Although he composed a large body of orchestral, television, theatre and radio work, American born Bernard Herrmann -- Benny to his friends -- is principally remembered for his many fine film scores. His appeal to film fans -- especially horror and fantasy buffs -- has, if anything, increased since his death in 1975. With a wealth of recently reissued scores, not to mention many recorded for the first time, there's never been a better time than now to start collecting his work.
Herrmann wrote film scores for a veritable who's who of famous (and sometimes infamous) movies. From his first scoring success with Citizen Kane to the memorably chilling scores for Psycho, Sisters and Taxi Driver, his music is consistently dramatic and exciting. Alongside thrillers and mainstream pictures, Herrmann also wrote music for a number of excellent fantasy and science fiction movies, which include the stop motion FX films of Ray Harryhausen, and SF classics such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, Fahrenheit 451 and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Common to them all and fundamental to the enhancing of the visual image is Herrmann's sweeping, poignant, often ominous but always dramatic musical accompaniment.
A common assertion among film fans is that film music is principally background music and does not deserve to be heard away from the film. Certainly there's a strong argument for this; some film music, including the scores of Bernard Herrmann, don't take well to being isolated, often because they're too bleak and depressing to listen to divorced from the celluloid image (examples of Herrmann scores where this is the case include the consistently forbidding music for Psycho, Cape Fear and It's Alive). However, Herrmann's great strength was to compose music which was integral to the film experience, both sharpening its focus and elevating the visuals to new heights whilst, for the most part, avoiding the trap of writing music which overwhelmed the film it was intended to complement.
Until the appearance of these composers films were scored using uncopyrighted works of the masters, from which snippets were taken before being sandwiched on to the soundtrack. In the early days of Hollywood composers hailed from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and vaudeville. Many of these weren't really composers at all but songwriters restricted by the limited musical vocabulary of 20th century pop music. This resulted in light, overly romanticised music -- music which studio heads regarded as a saleable commodity and which led to a conveyor-belt mentality with composers allowed little or no time to come up with challenging new scores. It took someone like Bernard Herrmann, whose background was Carnegie Hall not Broadway, to lend film music intelligence and sophistication and help elevate it to the status of art.
Today a number of strong partnerships exist between directors and composers. For example: Steven Spielberg and John Williams; David Cronenburg and Howard Shore; Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. However, the partnerships forged between Herrmann and the directors/filmmakers he collaborated with are nothing less than the stuff of legend: Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Ray Harryhausen, Brian De Palma and François Truffaut are just some of the famous personages he worked with during his tumultuous career.
Herrmann's father might well have been the catalyst for his son's interest in music. As well as taking both Benny and his younger brother Louis to operas and symphonies, and giving each a musical instrument to play from an early age (in Benny's case, a violin), Abram's tales of whaling voyages and wrecks at sea can't failed to have fired his eldest son's imagination. Indeed, Herrmann was later to write a cantata called Moby Dick (partly the result of reading Melville's novel); whilst many of his scores -- such as Anna & The King of Siam, White Witch Doctor and fantasy scores like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Mysterious Island -- utilise exotic scales and ideas to suggest faraway locations.
However, it was his friendship with Welles that was directly responsible for his most lucrative work to date. When in 1939 Welles requested that Herrmann accompany him to Hollywood to score his first and most famous picture, Citizen Kane, the young composer was only too happy to agree. When his next score, for 1941's All That Money Can Buy (aka The Devil & Daniel Webster), won an Academy Award, his future seemed assured.
To assess Herrmann's success in the film world it is first necessary to understand the composer himself. Herrmann was a complex man whose perceived weaknesses -- his explosive temper and intolerance of sub-standard musicianship, to name but two -- often worked for rather than against him. Here was an outspoken, highly literate and intelligent man whose intense interest in film and the dramatic medium allowed him to write music rich in musical colour; and which, when carefully placed under a dialogue track, increased the import of the spoken word, lending dialogue a greater significance than it might otherwise have had.
Herrmann came from an era of 'serious' composers. He was still a young man when the Depression hit hard in America in the 30s; the rise of Nazism can't failed to have affected the way he perceived people and their motives being himself of Jewish parentage. Consequently his film music has a distinctive weight and intensity often lacking in today's scores.
