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BERNARD HERRMANN – Fathers of Film Music, Part 7

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Bernard HerrmannArticle by Craig Lysy

Born: 29 July 1911, New York, New York.
Died: 24 December 1975

“Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields. See how these names are feted by the waving grass, and by the streamers of white cloud, and whispers of wind in the listening sky… The names of those who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire’s center. ”

Herrmann carried this excerpt from a poem by Stephen Spender in his wallet his entire life. Within its words are found the burning nexus of this remarkable man.

Bernard Herrmann was born in New York City, the first of three children by Abraham and Ida Herrmann, one of many Jewish families that fled the Tsarist Russian pogroms of the 1880s. His father inculcated Bernard with a love and appreciation of the arts, taking him to the opera as well as having him tutored in the violin. His artistic gift manifested early when he won a composition prize at the age of thirteen. He decided early in life to concentrate on music and so after high school enrolled at New York University.

Herrmann was often bullied due to his eyeglasses and appearance and this served to ignite within him a fiery resentment that burned within his entire life. His love of music helped him overcome this cruelty and set him upon a path from which he never turned back. Although passionate for his music, he was a poor student, and his abrasive personality served to alienate him from professors and fellow student alike. In 1930 he transferred to complete his studies at the Julliard School but never graduated. He left after two years in 1932 having performed poorly and alienated its faculty. It was during these formative years that Herrmann developed a love for the works of English composer Edward Elgar and American composers Charles Ives, George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland. Despite his educational setbacks his career by the age of twenty gained momentum when he formed his own orchestra, the New Chamber Orchestra of New York.

1934 was a very important year for Herrmann. First he joined the Columbia Broadcasting System as a staff conductor. He subsequently rose within its ranks quickly and in 1936 was appointed music director of the Columbia Workshop, an avant-garde radio drama series for which he composed or arranged music. His passion and tireless hard work eventually earned him the post of Chief Conductor where he assumed responsibility for new programming. Herrmann was a visionary and so chose to focus his efforts on introducing new concert works to US audience, especially those of modernist American composer Charles Ives. Second, he met his future wife Lucille Fletcher, a young CBS secretary and aspiring writer. Their courtship was long and difficult due to Herrmann’s volatile personality and the bigotry of Fletcher’s Protestant parents, who were anti-Semitic. They finally married on October 2, 1939 and collaborated on a number of projects where her screen writing was joined with his music.

Herrmann had always aspired to write for the concert hall, his first love, and made several attempts to gain fame, achieving only modest success. Among his efforts were the cantata “Moby Dick” (1938), his “Symphony #1” (1941) and lastly, an elegy “For The Fallen” (1943), a personal tribute to soldiers who had given their lives during WWII. It was clear that he struggled adapting the succinct phrasing, which characterized his successful writing for radio programs to the more traditional rigid structures of concert pieces. His works all had outstanding orchestrations, yet suffered from a lack of creative flow. The lack of success in the concert hall only seemed to fuel the burning alienation and simmering anger within him. Through out his life this simmering cauldron of emotions would erupt, too often rearing its ugly head, thereby estranging him from peers and employers alike.

In 1937 Herrmann set off on a new path with “Columbia Workshop”, a program that celebrated performances of acclaimed writers and poets, whose prose he set to music. The series captured the public’s fascination and brought him acclaim. In 1938 his success earned him the role of resident composer-conductor for CBS’ new series “The Mercury Theatre On The Air”. It was during this series that Herrmann made a fateful encounter that would open his mind to the realm of film score music and forever change his life. The encounter for which I speak is with none other than the legendary Orson Welles, a frequent author and contributor to Herrmann’s programs. Herrmann conducted many live performances of his works, including his notorious adaptation of H. G Well’s “The War Of The Worlds”. When Welles created his own radio series, “The Orson Welles Show” (1941-1942), he chose Herrmann as his resident composer. His score to Welles’ “A Christmas Carol” revealed genius with his use of celeste and strings to evoke a music box as well as his disquieting use of high register string harmonics for the ghost of Marley. However it was the palpable grim darkness he infused into this tale where his mastery of his craft was revealed. The series also included works by his wife Lucille and led Herrmann to declare that Welles was for him, part of his family.

