Max Steiner

For Austrian actor and theater manager (1839–1880), see Maximilian Steiner. For the pornographic actor with the pseudonym Max Steiner, see Max Hardcore.
Max Steiner

Steiner composing
Born Maximilian Raoul Steiner
(1888-05-10)May 10, 1888
Vienna, Austria-Hungary (now Austria)
Died December 28, 1971(1971-12-28) (aged 83)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Occupation Composer, arranger, conductor
Years active 1904–1965
Spouse(s) Beatrice
(m. 1912–?)
(m. 1927; div. 1933)
Louise Klos
(m. 1936; div. 1946)
Leonette "Lee"
(m. 1947–71)

Maximilian Raoul "Max" Steiner (May 10, 1888 – December 28, 1971) was an Austrian-born American music composer for theatre and films. He was a child prodigy who conducted his first operetta when he was twelve and became a full-time professional, either composing, arranging, or conducting, when he was fifteen.

He worked in England, then Broadway, and moved to Hollywood in 1929 where he became one of the first composers to write music scores for films. Steiner was referred to as "the father of film music".[1] Steiner played a major part in creating the tradition of writing music for films, along with composers Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, and Miklós Rózsa.

Steiner composed over 300 film scores with RKO Pictures and Warner Bros., and was nominated for 24 Academy Awards, winning three: The Informer (1935); Now, Voyager (1942); and Since You Went Away (1944). Besides his Oscar-winning scores, some of Steiner's popular works include King Kong (1933), Little Women (1933), Jezebel (1938), Casablanca (1942), The Searchers (1956), A Summer Place (1959), and Gone with the Wind (1939), the film score for which he is best known.

He was also the first recipient of the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, which he won for his score to Life with Father. Steiner was a frequent collaborator with some of the most famous film directors in history, including Michael Curtiz, John Ford, and William Wyler, and scored many of the films with Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Fred Astaire. A lot of his film scores are available as separate soundtrack recordings.

Early years

Max Steiner's birthplace in Vienna today, Praterstraße 72

Steiner was born on May 10, 1888, in Austria-Hungary. He was the only child in a wealthy business and theatrical family of Jewish heritage.[2][3][4] He was named after his paternal grandfather, Maximilian Steiner (1839–1880), who was credited with first persuading Johann Strauss II to write for the theater, and was the influential manager of Vienna's historic Theater an der Wien.[5] His father was Gabor Steiner (1858–1944), Viennese impresario, carnival exposition manager, and inventor, responsible for building the Wiener Riesenrad. His father encouraged Steiner's musical talent, and allowed him to conduct an American operetta, The Belle of New York which allowed Steiner to gain early recognition by the operetta's author, Gustave Kerker.[5] Steiner's mother was a dancer in stage productions put on by his grandfather.[6] His godfather was the composer Richard Strauss.[7] Max Steiner often credited his family for inspiring his early musical abilities.

His parents sent Steiner to the Vienna University of Technology, but he expressed little interest in scholastic subjects. He enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Music in 1904,[8] where, due to his precocious musical talents and private tutoring by Robert Fuchs and Gustav Mahler, he completed a four-year course in only one year. He studied various instruments including piano, organ, violin, double bass, and trumpet. He also had courses in harmony, counterpoint, and composition.[6] For his early achievements he was awarded a gold medal by the academy.[5]

Beginning music career

Steiner first entered the world of professional music when he was fifteen. He wrote and conducted the operetta, The Beautiful Greek Girl. The opera ran for a year and led to opportunities to conduct other shows in various cities around the world, including Moscow and Hamburg. He was invited to London to conduct Lehar's The Merry Widow. He stayed in London for 8 years conducting musicals at Daly's Theares, the Adelphi, the Hippodrome, the London Pavilion and the Blackpool Winter Gardens.[5]

In England, Steiner wrote and conducted theater productions and symphonies. But in 1914, World War I started and he was interned as an enemy alien.[9] Fortunately, he was befriended by the Duke of Westminster, who was a fan of his work, and was given exit papers to go to America, although his money was impounded. He arrived in New York City in December, 1914, with only $32 to his name.[5]

Broadway music (1914–1929)

Steiner soon acquired employment and worked in New York for fifteen years as a musical director, arranger, orchestrator, and conductor of Broadway productions. These productions include operettas and musicals written by Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, and George Gershwin, among others. Steiner's credits include: George White's Scandals (1922), Lady, Be Good (1924), and Rosalie (1928).

