Alex North studied music at the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, then won a scholarship to Juilliard in New York (1929) and the Moscow Conservatoire (1933), making him the first-ever American to become a member of the Union of Soviet Composers. In Europe, he worked as music director for the Latvian State Theatre, before returning to the U.S. in 1935 to perfect his craft under the auspices of Aaron Copland. At the same time, he produced his first compositions, including two symphonies, chamber music and dance scores for Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille. After a spell in Mexico as conductor/composer, he served as a captain with the U.S. Army, in charge of ‘self-entertainment programs’ for hospitalised psychiatric patients. He also did his first film work, scoring documentaries for the Office of War Information.
Profoundly influenced by, above all, Duke Ellington, North began to write several innovative compositions in jazz. His ‘Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra’ was originally commissioned by Benny Goodman and first performed in 1946 under the direction of Goodman and Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Joining ASCAP in 1947, North went on to compose theatrical scores, including ‘Death of a Salesman’ for Elia Kazan and this opened the door to Hollywood. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) was the first all-jazz score ever written for a motion picture. His next assignment was the film version of Death of a Salesman (1951), followed by Viva Zapata! (1952), for which he used traditional instruments, including marimbas and timbales.
Much of his subsequent work was characterised by sparse instrumentation (as, for example, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and the Oscar-nominated Under the Volcano (1984)). He used jazz again, evocatively, to score The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and The Sound and the Fury (1959), but was rather less successful on more conventional themes, such as The Misfits (1961). One of his most beautiful and lyrical works was the love theme from Spartacus (1960). For the small screen, he composed the music for the two instalments of the popular miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). Alex North was Oscar-nominated fifteen times but only received the coveted statuette as a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986.