Complete article and discography as published in Film Comment, Sept.-Oct. 1976. With new introduction by the author.
His film career, beginning in 1941 with Citizen Kane and ending at his death in 1975 with Taxi Driver, is marked by consistency of style and continual experimentation with orchestral coloring. Each of his forty-eight film scores evinces a remarkable understanding of the responsibilities of the soundtrack toward the spectator. Never intruding upon, but always reinforcing the cinematic image, Herrmann wrote a body of music which, divorced from its visual element, has enough strength and durability to stand on its own merit. Listening to a complete soundtrack recording reveals the similarity between film scores and the scores for ballet: illustration of story line. Most ballet scores have been able to transcend the pragmatic categorization of dance music, and much of Bernard Herrmann's work transcends the medium for which it was initially written.
It seems fitting that Herrmann's first film work was done with Orson Welles. Having known each other from Mercury Theatre on CBS Radio (Herrmann was musical director), they developed a working relationship that must have been close to ideal: Welles editing his film to Herrmann's incisive vignettes; Herrmann choreographing Ivesian Americana against Welles' grandiose vision of a crumbling American dream.
Try to remember the scores to other 1941 films---Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, How Green was My Valley, Blood and Sand, Sergeant York. Against the mainstream of Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Herrmann seems positively anarchic. No leitmotifs, no easily-remembered melodies, no title cuts (like Steiner's "Tara's Theme" from Gone with the Wind), nothing on which the audience can get an easy grasp. Yet his intuitive comprehension of the conventions of storytelling enabled him to compose music which binds the audience into the forward-moving action of the film. Think of the ominous bass chords as the camera ascends the fortifications of Xanadu, or the disintegration of Kane's first marriage mirrored against key- and tempo-changing waltz scherzos, and you realize how appropriately Herrmann pinpoints the musical equivalent of the pictorial image while strengthening the audience's own response.
Herrmann's musical education was perfect for a composer of film scores: radio. After a stint as an assistant conductor to John Green, Herrmann became a staff conductor at CBS. He composed, arranged, and conducted over 1,200 radio programs---an enormous amount of work requiring quick skill and ingenuity. Each program needed character themes, mood and transition music, and a multitude of special effects. This "quick-study" form of writing enabled Herrmann to compose each complete film score, including his own orchestrations, in two to three weeks.
While conducting for the Columbia Workshop and Invitation to Music, Herrmann championed the works of Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, Gustav Theodore Holst, Charles Ives, and Cyril Scott---associations reflected in his musical tastes and conducting choices for recordings in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Since scores were required to delineate different places and social milieus, Herrmann developed an ingenious technique, evoking definite periods in history by approximating the musical style of that period, thus increasing audience empathy directly from memory association. Although these past "influences" are sometimes discernible, Herrmann's scores are in no way derivative: he evokes the sense of music instead of plagiarizing specific scores.
Herrmann's assimilation of musical styles and periods is bound together by orchestrations that are unmistakably his own. Solo turns by various instruments in rhythmic counterpoint display his virtuoso command of the range of each instrument. Listen for the harmonic inventiveness of the eight solo harps in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef; or the use of celesta, sleighbells, vibraphone, and glockenspiels to suggest the miniature sphere in The Three Worlds of Gulliver; or the brass and bass volcanics of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Listen for the understanding of the individual instrument in its relationship to the whole, as in Psycho, utilizing only the string section of the orchestra, or creating the paranoia of the unknown with the eerie Theremin in The Day the Earth Stood Still. This comprehension of the range of the individual instruments when played against each other is Herrmann's chief hallmark.
Throughout his career, Herrmann was fond of composing variations on themes he had already written---a gradual refinement through progressive forms and a liberation from constricting social mores. This ceaseless quest for self-renewal imparts a linearity to Herrmann's work matched only by the symphonic Weltanschauung of Korngold. Herrmann recasts the main credit for Brian DePalma's Sisters as a grotesque elaboration of the sacred and profane theme for the Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. For the old woman gladly dying in the flames of her precious books in Fahrenheit 451, Herrmann rearranges the subtle sonorities of Vertigo's main credit to provide an eviscerating catharsis. Even the grisly murder in Sisters transcends Marion Crane's last bath (purification) in Psycho simply because the change in times and social values allowed him greater musical freedom. The stifling romanticism of the Fifties becomes the bloodthirsty despondency of the Seventies. Without this continuity and growth, Herrmann would have subsided into the ranks of interesting but negligible composers.
Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and William Dieterle's All That Money Can Buy [aka The Devil and Daniel Webster] (1941) belong in the Americana category. Ivesian sensibilities (Herrmann was one of Ives's earliest advocates) find their way into every frame. The scores for Kane and Ambersons abound in short, terse themes that reflect the fluidity of the editing. Music and editing work hand in hand through the emphasis created: ragtime with its haughty tempos paralleling the growth of Kane's first newspaper; the flighty piccolo scherzo for the fast-paced opening montage of Ambersons. These themes and solos act as counterparts to the editing in that they create a rhythmic sense naturally attuned to the visual image while "editorializing" on that same image. Susan Kane's operatic debut juxtaposes the lowering of her esteem (personal failure) against Kane's disillusionment at money's not being able to buy happiness. Herrmann composes a recitative and aria where the heroine (alias Susan) implores her husband to kill her to relieve her shame (presumably her failure to hide her lover from her husband).
The editorial butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons also applies to the score: there are distinct passages which in no way relate to Herrmann's orchestral style. Once the film had been criminally re-edited, it was necessary to score the new transitions while dumping Herrmann's contribution. What remains of Herrmann (and Welles) can be found in the penetrating montages that comprise the film: Georgie's (and the town's) rise to notoriety, the elegant ball at the Amberson mansion, and the boisterous sleighride where Morgan's newfangled car won't start. When George walks through the streets of the town he no longer recognizes (and which refuses to recognize him), Herrmann underscores the montage with gloomy bass chords prefiguring similar sequences (and scoring) for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.
In All That Money Can Buy, Herrmann deifies Ives: the constant clang of laughing sleighbells, unearthly hailstorms that ravage the countryside, and a heartpounding Virginia reel. Here the music is fleshed out, becoming episodic in structure (theme/motive/theme/resolve) and in mood. Motifs are built around ascending and descending chord progressions with key changes (solo turns often follow this pattern). The montage where Miser Stevens is waltzed to death and transformed into a moth is motivated by a languid waltz that descends further and further, quite similar to the enveloping main credit for Vertigo. Every theme in the score has a tinge of the supernatural that has solidly evolved from our American folk tradition. It is rooted both in the empathetic "real" and the alienating (albeit fascinating) unknown at the same time---a quality Herrmann used to great advantage in many of his later fantasy films.
This is the first of Herrmann's scores to fixate on the "aspiring to death" syndrome, where death (the unknown) imparts such a poetic release (purification) that the soul rushes headlong to the eventual joining. To gain a true consciousness of being, one's identity must be given over to the transcendent state. Vertigo and Fahrenheit 451 also have this quality. The unknown is made so musically appealing and entrancing (Herrmann creates immediately reminiscent musical environments) that you are transported onto a different plane in which you feel comfortable enough to remain forever---an out-of-this-world quality that is one of Herrmann's unequaled musical characteristics.
In the early Fifties, Herrmann exiled himself to England. He had become fed up with the lack of creativity he found in Hollywood. His long-running association with 20th Century-Fox came to a standstill---no doubt owing to what went on over the score for Michael Curtiz' The Egyptian (1954). Two possible theories arise: Herrmann could not finish the score and Alfred Newman stepped in, or Newman (more probably Darryl Zanuck) hated the score and decided to fix it himself (themselves). The second theory seems more likely despite Zanuck's expressed admiration of Herrmann's score for Beneath the 12-Mile Reef and despite Newman's singular recognition of Herrmann's talent. It is possible that Herrmann could not write an epic score (epic enough for Zanuck) [for the real story see Steven C. Smith's book A Heart at Fire's Center - The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann]. Coupling what must have been a touchy situation with Herrmann's lack of conducting assignments made the move all the more desirable. Herrmann has the kind of eccentric---and stubborn---genius which has never been tolerated in Hollywood, whereas England relishes such talent with open arms. Since Herrmann readily identified with esoteric English composers (Holst, Cyril Scott, John Ireland, Sir Arnold Bax), England would be the natural choice.
Herrmann's score for the The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) more than exceeds Juran's "A"-grade aspirations: a lushly symphonic treatment with more inventive pastiche than Miklos Rozsa ever summoned up for The Thief of Bagdad (1940). The main credit borrows freely from Bizet's Carmen; there are uncannily appropriate leitmotifs for the dragon, the cyclops, even a two-headed bird; and a frenzied xylophone gone wild for an avenging skeleton (cf. Disney's Skeleton Dance).
The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) bountifully displays Herrmann's musical knowledge---the redefinition of familiar musical motifs into a cohesive whole by contrasting orchestral colors. The score so perfectly matches the visual image as to make them inseparable.