Like the man himself, many of Herrmann's most memorable scores are brooding and portentous in nature. Even the purportedly romantic music for films like Jane Eyre and The Ghost and Mrs Muir has an edginess and a sense of nostalgia and sadness which perfectly complement the films in question. As one critic observed, his was the music of 'Gothic and gas light'.
Much has been written about Herrmann's irascibility, his seemingly unprovoked rages and outrageous and opinionated views of others. Both his father and his grandfather shared his temperament, which at its worst led to a reddening of the face, a tensing of the facial muscles and a string of curses and insults -- all apparently unprovoked.
Herrmann was distrustful and intolerant of the musical opinions of others. To one unfortunate recipient he retorted: 'Your views are as narrow as your tie'. Another instance can be found in the reminiscences of actor, producer and director, the late Paul Stewart (who starred as the sinister valet in Citizen Kane and consequently knew both Welles and Herrmann). His first contact with the composer came when he was hired to produce Welles' Mercury Theater on the Air. Recalls Stewart:
I immediately found him extraordinarily eccentric and irritable. He had very little interest in me, as he did in very few other people. I don't think he knew he was unfriendly, but he just was. 
Another occasion, the scoring session for the infamous The War of the Worlds, saw the two come into conflict -- with amusing results:
Benny was a classical conductor ... to get Benny to do songs the radio broadcast required the orchestra to simulate a dance band program, which is interrupted by bulletins about the Martian invasion that I suggested was almost an impossibility. He didn't understand the rhythms or anything.... I remember saying to him, "Benny, it's gotta be a beat like this..." snapping fingers and he got very upset. He handed me the baton and said, "YOU conduct it!" So I got up on his little podium, the musicians looked at me ... they all understood his personality, so when I gave the downbeat, they played it just the way I wanted it! ... I handed the baton back to Benny, and he was crestfallen. You know, I don't think I ever saw Benny happy. He always seemed impatient, and it was his impatience and apparent lack of humour that made him the butt of many jokes by Welles ... he was teased a lot to show this side of his personality. The orchestra did it more than anybody; they were so pleased that time I took his baton. ...I don't think (Benny) knew how to get along with people. Everybody admired him, but they found him difficult -- which is true of all artists... 
As well as possessing a gruff and difficult personality, Herrmann was highly intolerant of dictation from producers and directors who lacked musical knowledge. To Herrmann all motion picture music (apart from his) was 'a bunch of junk'. It was an attitude that would lose him a great deal of commissions -- not to mention friends -- throughout his career.
Yet the question remains: Would Herrmann's music be half as powerful were it not for the influence of his daunting personality? As Herrmann's great nephew (and sometime Herrmann Genealogist) Steve E. Rivkin suggests, '...these personality traits that people have looked on as flaws helped to make him the great composer that he became. Strong opinions, argumentative, belief in himself, belief in his music, made him wage war with any who didn't see it his way.' 
Welles was over the moon with Herrmann's score. Indeed many years later he would state that Herrmann was 'Fifty percent responsible' for the success of his first movie.
With the exception of his score for Welles' second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (for which he refused to take credit due to extensive film editing), Herrmann's 40s pictures successfully blended intriguing orchestral ideas with dramatic musical statements resulting in several fine scores. His score for Jane Eyre, for example -- once again reuniting him with Welles, this time as actor, not director -- utilised his by now trademark romanticism, at all times kept in check by the music's dark colours, especially prevalent when Mr Rochester (played by Welles) appears on screen. (Interestingly, much of the music for Jane Eyre was culled from music Herrmann originally used for an earlier radio broadcast of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. The habit of reusing elements of his own work was something Herrmann would repeat throughout his career.)
Hangover Square also allowed Herrmann to explore one of his favourite themes: obsession. Later efforts would target characters that were driven by some psychological complex -- whether these be Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, Hitchcock's Marnie (from the film of the same name), Vertigo's Scotty Ferguson or Obsession's Cliff Robertson. It was a theme that would produce some of the composer's most powerful music.
