THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER – Bernard Herrmann
Original Review by Craig Lysy
1941 would prove to be a banner year for Bernard Herrmann as he was honored with two Academy Award nominations. Having completed Citizen Kane, what many believe to be his Magnum Opus, RKO Studios tasked him with a new project The Devil and Daniel Webster for director William Dieterle. Note that the studio later changed the title to “All That Money Can Buy”. From both Herrmann’s and Dieterle’s perspectives, the collaboration was collegial, and in the end, The Devil and Daniel Webster 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. Herrmann 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.
The two films shared similar narratives, which spoke to the American spirit of independence and the danger of absolute power. As such, Herrmann again 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 “Pop Goes The Weasel”, 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 “Miser’s Waltz”, Herrmann’s personal favorite, where he provides a classic valzer triste to support Miser Stevens being danced to death by his beautiful assistant.
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.
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.