Herrmann confirms his encyclopedic prowess at indigenously English music by resurrecting the feel of the period. The animated main credit is an upward pan starting at a man's shoes (Gulliver) and working its way up his body to his head. Each of the three worlds is established with ease: a properly pompous theme for brass and bass to represent eighteenth-century England (safety, home); celesta and sleighbells conveying the delicacy of the Lilliputians; and tuba, contrabassoon, and bass for the giant Brobdingnagians. One by one the themes resolve into each other, eventually returning to the eighteenth-centuy motif as we see the smile on Gulliver's face. The chief musical threads have been woven. For a scene where Gulliver walks to his apothecary shop in Wapping, Herrmann devises a stately minuetto in the Mozartian mode: strings and woodwinds contrasting with vibraphone and bass fiddles.
Gulliver's ship has been destroyed in a storm which washes him ashore on an island. A beautiful young woman (the Princess) dressed in a chiffon gown appears, running along a beach chased by her lover (the Prince). Sleighbells and celesta delicately jingle-jangle back and forth in an allegro presto matching their movements. This theme and its orchestration suggest smallness by having lighter instruments (in miniature) contrast each other. The audience sees no change in environmental perspective, yet the music creates such a change. Suddenly the same theme replayed by a tuba with massive bass chords, startles the viewers and the characters onscreen as a skyscraper-sized Gulliver looms up from behind some large rocks along the shore. The Lilliputians become the protagonists with Gulliver as the antagonist.
When the King's Henchmen are routed (with the horses' nostrils flaring) by Gulliver, their escape music is a fast and furious chase with celesta and trumpet trying to outrun each other. Note the stunning glockenspiel run used for the resolve. And what could be more appropriate for a King's entrance music than a marche miniature? Reminiscent in style to Gabriel Pierne's ballet score Cydalise et la Chèvre-Pied (Cydalise and the Goat-footed Satyr), the march has a light, martial regality as if it were meant to be performed by animated tin soldiers.
When Gulliver helps uproot a forest, bass violas and bass fiddles roll back and forth in a vast Elgarian processional that suggests strength and power on a Victorian scale. One of the most charming sequences in the film has the Young Prince challenging a pretender to the throne by balancing objects (representing affairs of state) while walking a tightrope over a reflecting pool. They must perform various balancing feats of stamina with the camera cutting back and forth among the antagonist, the protagonist, and the audience around the pool watching them. Herrmann connects the intercut images with a string of orchestral baubles for harp, miniature piano, pizzicato strings, flute, and piccolo having the intensitv of Bartok's allegro from Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (second movement). These themes harken back to similar motifs in The Magnificent AMbersons and reappear as the "birthday cake" music in Sisters.
Once Gulliver arrives in Brobdingnag, the roles become reversed. Gulliver assumes the musical protagonist role with the Brobdingnagians as the antagonists. In a chess game where Gulliver has to shift around towering chess pieces, the tuba, contrabassoon, and serpent (one of Herrmann's favorite esoteric instruments) lumber against each other in ascending and descending chord progressions.
With Gulliver and his love ensconced in a fairy-tale doll's house, the music cues images of home: an early-English pastorale similar in style to the work of Ralph Vaughn Williams or Edward MacDowell and thematically close to Samuel Barber's Adagio For Strings. The yearning for home becomes an orchestral descent that climaxes in an openended English resolve; their love is represented as being "at home."
When Gulliver and Elizabeth escape from the King into the forest and are threatened by ravenous squirrels and weasels, Herrmann recasts the former Lilliputian chase music as a cavernously barbaric bass whirlwind with the action enveloping Gulliver. By reorchestrating the theme into one of basic power and tension, Herrmann evokes his incredible ride through hell from Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1950)--- terror and fright on all sides with no possible escape. Suddenly Gulliver awakens on a beach. The main credit theme establishes their arrival back in England---a cunningly symmetrical resolve.
By assigning motifs and then rearranging them, Herrmann suggests a duplicity in the characters which satirizes them as effectively as do Swift's words. Within Gulliver lies the smallness and immensity that are activated by his environment: he can tower over the Lilliputians' inane pettiness or he can appear insignificant to the oafish Brobdingnagians. Herrmann's music digs deeper than the dialogue and the visual element to get the point across.
