Composer in Hollywood Manuscripts: Alex North Papers Now Processed

The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Loras Schissel and Dance Archivist Libby Smigel.

Alex North receiving the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1986. Alex North Papers, Music Division.

We are pleased to announce the completion of the processing of the Alex North: Music for Documentary Film, Theater, Dance and Concert collection in the Music Division at the Library of Congress.

Alex North (1910-1991) was one of the most beloved American composers for feature films. His scores for A Streetcar Named Desire, Cleopatra, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf garnered North fifteen Oscar nominations. North was also a beloved mentor to a new generation of composers for film. John Williams recalled Alex North as “an inspiration, a role model and a hero.” Jerry Goldsmith had this to say:  ”Alex is a perfectionist. … Of all of us, he is the master.”

The North materials in the Library of Congress document the other creative aspects of his career that are less known but of great importance to knowing the full breadth and scope of this outstanding composer. Before moving to Hollywood in the early 1950s, North had already established himself as an outstanding composer for the theater.  His scores for plays included Death of a Salesman, The Innocents, and Richard III, and he garnered critical praise from Brooks Atkinson who opined, “Give Mr. North a theme, and he goes straight to the heart of it without any musical pretensions.”

Early in his career, North was romantically involved with choreographer Anna Sokolow (1910-2000). Over the years of their relationship, he composed numerous scores for her ballets as well as for those of other innovators like Martha Graham. Records documenting Depression – Era dance are scarce, but the Library’s North collection has surprised the dance field with scores for two Sokolow works thought lost: A Ballad in a Popular Style (1936) and Slaughter of the Innocents (1937). It was at Sokolow’s New York debut dance recital that a young Leonard Bernstein met his hero Aaron Copland for the first time.

Bernstein would figure in one of North’s very popular concert works. Clarinetist Benny Goodman commissioned North for  a work for clarinet and orchestra. This composition, “Revue for Clarinet,” was premiered by Goodman with Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony in 1946. North also collaborated with poet Langston Hughes for a choral work, a cantata  titled “Negro Mother,” in 1940.

North’s success as a documentary film composer during World War II is well represented in the collection with such important scores for “Mount Vernon,” and “City Pastoral.”

The collection is now processed and will be available in the Performing Arts Reading Room once the Library of Congress re-opens to researchers. It is our hope that these new primary source materials will inspire a new generation of musicians, dance restagers, and scholars and advance the study and celebration of our American music.

The Alex North finding aid can be accessed here.

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