In 1927, Steiner orchestrated and conducted Harry Tierney's Rio Rita. Tierney himself later requested that RKO Pictures in Hollywood hire Steiner to work in their music production departments. William LeBaron, RKO's head of production, traveled to New York to watch Steiner conduct and was impressed by Steiner and his musicians, who each played several instruments, making Steiner a Hollywood asset.[5]

His final production on Broadway was Sons O' Guns in 1929.[5]

Hollywood film music (1929–1971)

Symphony of Six Million (1932)

Steiner accepted the offer from RKO to work in their music production departments, and moved to California in 1929. Soon after arriving, he orchestrated the film version of the musical Rio Rita and Dixiana (1930).[10] Steiner later received his first screen credit as an orchestrator for Dixiana. Later that year, Stein was made director of RKO's music production department.[5][6] Steiner’s next film was Cimarron (1931), a Western. This was Steiner's first film for which he wrote an original composition.[5] He then worked on Bird of Paradise, putting to music almost the entire 85-minute film.

In 1932, Steiner was asked to add music to Symphony of Six Million (1932), by David O. Selznick, the new producer at RKO.[5] Steiner composed a short segment that Selznick liked so much that he asked him to compose the theme and underscoring for the entire picture.[11] Selznick was very proud of the film, feeling that it gave a realistic view of Jewish family life and tradition.[12]:75 "Music until then had not been used very much for underscoring."[5] Steiner "pioneered the use of original composition as background scoring for films."[5] The successful scoring in the film was a turning point for Steiner's career and for the film industry; after the underscoring of Symphony of Six Million, a third to half of the success of most films was “attributed to the extensive use of music.”[11]

King Kong (1933)

The score for King Kong (1933) became Steiner's breakthrough. The studio’s bosses were initially skeptical about the need for an original score; however, since they disliked the film’s contrived special effects, they let Steiner try to improve the film with music. The studio suggested using old tracks in order to save on the cost of the film.[5] But, King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper asked Steiner to score the film anyway and said he would pay for the orchestra. Steiner took advantage of this offer and used an eighty-piece orchestra, explaining that the film "was made for music. It was the kind of film that allowed you to do anything and everything, from weird chords and dissonances to pretty melodies.".[5] The film became a "landmark of film scoring" [12]:113

The film quickly made Steiner one of the most respected names in Hollywood. He continued as RKOs music director for two more years, until 1936. During this time, he composed, arranged and conducted another 55 films, including most of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance musicals. He also wrote a sonata used in Katharine Hepburn’s first film, Bill of Divorcement (1932). RKO producers, including Selznick, often came to him when they had problems with films, treating him as if he were a “doctor.”[5] Steiner was asked to compose a score for Of Human Bondage (1934), which originally lacked music. He adding musical touches to significant scenes. Director John Ford called on Steiner to score his film, The Lost Patrol (1934), which lacked tension without music.

The Informer (1935)

John Ford again hired Steiner to compose for his next film, The Informer (1935) before Ford actually began production. Ford even asked his screenwriter to meet with Steiner during the writing phase to collaborate. Ford’s preparation paid off, as the film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four, including Steiner's first Academy Award for Best Score.[13]

Producer David O. Selznick set up his own production company in 1936 and recruited Steiner to write the scores for his next three films.[5]

Composing for Warner Bros.

In April 1937, Steiner left RKO and signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros.; he could, however, continue to work for Selznick. The first filmed he scored for Warner Bros. was The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Steiner became a mainstay at Warner Bros., scoring 140 of their films over the next 30 years.

There are numerous soundtrack recordings of Steiner’s music, both as soundtracks, collections, and recordings by others. Steiner wrote into his seventies, ailing and near blind, but his compositions “revealed a freshness and fertility of invention.”[2] A theme for A Summer Place in 1959, written when Steiner was 71, became one of Warner Brothers’ biggest hit-tunes for years and a re-recorded pop standard. Steiner also scored 18 of Bette Davis’s romantic dramas.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

In 1939, Steiner was borrowed from Warner Bros. by Selznick to compose the score for Gone with the Wind (1939), which became one of Steiner's most notable successes. Steiner was the only composer Selznick considered for scoring the film.[5] Steiner was given only 3 months to complete the score, despite composing more film scores that year - twelve - than he would in any other year of his career. When the film was released, it was the longest film score ever composed, nearly three hours. The composition consisted of 16 main themes and almost 300 musical segments.[5] To meet the deadline, Steiner sometimes worked for 20-hours straight, taking Benzedrine pills to stay awake.