Henry Levin's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) contains one of Herrmann's most brilliant set pieces: the sunrise which defines the crater Professor Lidinbrook and his party are to enter. A five-note trumpet theme sounds daybreak as the Professor waits expectantly on the crater's edge. Slowly a swelling of harps and celesta signal the rays of light rising higher and higher. An intense sunbeam pierces through a crag in the mountain peaks, and the music explodes in an extended chord for organ and heavy bass. Herrmann constructs a musical synthesis rivaling Strauss's Zarathustra, used for the opening of Kubrick's 2001.
Throughout the fantasy films, Herrmann was called upon to anthropomusicalize creatures of the unknown: a cyclops, taunting harpies, a seven-headed hydra, Gort the robot, even bees the size of airplanes. One of his most ingenious solutions was for the menacing crab (four stories high) in Cy Endfield's Mysterious Island (1961). The brass (mainly tympani), eight horns, and trumpet jockey about in hacking rhythms analogous to the thumping movements of the crab's legs. In every instance, Herrmann was able to compose musical identities for Harryhausen's clever monstrosities.
Most of Bernard Herrmann's later scores come under the "psychological" category: Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie, The Bride Wore Black0 Twisted Nerve, The Night Digger, Endless Night, Sisters, Taxi Driver, and DePalma's Obsession. Hitchcock's North by Northwest is a pure adventure score while Fahrenheit 451, although falling under the Sci-Fi category, is actually one of Herrmann's most intense psychological studies.
Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966) portrays Bradbury's characters as impassive automatons in a sterile society not far removed from our own. Denied cinematic emotionality (empathy), the audience must turn to Herrmann's Straussian score for cathartic release. The main credit, for strings alone, is a subtle pavane that keeps repeating over and over on a continuum until its end (the infinite quest for knowledge). Herrmann structures introverted emotions as ascending motifs, the bookburners as descending motifs, and the bookmen as a straight-line lyrical pastorale; the music imparts a heightened emotional level in stark contrast to Truffaut's detached cinematic involvement.
Scenes of Montag's engine company traveling down the road to its next bookburning assignment are accompanied by relentlessly churning strings with a clanging xylophone descending into a mechanized vortex (cf. skeleton motif in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad). Linda's attempted suicide is mirrored in a waltz that begins with a yearning for release and rises quickly into ecstasy. When Clarisse and Montag escape to the bookmen, Herrmann converts the "Rosebud" theme from Citizen Kane into an elegiac motif expressing the beauty of hope---an emotion Bradbury's society had long since forgotten.
Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) are landmark scores coming closest to the concept of film music as ballet music. Try to imagine Marion's demise without Herrmann's dissonant glissandos and violin bows plucking away faster than Mrs. Bates's knife (originally Hitchcock wanted no music for this scene). For the Vertigo montages of Scottie tailing Madeleine in his car, the music acts as a haunting memory which propells Scottie onward---a suggestive liebestod where the flames (mystery) are waiting to be fully kindled (mystery solved: purification). Hitchcock must have trusted Herrmann's talent enormously: there is more music in Vertigo than spoken dialogue.
The scores for Marnie (1964) and Sisters (1973) contain Herrmann's most oppressive and schizophrenic music: in the former, Mark demanding that Marnie overcome her kleptomania and frigidity; in the latter, the repugnant, sideshow fascination of Dominique/Danielle. Within the Wagnerian romanticism lies hidden a Lisztian dementia waiting to strike its death knell. DePalma's film is clearly a parody of Hitchcock, yet Herrmann responds with a diabolical score similar to the thundering clamor of Schöenberg's Pelleas und Melisande. These scores have an all-out chaotic tension unmatched in Herrmann's catalogue.
Although Taxi Driver (1975) was Herrmann's final film, DePalma's Obsession(1976) predates with its scoring by several months. Scorsese uses the music sparingly as if the score had not been complete. Bickle's bloodbath has no music at all, leaving one to wonder exactly how Herrmann would have scored this apocalyptic sequence. DePalma's variation on Vertigo finds Herrmann transported to Verdian heights: organs, heavy percussion, and strings with an ethereal choir. The main credit alternates between a two-note grief-stricken theme for the orchestra and a haunting intonation by the choir suggesting Michael's lost love. Both the ransom (wheelboat) and kidnapping montages are remarkable for their aural and visual tension. Herrmann is even called upon to score the silent moments between the characters when words will no longer suffice. For all its grandeur and religious bombast, Obsession could aptly be termed "the last great romantic score."
