelance session pianist in studio orchestras at Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox. Williams also started assisting staff orchestrators and arrangers working at Fox and MGM such as Eddie Powell, Herbert Spencer and Conrad Salinger and contributed orchestrations on films like Carousel and Some Like It Hot. In that environment, John Williams saw and lived the last straws of the glory days of Hollywood studios’ music tradition, before the crisis of the studio system and the advent of a major cultural shift that was about to change the whole film industry throughout the 1960s. Alfred Newman died in 1970 right after finishing working on the score for Airport; his death was looked by many as the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age music tradition. But his legacy was continuing through the work of such composers as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith.

David Newman conducts a rehearsal with the American Youth Symphony Orchestra

Alfred’s son David Newman was born in 1954 and studied piano and violin since his early days and later earned degrees in orchestral conducting and violin from the University of Southern California. From 1977–1982, he worked extensively in the motion picture and television industry as a violinist, playing on such film scores as Williams’ E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the mid-1980s, he started to work as a composer for films and since then he has scored over 100 films, including Bowfinger, Heathers, the more recent The Spirit, Serenity, and Tarzan. Newman’s music accompanied acclaimed dramas Brokedown Palace and Hoffa; top-grossing comedies Norbit, Scooby-Doo, Galaxy Quest, The Nutty Professor; and award- winning animated films Ice Age, The Brave Little Toaster and Anastasia. He wrote lively scores for films directed by Danny De Vito, including War of the Roses, Matilda, and Throw Momma From the Train. He’s now starting work for Steven Spielberg as arranger, adapter and conductor on West Side Story, the highly-anticipated new film adaptation of the iconic stage musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, which will arrive in theaters next year.

John Williams, BMI’s Vice President Creative – Film, TV & Visual Media Doreen Ringer-Ross and David Newman (Photo © BMI)

David Newman is also a highly talented conductor and appears with leading orchestras throughout the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Boston Symphony, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He has led subscription weeks with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall and regularly conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. He frequently conducts music by John Williams in live concerts and, in the last few years, he has been invited by the Maestro to conduct Williams’ own “Film Nights” both at Tanglewood and at the Hollywood Bowl. David also conducts many of John Williams’ scores for the live-to-picture presentations around the world, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Home Alone, and the Star Wars series.

David Newman is also profoundly interested and engaged in studying and preserving the heritage of classic Hollywood film music, including his own father’s immense legacy. His versatilty, knowledge and experience perfectly convey why he’s a very interesting subject to talk with. In this wide-ranging conversation, David talks about the music of John Williams and its legacy, going in-depth about many aspects of Williams’ approach to the artform of film music, while also paying tribute to the heritage of Alfred Newman and the music-making at 20th Century Fox during the 1940s and ’50s and how it ties to John Williams’ legacy.


Thanks to Leslie Martinelli (Allegro Talent Group) for the help and support. And a huge thank you to David Newman for his incredible generosity and kindness.

David Newman’s Official Website: http://www.davidlouisnewman.com/

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