Selznick had asked Steiner to use only pre-existing classical music to help cut down on cost and time,[14] but Steiner tried to convince him that filling the picture with swatches of classic concert music or popular works would not be as effective as an original score, which could be used to heighten the emotional content of scenes.[15] Nevertheless, Steiner ignored Selznick's wishes and composed an entirely new score. Selznick’s opinion about using original scoring may have changed due to the overwhelming reaction to the film, nearly all of which contained Steiner’s music. A year later, he even wrote a letter emphasizing the value of original film scores.[16] :227

The film went on to win 10 Academy Awards, although not for the best original score, which instead went to Herbert Stothart for the musical The Wizard of Oz. The film’s theme song, "Tara's Theme," however, is still a widely recognized. The score is ranked #2 by AFI as the second greatest American film score of all time.

Award-winning Scores

Steiner received Oscar nominations for various scores, including The Letter (1940), Sergeant York (1941), and Casablanca (1942), which remains one of his most famous scores. He won his first Oscar for The Informer in 1935 and won his second Oscar for Now, Voyager (1942), one of his favorite scores.[5] Steiner received his third and final Oscar in 1944 for Since You Went Away (1944). He also won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for Life with Father (1947) along with other awards throughout his career.[13]


Steiner wrote the scores for over twenty large-scale Westerns, most with epic-inspiring scores “about empire building and progress”[5] like The Adventures of Mark Twain, Dodge City (1939) and The Oklahoma Kid (1939). Dodge City, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, is a good example of Steiner’s handling of typical scenes of the Western genre.[5] Steiner used a "lifting, loping melody" that reflected the movement and sounds of wagons, horses and cattle.[5]

Steiner showed a love for combining Westerns and romance, as he did in They Died with Their Boots On (1941), also starring Flynn and de Havilland.[5] Considered his greatest Western is The Searchers (1956).

Later works

Although his contract ended in 1953, Steiner returned to Warner Bros. in 1958 and scored several films, ventured into television.[4] He continued to score films produced by Warner until the mid sixties.[5]

Steiner's pace slowed significantly in the mid-1950s, and he began freelancing. In 1954, RCA Victor asked Steiner to prepare and conduct an orchestral suite of music from Gone with the Wind for a special LP, which was later issued on CD. There are also acetates of Steiner conducting the Warner Brothers studio orchestra in music from some of his film scores. In 1959, he composed the score for the film A Summer Place. The memorable instrumental theme composed by Steiner spent nine weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1960 (in an instrumental cover version by Percy Faith).[17]

In 1963, Steiner began writing his autobiography, which, although completed, was never published, and is the source of a few biographical errors concerning this composer. A copy of the manuscript resides with the rest of the Max Steiner Collection at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Methods of composing

Steiner explains that in the early days of sound, producers avoided underscoring music behind dialogue, feeling that the audience would wonder where the music was coming from. As a result, he notes that “they began to add a little music here and there to support love scenes or silent sequences.” But in scenes where music might be expected, such as a night club, ballroom or theater, the orchestra fit in more naturally and was used often.[11]

However, because half of the music was recorded on the set, Steiner says it led to a great deal of inconvenience and cost when scenes were later edited, because the score would often be ruined. As recording technology improved during this period, he was able to record the music synced to the film and could change the score after the film was edited. Steiner explains his own typical method of scoring:

When a picture is finished and finally edited, it is turned over to me. Then I time it: not by stop watch, however, as many do. I have the film put through a special measuring machine and then a cue sheet created which gives me the exact time, to a split second, in which an action takes place, or a word is spoken. While these cue sheets are being made, I begin to work on themes for the different characters and scenes, but without regard to the required timing. During this period I also digest what I have seen, and try to plan the music for this picture.
There may be a scene that is played a shade too slowly which I might be able to quicken with a little animated music; or, to a scene that is too fast, I may be able to give a little more feeling by using slower music. Or perhaps the music can clarify a character’s emotion, such as intense suffering, which is not demanded or fully revealed by a silent close-up.[11]

Steiner often followed his instincts and his own reasoning in creating film scores. For example, when he chose to go against Selznick’s instruction to use classic music for Gone With the Wind. Steiner stated:

It is my conviction that familiar music, however popular, does not aid the underlying score of a dramatic picture. I believe that, while the American people are more musically minded than any other nation in the world, they are still not entirely familiar with all the old and new masters’ works ... Of course there are many in our industry who disagree with my viewpoint.[11]

Scores from the classics were sometimes harmful to a picture, especially when they drew unwanted attention to themselves by virtue of their familiarity. For example, films like 2001 – A Space Odyssey, The Sting and Manhattan, had scores that were easily recognized instead of having a preferred "subliminal" effect. Steiner, was among the first to acknowledge the need for original scores for each film.