herrmannwellesWelles recognized Herrmann’s talents and so when RKO Pictures signed him to a contract in 1941 he brought Herrmann along as his composer. Their first collaboration was “Citizen Kane” (1941), which earned Herrmann acclaim and his first Academy Award nomination for Best Score of a Dramatic Picture. The score is a masterpiece of both conception and expression. He provided two recurring five-note leitmotifs, both of which drew inspiration from the liturgical “Dies Irae” chant. The chant speaks of the Day of Judgment, which devout Christians believe the righteous will ascend to heaven while the accursed will descend unto the fire pit of Hell. We therefore can discern from Herrmann’s reference to the chant, a commentary on Kane’s moral bearing. The evocation of Dies Irae within the Power Motif informs us of a judgment of Kane’s ambitions and actions throughout the film. Now most interesting is that like the Power Motif, the Rosebud Motif also contains five notes and so is kindred in its construct. Yet its fundamental expression and its color juxtapose the Power Motif. While the Power Motif is emoted as a tritone or minor third, the Rosebud Motif ends with a falling fourth, which imbues it with a subtle radiant aura of hopefulness. The Rosebud Motif therefore is intrinsically linked with the happy childhood moments in Kane’s life, embodied in his cherished sled Rosebud, times for which he still longs. This score is testimony to Herrmann’s genius. For contemporary films, character leitmotifs are still used in some quarters, but employing two to emote the complex psychology of a single character, rarely seen anymore.

For his next project Herrmann was asked to score “The Devil And Daniel Webster” (1941) for director William Dieterle. The collaboration was collegial and fruitful with the score earning a second nomination for an Academy Award for Best Score of a Dramatic Picture. In the end, “The Devil And Daniel Webster” triumphed over “Citizen Kane”, which Herrmann believed was superior, earning him his only Academy Award win. Herrmann’s entry into the realm of film score music atop two nominated scores and an Oscar win was an outstanding achievement. He had won public and critical acclaim and it seemed that he had the world at his feet.

Regretfully, there would be a tragic turn of events from which Herrmann’s career would forever be harmed. Herrmann rejoined Welles for their second collaboration, one that would end badly and be their last. Welles’ film and Herrmann’s score for “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) suffered severe creative interference and were unmercifully edited by orders from studio executives. With more than half his score excised Herrmann’s anger knew no bounds and in a tirade for the ages he severed all ties with the film. If that was not enough, he also threatened legal action if his name was not removed from the credits. Not only did this end his collaboration with Welles, but also it gained him terrible notoriety in studio executive circles as a volatile and insufferable prima donna best avoided.

It would be two years before director Robert Stevenson and 20th Century Fox would gamble and solicit his services with “Jane Eyre” (1944). Herrmann responded with one of his finest efforts, thus reopening the hiring door. His theme for Jane, which was emoted by solo oboe delicato stands as one of the beautiful themes he ever wrote. He finished the decade with “Hangover Square” (1945), which featured his famous “Concerto Macabre” a dark and haunting piece that emoted the tragedy of the film’s doomed George Bone. Next there was the wondrous ethnically rich “Anna and the King of Siam” (1946), which earned him his third Academy Award nomination. Lastly came “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), which Herrmann considered his greatest work, and one that most critics believe may be the finest score he ever wrote. Herrmann often referred to this score as his “Max Steiner score” as it was unabashedly romantic and graced by several leitmotifs, including the Sea motif, which rises and falls like the sea itself.

Despite this success Herrmann continued be his own worst enemy. In 1943 a producer offered him a scoring assignment regarding Shostakovich composing his seventh symphony, and his response was a rude “I won’t be a cut-rate Shostakovich!” Alfred Newman, the head of 20th Century Fox admired Herrmann’s work and so in 1944 offered him “Laura” to score. Yet he rebuffed the offer saying, “Laura wouldn’t listen to Herrmann, she’d listen to Debussy!” In 1945 he made perhaps his biggest error in his career by rejecting an offer by Selznick to score Hitchcock’s latest effort “Spellbound”. Pivotal was an event in 1947 where he at last secured a coveted invitation to lead the New York Philharmonic in a classical music program. For his whole life had sought this opportunity and was more than ready to abandon film music all together for his first love. Yet the orchestra bristled under his imperious and abrasive manner while critics offered a truly vicious rebuke of his conducting skills. Herrmann never forgave this public rebuke and his bottled up anger exploded in his personal life, leading to his and Lucy’s divorce in the summer of 1948. Yet, as they say, time heals all wounds and in 1948 he married Lucille’s cousin, Lucy (Kathy Lucille) Anderson, a marriage that would last 16 years.

Great change came in 1951 that forever altered Herrmann’s professional path. The advent of television led CBS to invest in the new medium at the expense of its substantial radio programming. As such, Herrmann’s beloved program CBS Radio Symphony was cancelled. Herrmann was devastated and bitter at seeing his greatest joy come to an end. He packed Lucy up, abandoned New York and drove cross-country, often suffering bouts of terrible headaches during the journey from his pent up rage. He settled in a modest dwelling in North Hollywood and to support himself, returned to his second love, film score art. His first film upon returning was 20th Century Fox’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). Director Robert Wise had long admired Herrmann and so gave him complete artistic freedom. His approach was to eliminate the string section and to create an otherworldly ambiance by adding an electric violin, electric bass, Theremins, vibraphone, four pianos, four harps and a massive 30-player horn section! The film was both a critical and commercial success, earning Herrmann acclaim for his avant garde and innovative score. Next came director John Mankiewicz who hired Herrmann for “5 Fingers” (1952), which revealed his talent in scoring a suspenseful and sophisticated spy thriller – a harbinger of his coming mastery of this genre under Hitchcock.