It is ironic that after years of neglect the symphonic score should come back in vogue just at Herrmann's death. The rush for marketable title cuts and youth-oriented scores shoved Herrmann into the background (Universal removed Herrmann from Torn Curtain because his music was deemed "unmarketable"). That the music he wrote was oftentimes better than the films it accompanied is of no consequence. What does remain of his scores is a fitting testament to a man who did things his own way and, by so doing, became a unique voice in twentieth-century music.
CELLULOID ON VINYL:
The following is a listing of the film scores that have been released. Only Jerry Goldsmith and Henry Mancini are better represented on recordings. Since a re-evaluation of Herrmann's work is now in progress, the re-recording (or issuing of the master tapes) of several film scores is most necessary. Complete recordings of Vertigo, Citizen Kane, North by Northwest, Gulliver, and Fahrenheit 451 (possibly done by Charles Gerhardt with RCA's superlative sound) would provide a framework for further study and enjoyment.
The Battle of Neretva (London Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, Entr'Acte Recording Society ERS6501ST): Although Herrmann appears uncomfortable with the war film genre, this original soundtrack has many fine motifs reminiscent of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Citizen Kane (National Philharmonic conducted by Charles Gerhardt, RCA Red Seal ARL1-0707): Side One includes the chase from Nick Ray's On Dangerous Ground, a suite from Citizen Kane including the Susan Kane opera performance and several cuts from Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. Side Two contains the complete "Concerto Macabre" from Hangover Square and various cuts from White Witch Doctor. The stereo (or quad) recording is phenomenal.
Citizen Kane (Conducted by LeRoy Holmes, reconstructed orchestrations by Paul Swain, United Artists UA-LA372G): This studio re-recording includes most of the cuts found in the film plus the "March of Time" newsreel music.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (London Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, Unicorn UNS237): Side One contains various cuts from Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster. Side Two contains "Welles Raises Kane," a symphonic suite based on themes from Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
The Egyptian (Composed by Bernard Herrrnann and Alfred Newman, Hollywood Symphonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Newman, Decca DL-79014): Just being able to tell who wrote what is difficult. Newman's music is quite distinctive, but sometimes you do hear glimmers of Herrmann's orchestrations.
The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann (National Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, London Phase 4 SP44207): Side One contains various cuts from Journey to the Center of the Earth ("Sunrise" and the main credit music are awesome) and three cuts from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Side Two contains The Day the Earth Stood Still and four cuts from Fahrenheit 451.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Conducted by Elmer Bernstein, Elmer Bernstein's Filmmusic Collection FMC4): A surprisingly adept and stylistically faithful recreation of most of the score from the film.
Music From Great Film Classics (London Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, London Phase 4 SP44144): Side One includes cuts from Jane Eyre and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Side Two contains various cuts from Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Music From The Great Movie Thrillers (London Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, London Phase 4 SP44126): Side One contains the main credit from North by Northwest, the main credit, nightmare, and love music from Vertigo, and a charming suite based on the The Trouble with Harry. Side Two contains symphonic suites based on Psycho and Marnie with most major themes included.
Marnie (Music from the soundtrack conducted by Herrmann, Sound/Stage Recordings 598): A pirated recording with atrocious sound and tape hiss.
The Mysterious Film World of Bernard Herrrmann (National Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, London Phase 4 SPC21137): Side One has cuts from Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts. Side Two includes the majority of cuts from The Three Worlds of Gulliver.
Obsession (National Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, Thames Choir conducted by Louis Halsey, London Phase 4 SPC21160): Non-stop Herrmann with Verdi's Requiem overtones. Turn up the sound on this recording.
Psycho (National Philharmonic conducted by Herrmann, Unicorn RHS336): A re-recording of the complete score in sequence. Herrmann's conducting contains slightly different tempos and sound dynamics; Arbogast's murder is more frightening than Marion Crane's. But this is one of the few recordings to offer a complete cue-by-cue transcription of a film score. Invaluable.
The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (Conducted by Muir Mathieson, United Artists (British) UAS29763-Mono): A reissue of the original Colpix soundtrack album with practically every cut in the film.
Sisters (Conducted by Herrmann, Entr'Acte Recording Society ERQ7001ST): The original quad soundtrack of the complete score in sequence from DePalma's film.
Taxi Driver (Arista Records AL4079): Side One contains Herrmann's music as rearranged and conducted by Dave Blume. Side Two includes Herrmann conducting the title and credit cuts plus several montage sequences.
Vertigo (Conducted by Muir Mathieson, Mercury GM20384): This original soundtrack (mono, 1958) is an expensive collector's item that's next to impossible to locate or buy (going price $250). There is also a pirated version of this soundtrack released on Sound/Stage Recordings 2301 with inferior and hissing sound.