This e-mail interview with Robert Townson took place in November and December
1998. The subject is his latest Bernard Herrmann production for Varese Sarabande, The Trouble With Harry, featuring Joel McNeely
conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
This 43-minute CD is the first-ever release of the entire score for the
lesser-known but highly entertaining Alfred Hitchcock film (one of the
director's rare comedies). Previously the only official recording was the
composer's own eight-minute suite entitled A Portrait of Hitch, available
on the London/Decca LP and compact disc
Music from the Great Movie Thrillers.
Townson offers a number of insights into the special charm of this score
and also makes some intriguing comparisons between Herrmann and Alex North,
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While well-liked among Herrmann aficionados, The Trouble With Harry is
not generally regarded as one of his quintessential scores.
The last time we talked,
in fact, you offered a short list of Herrmann essentials, and Harry
didn't make the list. Yet what struck me on hearing your new recording is
how utterly beautiful and charming this music is. Call me fanatical, but I do
think it's a must-have.
You see, there's the danger in lists. Something always gets left off. My
"utterly ruthless" list included Kane, Muir, Vertigo, Sinbad and
Psycho. If forced to stick to five I think I would stand by this list.
Certainly, however, I agree that Harry more than qualifies as a must-have. So
does North By Northwest, Jane Eyre, Taxi Driver, Gulliver, Obsession,
Fahrenheit 451 and so many more! How can you leave out any of those?
As far as Harry not being generally regarded as a quintessential score ... I
think there are reasons for this, beyond the music. One big reason is that it
has never been available before! The fact that there has never been an album of
the score coupled with the relative obscurity of the film has simply not allowed
a wide audience to fall in love with it. For those who know, however, those who
have managed to see the film, this is certainly a score that holds a special
place near their heart. There has been a consistency to the mail we have
received about this release. The sentiment has been "I never, ever thought you
guys would record The Trouble With Harry. I can't believe you did it! I
can't believe I just went to a record store and bought The Trouble With Harry! God bless you!" We seem to have really shocked people with this one.
I am exceedingly happy with this release.
Even if it weren't indelibly linked with the lush, autumnal colors of the
film, this score would evoke the golden days of a New England fall. It's almost
a pastoral symphony a good deal of the time.
It certainly is! There really is a visual aspect to much of Herrmann's work. He
paints with such vivid color. The Trouble With Harry's effect as a
pastoral symphony is not dissimilar to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir's long
drawn resemblance to a sea symphony. I find it quite remarkable how well the CD
plays, containing all forty cues Herrmann composed for this film. With that many
cues, some as short as 21 seconds and nothing longer that 2:17, a reasonable
concern would be, and in fact was, that as great a score as it is, this could be
a very choppy CD. On the contrary, every piece so perfectly sets up the next
that the natural segues and pacing of everything results in an eminently
"playable" album. I can't tell you the number of times I have sat down to listen
to just the Overture and Autumn and ended up listening to the
entire CD. The score really is infectious ... and inescapable.
Parts of Harry remind me of All That Money Can Buy
(particularly the combination of humor and pastoral beauty), and some of the
more serious passages recall the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington
Cemetery cues from The Day the Earth Stood Still. But overall this is
unlike any other Herrmann score. Other soundtracks of his have traces of humor,
but Harry is funny or at least lighthearted throughout, albeit with an
often mordant sensibility, like the film itself.
I think that Harry, like many of Herrmann's scores occupies a world that
is distinctly its own and I agree that it is its overall lightheartedness that
is its most distinctive characteristic. Certainly it is unmistakably Herrmann
and his style rings through every bar, but like Alex North, the diversity each
composer could attain while remaining true to themselves is absolutely
remarkable. In Herrmann's case you can go to the famous Psycho or Jane Eyre, the less famous like On Dangerous Ground and Hangover Square, or the downright obscure The Kentuckian and cover a musical
range as vast as any in symphonic music, all the while remaining thoroughly
"Herrmann"! With Alex North I find it fascinating to see how in two scores as
diametrically opposed as Death of A Salesman and Spartacus North's
voice can still sing through, ultimately connecting them, maybe in ways that
won't even be picked up by most people, but that's fine. Noting the stylistic
link is not important for appreciating the music. I just find it interesting to
find how intrinsic the stylistic trait can be in various artists' work. With
some it may be something as superficial as motifs or orchestration techniques.
The deeper you get however, when you have things like subtext, point of view and
psychoanalysis all contributing to the "style" at hand, then you can have all of
the normal music devices layered on top. This may diffuse the perception of the
linking elements but in no way render them any less present. This is how you can
have the alto flute theme for Willy Loman be as unmistakably "North" as the 110
piece orchestra of Spartacus. I was discussing this concept with Matthew Peak not long ago in the context of how, when people discuss his father's style
it is in relation to color, scope and the epic power of so many of his
paintings. All these things are true. But just as true is how much of Bob Peak
can be found in a single graphite line on a piece of paper. He had such command
of his art that elements of who he was and what he had learned as an artist
could still come through in the seemingly simplest of means, much like North's
Willy Loman theme or Herrmann's autumnal strains for The Trouble With Harry. Such great artistry!