But it was Herrmann's music for The Ghost and Mrs Muir, the tale of a lonely woman's doomed love affair with the ghost of a long dead sea captain, that was to become his personal favourite. It also provided the perfect opportunity for Herrmann to apply his flair for gothic-romanticism to a story set in England, a place much beloved by the composer. His interest in gothic horror is used to good effect in this film, although its themes and concerns are more closely allied to melodrama than the conventions of horror or fantasy. As in Jane Eyre, Herrmann reflects the film's tragi-romantic themes by using straightforward melodic ideas, resulting in a more traditional score -- much of which ended up in his opera Wuthering Heights.
However, a meeting with the film's director Robert Wise a year later yielded a typical Herrmann response. After telling the composer about his next film, a semidocumentary called The Captive City, Hermann became intrigued enough to consider writing the music for it. Knowing that he didn't have the budget to hire Herrmann Wise reluctantly agreed a meeting -- with predictable results...
Bernie came and kept making his pitch until he finally said, 'Well how much money do ya have in the music budget?' 'Bernie,' I said, 'We have ten thousand dollars.' He hit the ceiling. 'TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS?! HOW CAN YOU BELITTLE THE MUSIC WITH THAT KINDA THING?!' He frothed at the mouth for ten minutes and stormed out. That was so typical; he was so insulted -- not personally, but that that's all we had for the score. 
The decade 1951-1961 would be Herrmann's most creative and financially successful period. As well as scoring a number of interesting mainstream films like On Dangerous Ground, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Kentuckian (his only other movie western score being for Garden of Evil) and Prince of Players, it was also the period which would see the beginnings of Herrmann's most auspicious partnership yet -- the Hitchcock/Herrmann collaboration.
Many of the themes in Hitchcock's movies must have greatly appealed to Herrmann's own personality. The complex dichotomies of reality/fantasy, attraction/repulsion and obsession/detachment were concepts ideally suited to the composer's music. Beginning with The Trouble With Harry in 1955 and ending with Torn Curtain in 1966 the Hitchcock/Herrmann scores are without fail some of the most inventive ever used in film.
Herrmann's opening prelude, accompanied by Saul Bass's swirling images, conjures perfectly the spiralling vortex into which Scottie is plunged as he desperately searches for ways to assuage his guilt-ridden conscience. As in the best film music, Herrmann's suspenseful prelude draws the viewer closer to the celluloid image, telling him: keep watching, this is serious, something bad's going to happen.
To create a feeling of unease in the opening titles, Herrmann wrote a melody that had no obvious resolution. Twentieth century audiences used to hearing tonal music -- often incorporating major and minor thirds, such as the introduction to Beethoven's 5th Symphony -- are likely to be immediately put off balance by Herrmann's habit of using thirds in a parallel series of notes. Thus the music appears to turn in on itself, resulting in unease on the part of the viewer. Herrmann was to use this technique again and again with great success in his films -- for instance, in the opening to Sisters and as an obsessive and repetitive litany throughout Psycho
It's a mark of Hitchcock's trust in his composer's abilities that Vertigo contains more music than spoken dialogue. Here was a film where the director's neuroses and sense of drama were matched note-for-note by his composer's atmospheric music. Where the dramatics and melodramatics of the score heightened the sadness and aching nostalgia of Scottie's fractured personality. For the five minute 'Scene D'Amour' cue, where Judy is finally transformed in to an almost exact replica of Madeline, Hitchcock allowed almost no dialogue, saying to Herrmann, 'We'll just have the camera and you.' As a result, the music becomes almost the 'third character' in the scene.
However, it was Herrmann's next score for Hitchcock, Psycho, that would help cement both the director and the composer's reputations. Absconding thief, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is brutally murdered whilst staying at the Bates motel, apparently at the hands of its proprietor's (Norman Bates) crazy mother. However, when the investigation begins it soon becomes evident that there's a lot more to Norman than meets the eye...
I wrote the main title to Psycho before Saul Bass even did the animation.... After the main title, nothing much happens for 20 minutes or so. Appearances, of course, are deceiving, for in fact the drama starts immediately with the titles.... I am firmly convinced, and so is Hitchcock, that after the main titles you know something terrible must happen. The main title sequence tells you so, and that is its function: to set the drama. You don't need cymbal crashes or records that never sell.' 
Herrmann also provided memorable -- if self-referential -- music to Hitchcock's Marnie, and acted as sound FX supervisor on The Birds, which had no music. However, his working relationship with Hitchcock was to come to a spectacular end when he was asked to score Hitchcock's ill-fated Torn Curtain. Around this time the use of jazz and pop music in film scores was becoming prevalent in Hollywood. Herrmann, who had always detested their use, reluctantly agreed to update his sound which in certain circles was now regarded as old fashioned. The result, a powerful set of orchestral cues, utilising the bizarre combination of sixteen french horns, twelve flutes, nine trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, eight cellos, eight basses, and a small group of violins and violas, was arresting enough to occasion a standing ovation from its orchestra, a rarity amongst session musicians. Hitchcock, however, was not amongst them.
Thankfully there were happier collaborations for Herrmann. Prominent among these was his association with producer Charles Schneer whose fantasy films used the ingenious talents of stop motion FX artist, Ray Harryhausen. After some initial reluctance on the part of Herrmann, who had never scored a picture like it, he agreed to write the music for Harryhausen's first colour fantasy, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
I worked with a conventional sized orchestra, augmented by a large percussion section.... By characterising the various creatures with unusual instrument combinations ... and by composing motifs for all the major characters and actions, I feel I was able to develop the entire movie in a shroud of mystical innocence. 
The 'creatures' make reference to Harryhausen's outlandish and strikingly animated creations, which include a dragon (signalled by timpani and bass), a cyclops (loud timpani and the crash of cymbals), a two-headed bird called the Roc (wind, bells and harp) and a reanimated skeleton, for which the composer used the xylophone to suggest 'bone music'. Indeed this sequence (named 'The duel with the skeleton'), in which Sinbad does battle with a skeleton, is one of the film's most enduring musical moments, a series of clacking percussion that sounds as though its creator was playing on a stockpile of bones!
Until now, Harryhausen's fantasies had used standard studio scores as limiting as the black and white film medium they were filmed in. For The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, however, director Nathan Juran incorporated the mythical world of the Arabian Nights. The accompanying score is rich in orchestral colour, lending the film a sense of the exotic and from the opening scene infusing the visuals with a sense of potential danger.
Further evidence of his mastery of the orchestral environment is evident in his next Schneer score, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. Based on Jonathan Swift's satirical novel, Gulliver's Travels, it allowed Herrmann, who himself now lived in London, to evoke the glories of Eighteenth Century England through period pastiche. Each of the three worlds is allocated a 'sound' that immediately identifies the setting. England, for example, is evoked with pompous brass; celesta and sleighbells becomes the theme of the tiny Lilliputians; whilst the giant Brobdingnagians are announced with tuba, contrabassoon and bass.
As in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Herrmann's careful choice of instruments to represent the sizes and temperaments of the various creatures increases the viewer's willingness to accept the impossible, the ultimate aim of any filmmaker.
The alliance between Herrmann and Schneer was by now becoming quite strained. Herrmann's bullying and his disputes over money had once again taken its toll on a working relationship. As such, Herrmann was to score only one other picture for Schneer.
The Harryhausen epics weren't the only fantasy films Herrmann worked on in the Fifties and Sixties. Two others, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Fahrenheit 451, showcased his unerring ability to lend life to a fantastical premise. In the former, Herrmann again experimented with instrumental combinations, his string-less orchestra consisting of brass, wind, harps, percussion, cathedral organ, four electric organs and an archaic instrument called the serpent. The non-melodic sounds invoked by this unusual blending of instruments make for some of the most unearthly music ever to accompany a film; the 'Atlantis' cue, a series of low register organ chords, plus vibraphone, being particularly memorable.
During the last five years of his life he would once again find his services required by a number of up-coming filmmakers. Such modern day masters as Brian De Palma, Larry Cohen and Martin Scorsese would go to great lengths to elicit his assistance on their pictures; resulting in some of the most triumphant scores of his career.
...finally we got to the murder sequence, and the music mixer forgot to turn on Benny's score.... (Benny) called out over his shoulder, 'Where's the music? Isn't there music there, Paul?' -- addressing me. The mixer said, 'No, I forgot to ...' All Benny heard was no. And since he was addressing me, he thought I was saying, 'No, there's no music there.' He stood up and flew into a volcanic rage, screaming at me, 'How DARE you tell me there's no music there. I WROTE the music! I CONDUCTED it! I RECORDED it! You're INSOLENT! Don't you DARE speak to me that way! I'm going to report you to the union!' And I had not said a word. 
Sisters was De Palma's Hitchcock tribute, a suspenseful and at times quite scary film. Using a brooding, repetitive motif to suggest a school-yard taunt, the prelude sets the tone for the eerie visuals that follow. Herrmann used Moog synthesisers, glockenspiels and strings to invoke a pervading sense of gloom, which at times recalls Vertigo's air of mysterious detachment. Mirroring the scene in Psycho where Marion Crane drives at night to the Bates motel and her doom, in Sisters Herrmann scores a sequence where a female reporter drives to a mental hospital, the moody melodies symbolic of the impending danger she must face when later she is mistakenly incarcerated .
Other directors were interested in securing the ageing composer's services. For his 1974 horror flick, It's Alive, the story of a deformed killer baby which commits grisly murders around Los Angeles, schlock-horror director, Larry Cohen hired Bernard Herrmann -- after he had just turned down the opportunity to score William Freidkin's The Exorcist. The spiralling insanity and bleakness of It's Alive was ideal for Herrmann whose support for struggling filmmakers allowed him to be selective about the sort of subjects which interested him. By no means a great film, the score lends it a tension and dark wonder that the incredible plot badly needed. However, like his score for Psycho -- which also lacked a string section -- it is rather too joyless to listen to as music in its own right.
Taxi Driver sees veteran actor Robert De Niro in the role of New York cab-driver, Travis Bickle, whose growing sense of isolation and paranoia leads to his declaring war on the city's pimps and drug dealers. Scorsese's brilliant study of festering hatred and man's inhumanity to man was the ideal opportunity for Herrmann whose scores work best when seeking to illuminate the psychological complexity of human nature. Here his menacing music contrasts sharply with a lulling jazz theme -- only partially composed by Herrmann -- the rise and fall of the dramatic melodies occasionally softening into jazz to reveal a fragile, more human side to Bickle. Yet despite these more reflective moments, this is Herrmann's most nihilistic score, its dark power best heard within the context of the movie.
Aside from the work he did on films, Herrmann composed for the concert environment, and his conducting duties resulted in a number of recordings, including The Planets by Gustav Holst, Great British Film Music (including compositions by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Lambert) as well as suites from own movies -- often conducted at slower tempo than in the films.
As for his concert repertoire, Herrmann composed a body of interesting, at times innovative music which, though inferior to his film music, is still vibrant and moving and demands to be heard. Though only some of his concert works have been recorded, of those that have works such as his 1941 Symphony and his Echoes for String Quartet and Souvenirs de Voyage for Clarinet Quartet are well worth tracking down, if only to contrast the musical motifs he used in his films with those used in a concert environment.
Herrmann's primary aim, however, was to become a great symphony conductor. Unfortunately, both his temper and irascible character would prove an immovable obstacle to the career advancement he so desperately sought. By alienating film personnel, musicians, and the orchestras he conducted, it was nobody's fault but his own when he fell out of favour.
Yet Herrmann could be as generous as he could combative. On one occasion he recommended film composer, Elmer Bernstein -- who would himself go on to conduct several of Herrmann's most famous scores -- for a film scoring job, at a time when work was hard to come by. He was quick to champion lesser known composers like Delius and Vaughan Williams, and one of the first to perform the music of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and Cyril Scott.
Herrmann's film music was characterised, not by easily-remembered melodies or catchy title cuts, but by music that drew the audience closer to the images onscreen; music that, in the composer's own words, '...can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety or misery ... propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down.' 
In the words of producer/film composer, John Morgan: '...too often music is considered wallpaper rather than a creative element in movies.'  Herrmann's aim wasn't to create 'musical scenery' however, but to 'stimulate appreciation of, and ... pride in life.' Through his great erudition, his knowledge of the orchestra, and intimate understanding of the art of film-making, he helped elevate the film medium beyond mere budgetary restrictions. And in doing so, furnished the film music world with great passion and intensity -- making made a bad film watchable, a good film great and a great film a life-enriching experience.