During the first part of the decade, Herrmann slowly began to find increased demand for his services. His unique scoring approach offered directors a clear departure from the florid melodrama of the old European school, a style that increasingly seemed dated and out of sync with popular culture. Slowly, his record of success built a steady momentum, as he secured additional film assignments, which spanned many different genres, including “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1952), which offered Herrmann an opportunity for nostalgia as we see Harry Street beset by torrents of emotion as he struggles to reconcile the regrets of his past, “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” (1953) a sea romance, “King of the Khyber Rifles” (1953) a British military adventure set during the Indian Raj, “White Witch Doctor” (1953), an African adventure film, “A Christmas Carol” (1954), from the classic Dickens story, “The Egyptian” (1954) a grand ancient epic and “Garden of Evil” (1954) a western. The directors of these projects offered universal praise to Herrmann’s ability to understand and elevate their films with his music.

herrmannhitchcock1954 was not only a prolific year for Herrmann, but also a fateful one in that with “The Trouble With Harry” he formed a partnership with director Alfred Hitchcock, which would become legend. The men were on appearance strange bedfellows. Hitchcock was born in London’s East End in 1899 and was Herrmann’s senior by 12 years. Unlike most Cockneys he was the odd man out, being raised by very strict Catholic traditions. This served to set him apart, making his childhood lonely, thus planting the seeds of alienation and fear of death, which later found voice in his films. Herrmann on the other hand was the classic outsider always trying to join the club, of seeking acceptance and validation. Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto relates that the two men shared “a dark tragic sense of life, a brooding view of human relationships, and a compulsion to explore aesthetically the private world of romantic fantasy. ” And so these two men, different yet at the same time kindred, found in their coming together a rewarding and seldom realized artistic synergy.

Herrmann described Hitchcock as essentially, a puritan, but added “Yet it is the puritanical artist that achieves real sexual expression because he conveys his ideas poetically through atmosphere. ” Herrmann understood that Hitchcock’s films always took the perspective of a third party observer, one that was detached from the narrative, yet never the less were vehicles of expressing his latent fears. As such Herrmann’s composed music that fleshed out the passion, romance and psychology of Hitchcock’s oblique narratives, thus making his films whole. The two men would collaborate on eight films; “The Trouble With Harry” (1955), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), “Vertigo” (1958), “North By Northwest” (1959), “Psycho” (1960), “The Birds” (1963) – as a sound consultant as there was no score, “Marnie” (1964), and his rejected score for “Torn Curtain” (1966), which caused an irreparable rupture in their relationship from which sadly they never recovered. Herrmann also scored Hitchcock’s anthology series “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” providing 17 episodes from 1963 to 1965.

For each of Hitchcock’s films Herrmann took his oblique detached imagery and provided music, which spoke to the emotional dynamics of the narrative and emotional drivers of the characters. For their first collaboration, “The Trouble With Harry” (1955), Herrmann was tasked with a black comedy. Herrmann provided a whimsical score with passages of lyrical autumnal gentility and a sense of nostalgia. For his main theme he composed a jaunty construct with muted horns, low register woodwinds – his trademark, and harp, which perfectly captured the film’s tone. The remake of the 1934 suspense thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) followed. For the critical concert scene Herrmann retained original composer Arthur Benjamin’s cantata, but with reworked orchestrations. He infused his music with Moroccan scales, a bass clarinet to support the chase through the market, and for the kidnappers vigil, a portentous ostinato for harp, low register woodwinds and soft strings. His use of Doris Day’s pop song “Que Será, Será” during the pivotal search scene was a masterstroke.

