One of the leading and most prolific composers of film music in Hollywood's golden era, Max Steiner is most famous for his seminal scores to King Kong (1933), Casablanca (1942), The Informer (1935) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
Born in Vienna on 10 May 1888 the son of a theatrical producer and grandson of the manager of the Theater an der Wien, Steiner had the theatre in his blood. He showed exceptional talent from an early age and had composed a one-act operetta at the age of 15. Trained at the Vienna Conservatory, he studied composition under Felix Weingartner before embarking on a period of travel throughout Europe as a musical director and composer for theatrical shows. In addition, he composed ballets for the Tiller Girls dance troupe.
In December 1914 he left Europe for New York and worked as a copyist and conductor for a Coney Island orchestra, and as music director for the Fox circuit of movie theatres, before getting involved in Broadway. By the end of the 1920s he had established himself as a theatrical arranger, conductor and orchestrator, though with little opportunity to compose.
In 1929, he was invited to Hollywood by Harry Tierney at RKO Pictures to help with the re-arranging of the musical Rio Rita for the new talking-pictures. Steiner stayed at RKO and had his first big success as a composer with the pioneering score to 1933's King Kong. Steiner worked at RKO between 1929 and 1936 contributing to music for over 130 films.
In 1936, Steiner moved to Warner Bros. and continued his remarkable output, aided by a close relationship with his principal orchestrator, Hugo Friedhofer. In the late 1930s he was producing ten new scores per year and between 1930 and 1963, he wrote over 300 scores. Overworked by the studio system and frequently in poor health, Steiner nevertheless lived to the age of 83, dying in Beverly Hills on 28 December 1971.
Steiner, along with his more illustrious colleague at Warner Bros. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, established the fundamentals of symphonic film score composition. The modern-day film-score techniques of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, with their use of Wagnerian leitmotif and thematic consistency, are direct descendents of those that Steiner helped establish. Of his numerous film scores, his finest also include Now Voyager (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945).
Related composers: Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Dimitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman