Reminder On Bernard Herrmann's Greatness

(on his hundredth birthday)

  • Bernard Herrmann
    Hundred years ago, 29 June 1911, in a Jewish family whose name before coming to United States was Dardick, film composer Bernard Herrmann was born. Herrmann’s film scores include eight for famous director Alfred Hitchcock, and scores for other famous directors such as Orson Welles, Brian de Palma, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and others. But these facts don’t discover Herrmann’s life wish – to become a classical composer. Indeed, he composed several compositions for classical podium: a symphony, several suites for orchestra, a cantata Moby Dick, several works for chorus, chamber works and opera Wuthering Heights which he considered as life achievement. After he finished his opera, he decided that he will never write film music again: “I will never do a movie again. It is completely wasted and expended music energy that should go into my own work. I feel that conducting and musical composition are enough for me. I sincerely hope that I will never see Hollywood again.” (Jim Lochner, „Gold Rush: The Bastard Child of Puccini“, Film Score Monthly, October 2009, www. But this was before he met Alfred Hitchcock.

    Unusual Musical World

    Herrmann was workaholic and extremely emotional character with blasting temperament, which was the main cause that many doors were closed for him in spite his great artistic work. On the other hand, there is Alfred Htchcock, an Englishman, typically rational, who calculated his every artistic move. So, it seems that they were two completely different characters. But still, differences are attracted to each other, wrote Royal S. Brown in his book Overtones and Undertones. For example, Herrmann often used harmonic progressions in which isolated chord meant nothing without its harmonic context. This was adequate to Hitchcock’s way in his films where one shot had meaning only in the context of other shots.
    Marnie, director Alfred Hitchcock
    On the other hand, Herrmann didn’t use long themes as his contemporaries from the film world, but he used short motives and phrases. He also gave big importance to a tone color. He influenced the tone color by writing for the most unusual instrumental combinations, often based upon chamber ensembles (for example, famous score for Psycho was composed for string orchestra; in that way Herrmann mirrored Hitchcock’s decision to shoot in black and white). Herrmann’s tone color also came out from before mentioned specific use of harmonies which enabled that his scores have recognizable sounding, which was like a signature of their author (for harmonic analyses of Herrmann’s scores in Hitchcock’s films compare: Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones, University of California Press, 1994, p. 148-174).

    This way of composing wasn’t new in classical music (indeed, Herrmann’s scores taken out of films, sound as they were meant for the concert podium), but in film world of fifties and sixties, they represented new way of thinking. Because of numerous new ideas in composing film music, Herrmann’s opus became of great influence on new generations of film music composers. Also, his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock became a role model for numerous pairings composer-director.

    Bernard Herrmann and Orson Welles

    Although in his family were not musicians, Bernard Herrmann showed interested in music in his early days (when he was eleven years old, he composed an opera!). In any case, it is interesting to read what his brother, Louis told to Steven C. Smith about his brother’s school life: “In my brother’s early days at junior high school (the East Side’s Public Schools 40 and 50), in the seventh or eighth grade, my father received several communications from the principal. Mr Franklin, commending my brother and my father on the remarkable ability of Bernard but ruefully indicating that perhaps the mathematics class under Mrs. Lux was not the place to write music.” (Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center, University of California Press, 1991, p. 12)

    Herrmann saw himself as composer and dirCitizen Kane, director Orson Wellesector. He studied at prestigious Julliard School of Music and at New York University. In thirties he was already well known composer who founded New Chamber Orchestra and worked at CBS radio as composer and conductor. Orson Welles also worked at CBS radio station directing radio dramas. They met and started to collaborate – firstly on Welles’ radio dramas (among which there was a famous War of the Worlds by G. H. Wells). After that, they also collaborated on movies. The very first film score written by Bernard Herrmann was Welles’ debut: Citizen Kane (1940).

    Herrmann was soon noticed by other directors. There is a story about Oscars in 1941 when Herrmann beat himself: his score for All That Money Can Buy (or Devil and Daniel Webester), 1941, by William Dieterle, got an Oscar for the best score, although far better score for Citizen Kane was also nominated.

