Home > 100 Greatest Scores, Reviews > CITIZEN KANE – Bernard Herrmann

CITIZEN KANE – Bernard Herrmann


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Orson Welles 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 film is a masterpiece, set in the period of American industrialization. The brilliant screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz uses this backdrop to portray a great man’s rise and fall due to a misuse of power, which leaves him emotionally and physically isolated. Herrmann understood immediately the impetus of the film’s tragic narrative saying “it’s a picture about wealth and power… Kane, in my opinion was totally misunderstood.” Wells gave Herrmann unprecedented access and 12 weeks in which to write the score, which he used to create what I believe to be his Magnum Opus.

The score is a masterpiece of both conception and expression, which has passed into legend. 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” (Day Of Wrath) theme from the Roman Catholic requiem Mass. Within the words of the Dies Irae chant is the Day of Judgment, which devout Christians believe they 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 nature. As such the evocation of Dies Irae within the Power Motif informs us of a condemnation of Kane’s ambitions and actions throughout the film.

Juxtaposed is the Rosebud Motif, which like the Power Motif, also contains five notes and is therefore kindred in its construct. Yet it’s fundamental expression and its color contrasts with 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 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.

Herrmann also brought innovation in that he did not believe that he should be constrained by the make up of the traditional orchestra. He relates; “A film score can be made up of different fantastic groupings of instruments as I have done throughout my career.” We bear witness to this with the film’s opening scene where Herrmann uses four flutes, four alto flutes, four bass flutes, contrabass clarinets, tubas, trombones, low register percussion and vibraphone to create the haunting cavernous nature of Kane’s Xanadu estate. Herrmann said he wanted to create a “subterranean, strange heaviness of death and futility.” He also interpolated music for the film’s supreme scene by his grand pastiche of the opera “Salammbo”. Herrmann purposely used this piece to inform us that Susan, this little girl with a modest voice, has been thrown into quicksand, struggling to sing a part whose voice and range demands exceed her native gifts. This was brilliantly conceived!

This score is testimony to Herrmann’s genius, a masterpiece of film score art and what many critics believe to be, the finest film score ever written. I am inclined to agree.

Buy the Citizen Kane soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (2:59)
  • Rain (1:27)
  • Litany (1:15)
  • Manuscript Reading and Snow Picture (1:36)
  • Mother’s Sacrifice (0:50)
  • Charles Meets Thatcher (0:45)
  • Galop (0:46)
  • Dissolve (0:14)
  • Second Manuscript (0:58)
  • Thanks (0:08)
  • Bernstein’s Narration (0:37)
  • Kane’s New Office (0:48)
  • Hornpipe Polka (0:45)
  • Carter’s Exit (0:39)
  • Chronicle Scherzo (1:03)
  • Bernstein’s Presto (0:19)
  • Kane’s Return (0:26)
  • Valse Presentation (0:55)
  • Sunset Narration (2:47)
  • Theme and Variations (3:02)
  • Kane and Susan (0:28)
  • Susan’s Room (2:14)
  • Mother Memory (0:31)
  • The Trip (1:13)
  • Getty’s Departure (0:32)
  • Kane Marries (0:55)
  • Salaambo’s Aria (4:10)
  • Leland’s Dismissal (0:58)
  • New Dawn Music (0:47)
  • Xanadu (1:36)
  • Jigsaws (0:59)
  • Second Xanadu (1:14)
  • Kane’s Picnic (0:35)
  • Susan Leaves (1:06)
  • El Rancho (0:30)
  • The Glass Ball (1:32)
  • Finale (2:33)
  • The Night (3:06) [BONUS]
  • Xanadu Music (2:27) [BONUS]
  • Dawn (0:57) [BONUS]

Running Time: 50 minutes 40 seconds

Varese Sarabande 302-065-806-2 (1941/1999)

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by Joel McNeely. Performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra . Special vocal performances by Janice Watson. Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. Valentin Berger
    June 28, 2016 at 5:01 am

    Great Review, thank you very much, Craig! It is indeed one of the best scores ever written in the history of film scoring.

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