“Vertigo” (1958), Hitchcock’s supreme film, marked the apogee of their collaboration. Herrmann responded with what some say is a score for the ages, one marked by romantic obsession, isolation and the liberation of death. His prelude, perhaps the most dramatic film opening ever offered a stunning example of music powerfully setting the tone of a film. Herrmann’s favorite classical piece, “Liebestod” by Wagner, was adapted with his own sensuous orchestrations for the 5-minute love scene, Scene de Amour, a cue filled with a powerful yearning and romantic longing. Lastly, his use of over lapping harp glissandi to inform us of Ferguson’s vertigo was ingenious and well conceived. “North By Northwest” (1959) was the ultimate “wrong man” film and Herrmann responded with one of his finest scores. The film’s Overture and Main Title is without a doubt one of the most dramatic, complex and powerful openings in the history of film. Completely modernist in construct, it derives its intense kinetic potency from a recurring clash between competing and rhythmically antagonistic motifs that are overlaid a repeating two-measure figure. Most interesting and ingenious is that the first motif is minor modal, the second major modal, with each articulated with different tempi, 3/4 and 6/8 respectively. His elegant Love Theme, consisted of a lyrical interplay between an oboe and clarinet, which flow over supportive strings. His Suspense Theme, bore a fleeting resemblance to the famed Dies Irae, although at a much more rapid tempo. Simple in construct, this theme is emoted with rapidity as a repeating sixteen note line of shifting primary instruments and orchestrations that play over a tritone bass line. Lastly, there was Roger’s Theme, which emoted as a lost, wandering and seemingly random arpeggio figure – perfectly attenuated to reflect the internal perplexity of Roger.

With the infamous “Psycho” (1960), a sordid tale of murder, body snatching and matricide, the collaboration produced an acclaimed masterwork of suspense and terror. With a severely restricted budget, Herrmann was forced to improvise and made an audacious decision early on to only employ a string orchestra. This choice removed the many tools composers traditionally used for horror films, including cymbal rolls, ominous horns, percussive strikes and shrieking woodwinds. Yet strings have the greatest versatility of expression of all the orchestral groups and Herrmann used them all to great effect. He set the tone for the film with his Main Title, which featured the now famous chilling and driving string ostinato. Herrmann stated that this prelude was portentous, a promise of the violence soon to unfold with all its horrific and twisted ugliness. Within its contrapuntal writing he sought to instill naked and raw terror. For the crucial dialogue free scene where Marion succumbs to temptation and decides to steal the $40, 000, Herrmann used a simple viola agitato that play against rising and falling viola chords to create tension of her fateful decision. This brings us to the shower murder scene, where Herrmann gained immortality. Hitchcock’s original vision was to have the scene play without music. Herrmann realized how unaffected the film played without music and so created his masterwork cue. He used sharp shrieking violins that mirrored the savage rending knife slices to sow blind terror. Yet his genius continued, as Marion’s bleeds out and her life ebbs, the slashing strings descend in register, slow and pulse, mimicking her fading heartbeat until we at last see her life pass in the swirling now bloodless drain waters. The score earned Herrmann critical acclaim yet sowed seeds of resentment when Hitchcock, despite the film’s financial success, refused to pay Herrmann his customary fee of $17, 500.

For their next collaboration “The Birds” (1963) Hitchcock decided that he did not want music, but instead would use bird sounds to evoke disquiet and terror. As such Herrmann assumed the role of a sound consultant. “Marnie” (1964), was a critical failure for Hitchcock, his first in many years and a harbinger of the end of their collaboration. Herrmann understood the inadequacy of the film’s simplistic psychology and again attempted to flesh out the emotions lacking from Hitchcock’s detached narrative. What resulted was a supremely romantic score that revolved around his primary Marnie theme, which animates the film. The dramatic power of his music filled the void of Hitchcock’s film and helped to mitigate much of its flaws. Yet the film’s failure left both men bitter and precipitated Herrmann’s divorce from his second wife who could no longer endure his bouts of anger and emotional abuse. Herrmann suffered terrible depression, which he ultimately channeled into his concert piece “Echoes”. The 20 minute work featured his trademark sad valse lente and we discern within its notes the emotional catharsis of Herrmann working through his pain to extricate himself from his melancholia.

This brings us to his rejected score for “Torn Curtain” (1966), his final collaboration with Hitchcock. Universal studio executives advised Hitchcock that his films were becoming dated, and not in sync with the changing popular culture of the 1960s. Hitchcock was taken aback and became worried that he was becoming old-fashioned. As such he felt that he and Herrmann’s music needed to change with the times. He directed Herrmann to provide a modern jazz and pop score for the film. Although he accepted the assignment, Herrmann decided to score the film as was his practice, according to his own ideas. When the score was presented, Hitchcock listened to only the opening prelude before summarily rejecting it. An offended Herrmann, bellowed, “Look, Hitch, you can’t out-jump your own shadow. And you don’t make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don’t write pop music. ” Hitchcock was unrelenting and demanded that Herrmann change the score, which led to Herrmann saying, “Hitch, what’s the use of my doing more with you? I had a career before you, and I will afterwards. ” Well this rebuttal was unrecoverable and the men parted ways, sadly ending both their long friendship and successful record of collaboration.

