THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER – Bernard Herrmann
Original Review by Craig Lysy
Following the success of Citizen Kane in 1941, RKO Studios launched a new project based on a short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét. This Faustian tale centered on a New Hampshire farmer who sold his soul to the Devil for several years of prosperity, but then recants. When the Devil insists on payment Stone goes to trial, defended by famous orator, statesman and attorney Daniel Webster. The film offers both a celebration of the indomitable spirit of American independence as well as the dangers inherent in unchecked power. For the film, William Dieterle was hired to direct, and he assembled a fine cast, which included; Walter Houston (Mr. Scratch), James Craig (Jabez Stone), Anne Shirley (Mary Stone), and John Qualen (Miser Stevens). I would advise the reader to note that the studio later changed the title to “All That Money Can Buy”. The film was not a commercial success but garnered critical success, earning two Academy Award nominations, winning one for Herrmann for Best Score.
Dieterle was deeply impressed by Herrmann’s score to Citizen Kane, and brought him in early for the project. Herrmann described the collaboration as collegial, and praised Dieterle as one of the most sophisticated directors he had ever known, a man of rare erudition and musical sophistication. Herrmann was given free reign to create and wrote music as the film was being shot and demonstrated incredible innovation in crafting his score. He relates how he sent a sound crew to San Fernando early in the morning to record the sound of “singing” telephone lines, which he conceived as the eerie, other-worldly sound heard during Scratch’s first entrance in the barn. He combined these sounds with the overtones of the musical note C overlaid directly onto the soundtrack. He then ran them both through the projector to create a sustained phantom tone, which he described as a “fundamental.”
Herrmann conceived and offered classic Americana, infusing his soundscape with traditional folk melodies and rustic colors, which spoke to rural New Hampshire. Indeed his masterful use of folk melodies is displayed in the film’s boisterous “Devil’s Dream”, which opens the film and supports the finale. The empathetic “Springfield Mountain” was used to inform us of the plight of farmers. Most ingenious was Herrmann’s masterstroke of interpolating “The Devil’s Dream”, which he uses with diabolical effect to support Mr. Scratch (the Devil) sinister use to whip the barnyard square dancers into a frenzied danza macabre. Note worthy is Herrmann’s innovation, as he introduced for the first time, dubbing. He had the fiddler play one version of the song, and then repeated this several times. He then overlaid and combined them thus accomplishing what no single fiddler could achieve – harmonic pizzicatos, and arco simultaneously! Additional brilliance is revealed by Herrmann’s propulsive scherzo that carries Mr. Scratch’s sleigh ride to Hell. Lastly, we have the superb “Mizer’s Waltz”, Herrmann’s personal favorite piece, where he provides a classic valzer triste to support Miser Stevens being danced to death by his beautiful assistant. In the end, “All That Money Can Buy” triumphed over “Citizen Kane”, earning Herrmann 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 would later relate that he believed “Citizen Kane” was a superior score in that it was more original and better integrated into the film’s narrative – your author agrees. Before we begin, I must say that regretfully there is no commercial release of the actual film score, and this is both a tragedy and outrage. Never the less a significant portion of the score has been arranged and recorded as a program of five suites by James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Each piece is assigned traditional descriptors in Italian to inform us of tempo and mood, much in the manner of symphonic works. Since this is the only option available, I am reviewing the score in this format.
“Mr. Scratch: Allegro Moderato e Agitato” is a powerhouse, which offers testimony to Herrmann’s genius in finding the musical embodiment of the Mr. Scratch (Devil) character. Sinister woodwinds and corna scure immediately inform us of the presence of evil incarnate as Herrmann sows fear, danger and unease. Discordant strings heighten our unease and we suffer an ostinato malevolo, which cascades through the orchestra, replete with dire horn declarations. Eventually Scratch’s dire six-note theme rears its ugly head and ushers in a menacing swell of fierce discordance. After the torrent dissipates, Herrmann concludes with ever repeating statements of Scratch’s sinister six-note theme, which strikes fear into our hearts as it culminates in a truly horrific crescendo.