    His collaboration with Welles was short: the last film he scored for Welles was Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It would be interesting to follow Welles’ path if Herrmann continued to score his films. But he didn’t. They both chose their own paths. Bernard Herrmann continued to compose film music, although this wasn’t his first choice. Somebody nicely said: “films chose him, not the other way around”.

    Bernard Herrmann and Alfred HitchcockBernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock

    In year 1955, Alfred Hitchcock, who by that time collaborated with many different composers (some were not so famous like Louis Levy, Jack Beaver, Arthur Benjamin and Hubert Bath, but some were very famous like Franz Waxman, Frank Skinner, Hugo Friedhofer, Miklos Rozsa, Roy Webb and Dimitri Tiomkin), decided to try his luck with Bernard Herrmann. In short: it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Herrmann wrote music for seven films of Alfred Hitchcock: The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1957), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964). He was also responsible for creation of sound effects in The Birds (1963) which didn’t have background music at all.

    Psycho, director Alfred HitchcockHerrmann approached every Hitchcock movie individually. He was composing his scores always from the beginning, bringing something knew to them, but in recognizable style. In Vertigo he used typical row of thirds which further resulted with the simultaneous sounding of minor and major tonality. Everyone knows the screaming motif of violins from Psycho, which, in the scene of Marion’s murder, sounds like a shriek of birds (which are killed and stuffed by Norman, who does it in order to keep them as trophies in his room). But the audience, in fact, isn’t aware how much music helps to create the horror feeling of situations: when you turn off the sound, for example in the scene where Marion drives her car with stolen money, it becomes clear that the scene without music is quite ordinary. The music is creating emotional impact, the feeling of nervous driving and the tension. Among Herrmann’s many unusual musical decisions the most fascinating one is, probably, from the North by Northwest where he used the rhythm of Spanish dance, fandango.

    Fruitful collaboration ended with Hitchcock’s and Herrmann’s ninth film, Torn Curtain (1966). Some say that Herrmann wrote score for extremely unusual ensemble (12 different flutes, 16 trumpets, 9 trombones and 2 tubes). After he heard two musical numbers, Hitchcock stormed out from the recording session. Herrmann was known for his bad temper, but he still tried to convince Hitchcock to finish recording of music and then to decide. The session was paid, but Hitchcock, nevertheless told the orchestra players to go home. He canceled recording session, which was, in that time, unheard of. Orchestral musicians say that there was a verbal fight among composer and director which ended with Herrmann’s angry howl: “If you don’t like my music, find yourself another composer!” (compare: Joshua Waletzky, director: Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, 1992, documentary).
    North by Northwest, director Alfred Hitchcock
    And Hitchcock did exactly what Herrmann suggested. But there wasn’t composer whose music could fit Hitchcock’s films better than Herrmann’s. None of chosen composers (John Addison in Torn Curtain, Maurice Jarre in Topaz, 1969, Ron Goodwin in Frenzy, 1972 and John Williams in Family Plot, 1976) could give “something special” to his movies. Their music worked only if they copied Herrmann.

    After Hitchcock’s era

    In the meantime, Bernard Herrmann continued to compose music for the movies. He collaborated with top directors such as François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, 1966; La mariée etait en noir, 1968 – in the latter movie Truffaut did same mistake as Hitchcock did in Torn Curtain: despite Herrmann’s exceptional music in the scene for flying scarf, director decided to use Vivaldi’s Concerto for mandolin and orchestra, which wasn’t a good choice), Brian de Palma (Sisters, 1973; Opsession, 1976) and others.
    Taxi Driver, director Martin Scorsese
    Herrmann also wrote the music for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Scorsese hoped for typical score, in the style of that composer wrote for Hitchcock. But director got something completely different: a jazz score. This score also became famous, and Herrmann felt that he is opening another chapter in his career. Sadly, he couldn’t develop his new ideas. He died from exhaustion, on 23 December 1975, a day after he finished recording of music for Scorsese’s film.

    © Irena Paulus,, 19 March 2011