Winner of 20 Grammys and four Oscars, Henry Mancini was one of the most popular figures in music for decades. As a composer, arranger and conductor he was truly versatile, as at home on the concert podium as he was in the recording studio.
It was the flute that started Mancini’s musical journey –his father was an accomplished flautist – and then the piano took hold. Arranging, an art in itself, was where his aspirations lay and that’s how he earned a crust early on. Studies at Juilliard took a back seat when the US stepped into World War II, Mancini drafted into the Air Force.
After his duty, and study, was complete the young pianist and arranger worked regularly with the Glenn Miller-Tex Beneke Orchestra. In a notable twist of fate, his first Oscar nomination – a few years later – would be for his arranging duties on Universal International’s The Glenn Miller Story.
It was in 1952 that Henry Mancini joined the ranks at Universal as an arranger, composer and conductor. For the next six years he worked on some 100 films and television shows, honing his skills and fine-tuning a sound that would become his trademark. With the likes of the small screen’s Peter Gunn and the big screens Touch of Evil, Mancini’s musical voice was born.
Jazz had already begun to take root in film music and its influences on Mancini were obvious; his keen ‘pop’ sensibilities, too, would stand him in fine stead for what was to become a new wave of movie music-making, where hit songs would be more important to producers than sweeping symphonic scores. He more than knew his way around an orchestra, though, and many of this later film scores took full advantage of dramatic orchestral forces.
The 1960s would see some of his most famous movie melodies, from Breakfast at Tiffanys (featuring the song ‘Moon River’, one of the most covered in history) to The Pink Panther, Charade and Hatari!, not to mention the beginning of a 30-year creative partnership with director Blake Edwards.
As a recording artist Mancini was also in high demand; he delivered around 90 recordings in his career and worked with great artists and orchestras, from Pavarotti to the RPO. In concert, too, Mancini was a big draw and conducted all over the world. Indeed, he conducted the LSO, LA Phil, Israel Philharmonic and Boston Pops among others.
Education and inspiring the next generation were really important to Henry Mancini and following his death in 1994, programs and bursaries in his name were begun at schools on both the east and west coasts of the US. As such, his legacy isn’t just in his own music-making, but in that of the countless students who have benefitted from his – and his family’s – generosity.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.