Jerrald (Jerry) Goldsmith, American Film Composer, 10 February 1929—21 July 2004.

Why was Goldsmith important?

Jerry Goldsmith was one of the chief film composers of the latter half of the twentieth century. He produced a vast body of work, its size matched by its consistent excellence. He exhibited three great strengths as a composer: he was a supreme melodist, tossing off with apparent ease extraordinary, memorable themes; he was astonishingly versatile, as comfortable in highly abstract modernist registers as he was in those of homely Coplandesque Americana and swingin' pop; he could put a full romantic orchestra through its paces, as well as wring the most out of reduced ensembles; lastly, he had an uncanny power to sympathize with a film's characters and action and find just the right way to paint them effectively in music.

Indebted to Alex North and other greats of an earlier generation, he also influenced some members of the following generation deeply, most noticeably the young James Horner. He scored many important and impressive films and established trademark TV themes for shows absolutely everyone saw in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. His fans always noted that he devoted the same care to the raft of second-rate movies he scored as to the best ones, and indeed, some of his own best work was arguably in service of some pretty unworthy films.

The countless websites devoted to his work and obituaries published at his death recount the basic facts of his life: piano training with Jacob Gimpel, tutelage in music with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, time studying at USC, and a break while clerking for CBS when he was allowed to produce occasional music on live TV. In 1957 he scored his first film, the western Black Patch. By the time of his death, he had scored well over 100 movies, had progressed through several stylistic phases, and had written in almost every genre of music. My purpose here is to examine primarily his stylistic development. I am not a musicologist and I make no claim to do full justice to Goldsmith's impressive body of work.

Stylistic development.

Goldsmith's early scores are interestingly spare. This is true not only because of his notorious reticence (about 15 minutes of music in 1963's Seven Days in May, only about 40 in 1969's Patton, etc., etc.), but probably also because small studio orchestras of the TV age had trained him to get the most out of a few players. These scores are more inventive than overwhelmingly impressive (one thinks of 1965's A Patch of Blue). His first Oscar-nominated score, for 1962's Freud, contains passages so frighteningly effective that they were appropriated by Ridley Scott (over Goldsmith's strong objections) for 1979's Alien. The music from Freud started out as temp tracks, but you can still hear it there, as for example when the critter's acid blood drips through the ship, or when Dallas hunts the alien in the air shafts. Goldsmith's tracks for these scenes, which we hear on the Alien soundtrack, went unused, as did the End Titles, which Scott inexplicably dumped for excerpts from Hansen's Romantic Symphony.

Seven Days in May is deliberately spartan, to reflect the coldly serious business shown in the movie: the dominant theme, a sort of countdown played on the snare drum, is used sparingly. 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora! employed similar techniques to highlight political tension (and with a Japanese palette), whereas 1976's Twilight's Last Gleaming offers a logical extension of the ideas in Seven Days in May into full orchestral territory, and 1978's Capricorn One carries it even further (all three are government conspiracy thrillers).

With 1966's The Blue Max and The Sand Pebbles, and 1967's Hour of the Gun Goldsmith began to flex his muscles with the full orchestra to rouse our emotions; but in 1967 and 1968 he produced a hat trick of inventive scores (Sebastian, Planet of the Apes, and Bandolero!) which showed him expanding his palette in search of the right sound. Sebastian marked an early (perhaps his first) use of electronic music, while Planet of the Apes was an absolute watershed in the creation and exploitation of new and exotic effects. It is also worth pointing out that Sebastian is a highly fugal Bach-inspired (electronic) score, whereas Bandolero! is typically folk-western in its sound, and Planet of the Apes is firmly lodged in the modernist twelve-tone register inhabited by Bartok and Stravinsky.

In 1969 Goldsmith used the echoplex machine (a glorified tape recorder, I gather) to record and produce the famous fading horn triplets in Patton. This started off a decade of increasingly eclectic experimentation with major developments in 1976's Logan's Run (notable for its wiggy electronics) and 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (with its astounding "beam," a.k.a. the "blaster beam," a powerful low pitched electronic bass instrument used to great effect in the Klingon battle sequence). It is hard to think of any vocal writing as extensive as that in 1976's The Omen (Goldsmith's sole Oscar win) in an earlier score.

In the midst of these developments, Goldsmith was exploring the limits of what a large orchestra could do. Not everyone will agree, but the communis opinio seems to be that the years right around 1980 constituted a golden age for Goldsmith. 1977's MacArthur, 1978's Capricorn One, The Swarm, Damien Omen II, The Boys from Brazil, and The Great Train Robbery, 1979's Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1980's The Final Conflict, 1981's Masada and Outland, 1982's Poltergeist, Secret of N.I.M.H., and First Blood, and 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie were all revelations in their day; Star Trek and Poltergeist were (in my opinion) the lushest, richest scores Goldsmith ever produced (they also have very similar passages).

The 80s marked a period of intensive incorporation of electronics into Goldsmith's palette. Many fans, accustomed to the rich orchestral sound of preceding years, were taken aback by the spare inorganic sound of Goldsmith's work in the later 80s and 90s. 1982's First Blood and 1984's Supergirl and Gremlins are widely respected despite having strong electronic underpinnings, but scores like 1985's Rambo: First Blood 2, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, and Explorers, 1986's Poltergeist II: The Other Side, and many others sound disappointingly tinny (no one disputes that they were important milestones in the incorporation of electronics in soundtracks, however). It is worth bearing in mind that the equipment of the mid-80s was not what we have today.

Goldsmith never turned his back completely on orchestral scores, and some of his best work of the late 80s and 90s amalgamated orchestral and electronic sounds. 1990's Total Recall, 1991's Medicine Man, 1995's First Knight, 1996's Executive Decision and Star Trek: First Contact, 1997's L.A. Confidential and Air Force One, 1999's The Mummy and The 13th Warrior are all highly respected works. Nevertheless, fans were almost unanimous in their opinion that in later years Goldsmith had a tendency to turn out regrettably formulaic scores which generally did not reach the heights of his earlier work.

Those wishing a complete catalog of Goldsmith's works--with sample audio files and written commentary by Goldsmith and others--should consult the finest Goldsmith site on the web: Deconstructing Goldsmith, written by two irrepressible and provocative Germans, Tom and Sami ( In addition, an impressive list of Goldsmith's various awards, embedded in a fine biography, can be found at the Telarc website (

A note on dates. Sometimes people writing about Goldsmith's works offer dates based upon the release of the film, and sometimes dates based upon the completion of the score. I've tried to be consistent, but if your list or CD liner is off by a year from mine, this is probably the reason.


Bazelon, Irwin. 1975. Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music.
Deutsch, Didier, ed. 2000. Music Hound Soundtracks. The Essential Album Guide to Film, Television, and Stage Music.
Walker, Mark. 1998. Gramophone Film Music Good CD Guide, third ed.

The most important body of work on Goldsmith is in the journal Film Score Monthly (FSM). Some recent important issues/articles:
FSM 9.7 (August 2004). Retrospective/valedictory issue devoted to Goldsmith.
FSM 7.7 (September 2002): 18-29. Scott Bettencourt, "FSM's Top 40 Hit Makers." (Goldsmith was ranked #10 in 2002. "Recommended albums: Nearly anything from 1962-85, plus Total Recall.")
FSM 7.5 (July 2002): 20-23. Jeff Bond, "The Fruit of their Labor: Jerry Goldsmith and Phil Alden Robinson discuss The Sum of All Fears." (A look in on the late Goldsmith.)
FSM 7.4 (May/June 2002):13-16. Andy Dursin, "Legend Resurrected." (On one of the well respected scores from the 80s.)
FSM 5.9/10 (November/December 2000): 26-44. Joe Sikoryak et al., "101 Great Film Scores on CD." (Goldsmith Scores on the list below.)
     1968 Planet of the Apes
     1970 Patton
     1974 Chinatown
     1976 The Omen
     1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture
     1992 Basic Instinct
FSM 5.5 (June 2000): 26-31. Jeff Bond, "In the Beginning . . . Jerry Goldsmith Buyer's Guide, Part Six of Six." (I do not possess the earlier issues with other parts of the buyer's guide. This is a pretty reliable guide to how fans were reacting to Goldsmith's output of the 80s and 90s.)
FSM 5.4 (April/May 2000): 34-35. Jonathan Z. Kaplan, "The Rejected Liner Notes from Tora! Tora! Tora!"

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