During the late 1950s and early1960s, Herrmann gained renown scoring several mytho-fantasy films. “The “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) displayed Herrmann’s conceptual vision and acumen;

“The music I composed had to reflect a purity and simplicity that could be easily assimilated to the nature of the fantasy being viewed. By characterizing the various creatures with unusual instrument combinations. . . and by composing motifs for all the major characters and actions, I feel I was able to envelop the entire movie in a shroud of mystical innocence.”

Herrmann fashioned a fine score, drawing inspiration from the spirit of Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov’s epic “Scheherazade”. The score provides a fine heroic theme for Sinbad, a mysterious Arabesque to underpin the adventure, a Scherazadesque love theme as well as a diabolical scherzo emoted by low register horns, counter trumpets, castanets and xylophones, which animated the astounding scene “Duel with the Skeletons”. For Herrmann enthusiasts, this score remains an enduring favorite.

For “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959) Herrmann was inventive. He states

“I decided to evoke the mood and feeling of the inner Earth by using only instruments played in low registers. Eliminating all strings, I utilized an orchestra of woodwinds and brass, with a large percussion section and many harps. But the truly unique feature of this score is the inclusion of five organs, one large cathedral and four electronic. These organs were used in many adroit ways to suggest ascent and descent, as well as the mystery of Atlantis.”

The film’s Main Title is legend, an imposing study of impressionist power where we bear witness to thundering tympani, evoking volcanic eruptions, piercing horn declarations heralding a grand adventure, and dark and heavy organ chords that descend deeper and ever deeper into their registry, taking us into the bowels of the Earth itself until they can go no lower. It was a brilliant masterstroke and testimony to Herrmann’s genius.

Next came “The Three Worlds of Gulliver” (1960). Herrmann, long an admirer of English music perfectly captured the spirit of Swift’s novel. He created three different musical ensembles to capture the qualities of the three worlds. For England he provided classic British pomp and circumstance with a bold and horn powered theme that speaks to Swift’s critique of British pride and vanity. For the second world of the diminutive Lilliputians Herrmann used harps and celeste, while for the third world of the gigantic Brobdingnags he used contrabass and woodwinds. Herrmann’s music contributed as much as the cinematography in creating the contrast between worlds.

“Mysterious Island” (1961) features what may be the most powerful musical openings to a film ever. Muted horns usher in a cataclysmic orchestral assault of stupendous power that informs us of an epic adventure. The subsequent balloon escape offers a stunning display of swirling strings, woodwind glissandi and horn declarations that carry us ever upwards like the men as the balloon soars higher and higher into the firmament. To set the ambiance of Nemo’s island Herrmann provided an ethereal, otherworldly construct that perfectly captured the mystery of the island. Each of the creatures encountered are supported by unique instrument ensembles; whooping horns with sharp woodwind and string counters for the giant crab, flutter-tongue horns for the giant bees, and an organ fugue with pizzicato strings and low register woodwinds for the giant bird. The film’s culmination with the volcanic eruption and destruction of the island featured a horn powered orchestral assault the likes of which have never again been duplicated.

Lastly we come to “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) the least original of Herrmann’s effort in this genre due to self-borrowing from his score “Five Fingers” and concert piece “Nocturne and Scherzo”. He returned to previous techniques by again eliminating the string section, relying on an enormous ensemble of woodwinds, horns and percussion to infuse the film with a grand militaristic power. Despite the apparent flaws, the score performs remarkably well in supporting the film’s imagery and narrative. The enormity of the mighty Talos is powerfully emoted through a marcia brutale by horns, woodwinds and timpani, while a variant of the Dies Irae theme perfectly captures the horrific imagery of the skeleton warriors.

1960 served as another pivotal year in Herrmann’s career as his patron Alfred Newman resigned his post as Director of Music at 20th Century Fox. Newman, who admired Herrmann’s talent and understood him, had been largely responsible for providing him projects. After Newman’s departure, Herrmann’s reputation preceded him and producers were wary of hiring such an abrasive and combative man, his success and talent not withstanding. As such scoring assignments declined. Notable however was his collaboration with famed French director Francois Truffaut on “Fahrenheit 451” (1966). The score, Herrmann’s finest since “Psycho” once again offered testimony to his enormous talent. Truffaut asked Herrmann to provide a 21st century score, yet Herrmann saw the film differently and instead provided just the opposite;

“I felt that the music of the next century would revert to a great lyrical simplicity and that it wouldn’t have to truck in all this mechanistic stuff. In their music they would want something of simple nudity, of great elegance and simplicity. ”

So he set forth with a score comprised for string orchestra, two harps, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel. Herrmann’s score though lyrical was emotionally detached, serving to create a driving, neurotic mood that was perfectly attenuated to the film. The film’s opening offers testimony to his genius. As the opening credits are spoken over a panorama of 21st England, Herrmann provides a childlike ambiance with twinkling glockenspiel and crystalline chimes adorned with harp arpeggios and tonal strings that is both sensuous and emotionally detached. Most ingenious is early in the film we hear a kernel of melody, a nascent thematic fragment from which through the course of the film coalesces, takes form, eventually blossoming in the finale into a wondrous song for humanity. Following this achievement Herrmann settled in England in 1967, a country and culture for which he was kindred. His new life in England inspired him to write a classical piece “Souvenirs de Voyage” (1967). Written for string quartet and clarinet it speaks with a warm and nostalgic romanticism reflective of his recent success and new love interest 27-year-old journalist Norma Shepherd who in 1971 became his third wife.

In August 1971 the Herrmann’s made London their permanent residence and took on his final notable projects “Sisters” (1973), a horror story about Siamese twins for which he ingeniously juxtaposed ascending and descending string lines for the sisters. Dark woodwind harmonies and harp joined to create a haunting synergy, which perfectly captured the film’s dark narrative. For his second film with De Palma “Obsession” (1976) Herrmann provided what many believe to be his cinematic requiem. His score, which was infused with evocative choral beauty, focused and enhanced the film’s narrative of love haunted by death. Liturgical colors permeate the film from the opening frames and ultimately achieve a wondrous triumph during the film’s denouement. This score is enduring testimony to Herrmann’s mastery of his craft. We come now to his final score “Taxi Driver” (1976) for director Martin Scorsese. De Palma had recommended Herrmann to Scorsese and he did not disappoint. Herrmann realized that the story explored the consuming and ultimately self-destructive power born of hate and alienation. He provided a romantic jazz theme, which played against the malignant darkness of Bickle’s soul. How he wove horrific violence and sensuality into the fabric of his score to this day leaves me in awe. Sadly after finishing the recording of the “Taxi Driver” soundtrack on December 23, 1975, Herrmann viewed the rough cut of what was to be his next film assignment, Larry Cohen’s “God Told Me To”. After dining with Cohen, he returned to his hotel and died in his sleep. He was only 64 years old but the years of anger and torment had taken a terrible toll on his body.

Bernard Herrmann 2HERRMANN’S COMPOSITIONAL STYLE

The foundation of Herrmann’s compositional style sprung from the German romanticism of Wagner and Mahler, and yet there was more in that he also incorporated the more modernist psychosocial impressionism advanced by Frenchmen Ravel and Debussy. As a composer, he saw himself as a crystalline prism from which his pure creative white light made manifest the orchestra’s countless array of colors. Within his music we often discern dark colors of low register strings and woodwinds (“The Ghost And Mrs. Muir”) or bright radiant colors of twinkling high register harp, glockenspiel and xylophone (“Fahrenheit 451”).

Other innovations included the ensembles he assembled for his films. For “The Day The Earth Stood Still” his approach was to eliminate the string section and to create an otherworldly ambiance by adding an electric violin, electric bass, Theremins, vibraphone, four pianos, four harps and a massive 30-player horn section! For “Psycho” Herrmann made an audacious decision to only employ a string orchestra. This choice removed the many tools composers traditionally used for horror films, including cymbal rolls, ominous horns, percussive strikes and shrieking woodwinds. Yet strings have the greatest versatility of expression of all the orchestral groups and Herrmann used them all to great effect. Lastly, in “Fahrenheit 451” he assembled an ensemble comprised for string orchestra, two harps, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel. Although his music was lyrical, it was also emotionally detached, serving to create a driving, neurotic mood that was perfectly attenuated to the film.

His compositional expression often utilized a progression of whole and half notes, which served to create a dark, brooding and dramatic soundscape. He also employed rising and falling chromatic patterns that were unsettling in that they never achieved resolution. Herrmann eschewed the long-lined, florid and melodramatic melodic lyricism of his contemporaries, preferring instead short succinct phrasing, which he believed was more adaptable and flexible to modulation throughout the score. Herrmann also demonstrated an affinity for tonal harmonies through the use of conventional chords as exemplified by his frequent use of minor triads and half-diminished sevenths. The harmonic language of his music was characteristically tertian (stacked thirds) in nature, often articulated as block chords. Indeed his score to “Jason And The Argonauts” was predominantly triad-based.

Over time his style congealed into a characteristic format best described as a “cell” format of repeating musical ideas usually in 3, 4, 6 or 8 bar sequences, expressed as recurring patterns of expression. Indeed, repetitive forms such as the ostinato became a signature technique for his scores. Lastly Herrmann desired to bath the audience in sonorities of kindred instruments such as four flutes joined with alto and bass flutes as a choir. His choir of ten harps to emote the aquatic landscape of “Beneath The 12 Mile Reef” and his choir of twelve flutes that provided the haunting ambiance of “Torn Curtain” are classic examples of sonorities in his scores. His signature clarinet choir was one of his most often-used devices.