Steiner felt that knowing when to start and stop was the hardest part of proper scoring, since incorrect placement of music can speed up a scene meant to be slow and vice versa: "Knowing the difference is what makes a film composer."[5] He also notes that many composers, contrary to his own technique, would fail to subordinate the music to the film:

I've always tried to subordinate myself to the picture. A lot of composers make the mistake of thinking of film as a concert platform on which they can show off. This is not the place ... If you get too decorative, you lose your appeal to the emotions. My theory is that the music should be felt rather than heard.[5]

Character themes

One of the important principles that guided Steiner whenever possible was his rule: Every character should have a theme. "Steiner creates a musical picture that tells us all we need to know about the character."[18] To accomplish this, Steiner synchronized the music, the narrative action and the leitmotif as a structural framework for his compositions.[18]

A good example of how the characters and the music worked together is best exemplified by his score for The Glass Menagerie (1950):[2]

Another film which exemplifies the synchronizing of character and music is The Fountainhead (1949): The character of Roark, an idealist architect (played by Gary Cooper):

Steiner’s theme for the hero is fraught with a true emotion and a genuine idealism and aspiration. It surges upward in ‘masculine’ style, whilst Roark’s mistress’s theme wends downwards in curves of typically feminine shapeliness ... He above, she traveling up in the workmen’s elevator: the music seems to draw them together in mutual fulfillment ... The score brings dignity and grandeur to the picture.”[2]

Scene and situation themes

In the same way that Steiner created a theme for each character in a film, Steiner's music developed themes to express emotional aspects of general scenes which originally lacked emotional content[2] For example:


Steiner died of congestive heart failure in Hollywood, aged 83.[13] He is entombed in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.[19]

Awards and honors

Plaque for Steiner at his birthplace in Praterstraße 72, Vienna
Unveiling the Max Steiner-plaque in 1988 (f.l. R. Blumauer, H. Weißmann, H. Zilk)


The American Film Institute respectively ranked Steiner's scores for Gone with the Wind (1939) and King Kong (1933) #2 and #13 on their list of the 25 greatest film scores. His scores for the following films were also nominated for the list:


  1. "Max Steiner – Father of Film Music" on YouTube, trailer to documentary film
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Palmer, Christopher. The Composer in Hollywood, “Max Steiner: Birth of an Era”, Marion Boyars Publishers (1990) pp. 15–50
  3. Neale, Steve, ed. Classical Hollywood Reader, Routledge (2012) p. 235
  4. 1 2 Volkov, Shulamit. Germans, Jews, and Antisemites: Trials of Emancipation, Cambridge Univ. Press (2006) p. 42
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 Thomas, Tony. Max Steiner: Vienna, London, New York, and Finally Hollywood, Max Steiner Collection, Brigham Young University 1996
  6. 1 2 3 MacDonald, Laurence E. The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, Ardsley House (1998) p. 26
  7. "Max Steiner". Hollywood in Vienna.
  8. Wegele, Peter (2014). Max Steiner: Composing, Casablanca and the Golden Age of Film Music, p. 47-74. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  9. Brook, Vincent. Driven to Darkness: Jewish Emigre Directors and the Rise of Film Noir, Rutgers Univ. Press (2009) p. 215
  10. "Max Steiner: Film Scores". Songwriter Hall of Fame. Retrieved April 1, 2016.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Cooke, Mervyn. The Hollywood Film Music Reader, Oxford Univ. Press (2010) pp. 55–68
  12. 1 2 Haver, Ronald. David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, Knopf Publishers (1980)
  13. 1 2 3 "Max Steiner". IMDb., Inc.
  14. Bartel, Pauline. The Complete “Gone with the Wind” Trivia Book, Rowman & Littlefield (1989) p. 92
  15. Gottlie, Jack. Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish, S.U.N.Y. Press (2004) p. 47
  16. Selznick, David O., Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Memo from David O. Selznick, Viking Press (1972)
  17. Bronson, Fred (1 October 2003). The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (5th ed.). New York: Billboard Books. p. 75. ISBN 978-0823076772.
  18. 1 2 Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film, Univ of Wisconsin Press. (1992) pp. 113–121
  19. "Max Steiner". NNDB. Soylent Communications.

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