“Ballad of Springfield Mountain: Andante Tranquillo” is a score highlight, and may be one of the finest pieces in Herrmann’s canon. The music speaks to us of the plight of farmers and Herrmann provides an evocative pastorale tinged with sadness. We are graced with wondrous writing for woodwinds adorned with harp and glockenspiel. The heartfelt solo passages for oboe and strings doloroso are sublime, and offer testimony to Herrmann’s gift. I cannot tell how often I revisit this amazing piece.
“Sleighride: Allegro Con Brio” offers an amazing piece, which provides additional brilliance. There is nothing more warm, comforting and recognizable in Christmastime winter traditions than the classic sleigh ride adorned with twinkling sleigh bells. Yet this is no ordinary sleigh ride as the occupant is Mr. Scratch and his destination is not to town, but instead Hell itself! Herrmann, who is clearly channeling Ives, perverts traditional sensibilities by providing a propulsive scherzo that carries Mr. Scratch’s sleigh ride to Hell. Dissonant strings and woodwinds with wooden percussion drive forth with a dark cadence adorned with a grotesque and eerie discordance.
“The Miser’s Waltz: Tempo de Valse Lente” offers another wonderful piece, and another magnificent highlight where Herrmann demonstrates mastery of his craft. The scene, perhaps the film’s darkest, reveals Miser Stevens, who has reneged on his contract with Mr. Scratch, suffering his death sentence – being cruelly danced to death by his beautiful assistant Belle. Herrmann conceives a classic valzer triste to support the scene’s dark and macabre narrative. Bearing mournful colors and a classic cadence, the waltz unfolds benignly, flowing with traditional sensibilities. At 2:22 dark horn declarations sound the alarm as Miser Stephens realizes that he cannot stop dancing. Slowly, the waltz mutates into a truly discordant and grotesque expression of the classic dance, which portends his doom. A horrific crescendo is unleashed and swells, culminating with his death at 3:32. As Mr. Scratch revels in his handiwork, Herrmann concludes the piece with a dark diminuendo. This piece is just exceptional in conception and application!
We conclude with “Swing Your Partners: Allegro Vivace”, which offers the score’s finale. Most ingenious was Herrmann’s masterstroke of interpolating the folk tune “The Devil’s Dream”, which he uses with diabolical effect to support Mr. Scratch (the Devil) sinister use of it to whip the barnyard square dancers into a frenzied danza macabre. The music opens classically and the dancers are blissfully unaware of what lays in store. Slowly, the music begins its dark transformation in a classic accelerando, which takes hold of the dancers, now powerless to oppose its notes. Again, this is just exceptional writing and testimony as to why so many believe Herrmann to be the greatest film score composer.
This score, along with Citizen Kane, revealed Herrmann’s genius to the world. The marriage of his music to the film’s narrative, characters and imagery is of the highest order, affirming his mastery of his craft. This score is one of the best in his canon and a treasure from the Golden Age. It is an outrage that the complete score is not commercially available. This recording offers five suites and 20 minutes of score, which will have to for the time suffice.
For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a YouTube link for the delightful “Sleigh Ride” with its amazing instrument use and orchestrations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB9K7gHoBIg
Buy the Devil and Daniel Webster soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Scratch: Allegro Moderato e Agitato (5:30)
- Ballad of Springfield Mountain: Andante Tranquillo (4:36)
- Sleighride: Allegro Con Brio (1:58)
- The Miser’s Waltz: Tempo de Valse Lente (5:21)
- Swing Your Partners: Allegro Vivace (2:45)
Running Time: 20 minutes 10 seconds
Koch International Classics 3-7224-2-H1 (1941/1994)
Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by James Sedares. Performed by The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Recorded and mixed by Michael Fine. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Michael Fine.