A 1977 interview by Edward Johnson best sums up how the composer felt about his craft;

“As a composer I might class myself as a Neo-Romantic, inasmuch as I have always regarded music as a highly personal and emotional form of expression. I like to write music, which takes its inspiration from poetry, art and nature. I do not care for purely decorative music. Although I am in sympathy with modern idioms, I abhor music, which attempts nothing more than the illustration of a stylistic fad. And in using modern techniques, I have tried at all times to subjugate them to a larger idea or a grander human feeling. ”

HERRMANN’S LEGACY

Herrmann was a fierce individualist who marched to his drummer. Among his favorite quotes was one from Tolstoy, which summarizes this nicely; “Eagles fly alone and sparrows fly in flocks. ” He was a perfectionist who relentlessly sought artistic ideals that in the end he could not realize. He was mercurial, abrasive, combative, insecure, hypersensitive, volatile, paranoiac and regretfully his own worst enemy. His self-cultivated notoriety was self-destructive as it alienated him from the studio establishment, peers, friends and limited his career opportunities. In a question-and-answer session at the George Eastman Museum in October 1973, Herrmann stated that, unlike most film composers who did not have any creative input into the style and tone of the score, he insisted on creative control as a condition of accepting a scoring assignment: “I have the final say, or I don’t do the music”. Given today’s corporate mentality where micro-management of the composer is the rule rather than the exception, one finds it hard to imagine how Herrmann could have possibly thrived today. A quote offers great insight into Herrmann’s worldview;

“Musically I count myself an individualist. I believe that only music that springs out of genuine human emotion is alive and important. I hate all cults, fads, and circles. I feel that a composer should be true to his own innate instincts and tastes, and develop these to the best of his ability, no matter what the present vogue may be . . . I am not interested in music, or any work of art, that fails to stimulate appreciation for life and, more importantly, pride in life. ”

Yet despite his glaring personal imperfections his approach for scoring film broke new ground and served to revolutionize the traditional practices of the neo-romantics, which dominated Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. His many innovations are now standard tools for composers of film score art; short and succinct phrasing, instrument sonorities, the ostinato, and the use of instruments to evoke emotional colors, textures and scene ambiance. Indeed some composers such a James Horner speak of their scoring efforts much in the manner that Herrmann did, of how they use the orchestra to provide a palette of color. We understand today that thematic writing is but one aspect of a score, and that the mood, ambiance and colors provided by instruments are equally important in expressing the full spectrum of emotions on display during the film’s narrative. We close with a quote from composer Michael Giacchino, who related that many of the sounds he devised for the “Lost” television series were the direct result of growing up listening to Bernard Herrmann.

“The idea of simplicity in what you do is probably one of the greatest lessons I learned from his work. And simple doesn’t always mean not good or lazy. Simple is one of the hardest things to do and he just did it so brilliantly. ”

AWARDS

Academy Awards Wins:

  • 1941 Best Original Dramatic Score – The Devil and Daniel Webster

Academy Awards Nominations:

  • 1941 Best Original Dramatic Score – Citizen Kane
  • 1946 Best Original Dramatic or Comedy Score – Anna and the King of Siam
  • 1976 Best Original Score – Taxi Driver
  • 1976 Best Original Score – Obsession

FILMOGRAPHY

Herrmann only composed 56 scores over four decades. Had he not alienated the studio establishment he no doubt would have secured many more assignments. But what he did score is a fine legacy, which includes;

1940s:
Citizen Kane (1941), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Jane Eyre (1944), Hangover Square (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Portrait of Jennie (1948).

1950s:
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), On Dangerous Ground (1951), 5 Fingers (1952), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), White Witch Doctor (1953), A Christmas Carol (1954), The Egyptian (1954), Garden of Evil (1954), A Child is Born (1955), The Kentuckian (1955), Prince of Players (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Brave New World (1956), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1956), A Hatful of Rain (1957), Have Gun Will Travel (1957), The Wrong Man (1957), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958), The Naked and the Dead (1958), Vertigo (1958), Blue Denim (1959), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), North by Northwest (1959).

1960s:
Psycho (1960), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), Cape Fear (1962), Tender Is the Night (1962), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Marnie (1964), Joy in the Morning (1965), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Torn Curtain (1966 – Rejected), Companions in Nightmare (1967), The Bride Wore Black (1967), Twisted Nerve (1968), The Battle of Neretva (1969), Obsessions (1969).

1970s:
Endless Night (1971), The Night Digger (1971), Sisters (1973), It’s Alive! (1974), Obsession (1976), Taxi Driver (1976).

RECOMMENDATIONS

Herrmann had a modest canon of only 56 scores. I offer you below, five recommendations that will introduce you to the Maestro.

salonenherrmannBERNARD HERRMANN: THE FILM SCORES
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra

The quality of these re-recordings by the eminent Finnish classical conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen are superb and frankly a godsend. The album offers you a number of scores that are an excellent way to begin your journey. This compilation CD on the Sony Classical label provides excerpts from eight scores including some of the Maestro’s most famous and acclaimed works – The Man Who Knew Too Much, Psycho, Marnie, North By Northwest, Vertigo, Torn Curtain, Fahrenheit 451 and Taxi Driver.

citizenkaneCITIZEN KANE (1941)
Joel McNeely conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

The score is a masterpiece of both conception and expression. Herrmann provided two recurring five-note leitmotifs, both of which drew inspiration from Rachmaninov’s tone poem “Isle Of The Dead”, whose main theme incorporated the “Dies Irae” theme. We can discern from Herrmann’s allusion to the chant, a commentary on Kane’s morality. As such the evocation of Dies Irae within the Power Motif informs us of a condemnation of Kane’s ambitions and actions. The Rosebud Motif also contains five notes and is kindred in its construct. Yet unlike the expression of the Power Motif as a tritone or minor third, it ends with a falling fourth, which imbues its with a subtle radiance and aura of hopefulness. The Rosebud Motif therefore is intrinsically linked with the more positive influences in Kane’s life, most importantly the sled Rosebud, which embodies the memories of his lost childhood and resultant unhappiness and regrets that ever plague him. By capturing the emotional core of Kane the score is testimony to Herrmann’s genius.

ghostmrsmuirTHE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

Many lovers of Herrmann consider this to be his Magnum Opus. He often referred to this score as his “Max Steiner score” as it was unabashedly romantic and graced by several recurring long lined leitmotifs, including the Sea motif, which rises and falls like the waves of the sea itself. Herrmann was tasked with supporting a complex narrative, which operated on many levels. The story offered a passionate and I would say poetic commentary on the nature of life, death, love and loneliness. His haunting Main Title perfectly captures the loneliness and desolation of the seaside setting, while his love theme stands perhaps as the most romantic theme he ever wrote. This score is a classic, a masterpiece of film score art and I highly recommend that you add this masterwork to your collection.

vertigoVERTIGO (1958)
Joel McNeely conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

This was Hitchcock’s supreme film, which marked the apogee of their collaboration. Herrmann responded with what some say is a score for the ages, one marked by romantic obsession, isolation and the liberation of death. His prelude, perhaps the most dramatic film opening ever offered a stunning example of music powerfully setting the tone of a film. Herrmann’s favorite classical piece, “Liebestod” by Wagner, was adapted with his own sensuous orchestrations for the 5-minute love scene, Scene de Amour, a cue filled with a powerful yearning and romantic longing. Lastly, his use of over lapping harp glissandi to inform us of Ferguson’s vertigo was ingenious and well conceived. You cannot go wrong with this score.

northbynorthwestNORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Joel McNeely conducts the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra

This was the ultimate “wrong man” film and Herrmann responded with one of his finest scores. The film’s Overture and Main Title is without a doubt one of the most dramatic, complex and powerful openings in the history of film. Completely modernist in construct, it derives its intense kinetic potency from a recurring clash between competing and rhythmically antagonistic motifs that are overlaid a repeating two-measure figure. Most interesting and ingenious is that the first motif is minor modal, the second major modal, with each articulated with different tempi, 3/4 and 6/8 respectively. His elegant Love Theme, consisted of a lyrical interplay between an oboe and clarinet, which flow over supportive strings. His Suspense Theme, bore a fleeting resemblance to the famed Dies Irae, although at a much more rapid tempo. Simple in construct, this theme is emoted with rapidity as a repeating sixteen note line of shifting primary instruments and orchestrations that play over a tritone bass line. Lastly, there was Roger’s Theme, which emoted as a lost, wandering and seemingly random arpeggio figure – perfectly attenuated to reflect the internal perplexity of Roger. This is yet another essential score for your collection.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Smith, Steven C. A Heart At Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. University of California Press 2002.
2. Burlingame, Jon. Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. New York: Billboard books, 2000.
3. Bernard Herrmann – Wikipedia
4. Bernard Herrmann at the Internet Movie Database
5. Bernard Herrmann at AmericanComposers. com
6. Citizen Kane Leitmotifs and Rachmaninoff’s Isle Of The Dead by Film Score Junkie 7. The Bernard Herrmann Society www. bernardherrmann. org

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  1. Hasan Abood
    December 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    Great work Craig ! ❤

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