Contrasting elements or characters in the story are occasionally played up in
the score for comic effect. For example, as Christopher Husted points out in his
liner notes, the aging Captain (Edmund Gwenn) gets the most lyrical melody, not
the central love interest Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine). Do any other passages
strike you as especially good musical jokes? Personally, I laugh every time I
hear the jaunty violin figure of The Doctor turn into a
tripping-over-the-corpse motif. Even my three-year-old daughter gets this joke.
Whenever we listen to it she asks, "Is he falling on Harry, Daddy?"
I think I'll side with your daughter on this one. I think that whole opening
sequence is absolutely masterful. With parts of this score Herrmann really took
"Mickey-Mousing" to it highest plane. Aside from this though, I think on the
whole the score doesn't really come off as inherently "funny" on its own. Within
the context of the film it certainly highlights the visual gags and it is
invaluable for the comic timing of the proceedings, incorporating dramatic
pauses into the music before picking the next phrase. As a score and as a CD,
however, it sheds this association quite well and functions wonderfully as an
autonomous, stand-alone work.
Not only is Harry unique in Herrmann's canon, it's unique among his
collaborations with Hitchcock. As Husted says, "it is not brooding and forceful
at all--it has a sing-song quality, blithely and dryly commenting on the
unfortunate problems prompted by Harry's dead body." Your thoughts on this?
Well, this is certainly true. I think that it's wonderful that Herrmann and
Hitchcock finally managed to get together in time for this film. It really does
contribute an element to their body of work that is otherwise absent. I have to
say that it also makes me long for the "what might have been" if only they had
come together even earlier. Now certainly I wouldn't sacrifice Rozsa's
Spellbound or Waxman's Rebecca for anything in the world, even
hypothetically, but it is tantalizing to imagine what may have resulted from an
earlier joining of forces. Ah well, as it is I think that The Trouble With Harry is an absolutely marvelous way for their collaboration to have begun.
As intense as things would end up getting in the later pictures, its quite
refreshing to begin with this simple walk in the country ... nothing too
ambitious ... but an absolute joy.
Christopher Husted says of one cue, Autumn, that "The modal harmonies
in the strings give the tune the feeling of an English folksong." Steven C. Smith also mentions the score's "essential Englishness." Can you talk about
that? And might this have anything to do with all the work the composer had done
in recent years on his very English opera, Wuthering Heights?
Who's to know, really where it came from. I would venture that it's not too far
a stretch to suspect that Herrmann's Anglophile tendencies which would become
much more prevalent later in his life were already firmly rooted in his
personae. I would also guess that the landscape of the beautiful New England
setting allowed this "take" on things to seem all the more appropriate.
In your own liner notes to the Herrmann Concert Suites box set you
prepared some years ago, you mention how interesting it is that Herrmann later
retitled a suite from this score when he rerecorded it in 1968 for the London
Records compilation Music from the Great Movie Thrillers. He called it
A Portrait of Hitch. Was that a comment on the film, the score, or
Well, my interpretation of his title is that it is a personal comment. By the
time Herrmann prepared the suite his relationship with Hitchcock had run its
course. Every note of music he had ever composed for Hitchcock or would ever
compose for Hitchcock, had been written. It was all in the past now. My
assumption is that of all of the music Herrmann wrote for Hitchcock, he felt
that The Trouble With Harry was the most representational of
Hitchcock--the man, or at least how Herrmann perceived him. Interestingly
Hitchcock's own musical vision of himself seemed to bear this out. In spirit,
Gounod's March of the Marionette which would be used as the theme for
Hitchcock's TV series is not too far removed from the spirit of Herrmann's
Harry score. They both capture the wry darkness of Hitchcock's theatre of
the macabre in a way that was not off-putting but rather, as we have said,
Husted also remarks that Harry received more attention than the music from
any other Hitchcock film when Herrmann reorchestrated it for that London album.
Can you recall any significant differences between the concert suite and the
full version of this score?
I've never actually sat down with a score of the concert suite so I don't have
any examples that immediately come to mind. The suite includes the
Overture, the doctor theme, the cues Tea Time and The
Police and the finale. It was the integration of all of this that received
more time from Herrmann than his other film suites ... more along the lines of
what he did for Jane Eyre. What a wonderful piece that was! I
really find it quite amazing that other than those brief eight minutes, that is
all that has ever been available from this wonderful score. I have to say though
how important Herrmann's own recording of this suite was to my finally recording
the whole score. For years the only way I knew this music was from this
performance. Finally I sought out the film to hear for myself the score that had
been the basis for this music I loved so much. Of course I was overwhelmed by
all of the additional material and the film itself but never imagined that one
day I might be able to record the complete score myself.
I watched the film several times and listened to this new recording of the
score many times in preparing for this interview. I would say that your team has
once more recreated a score in gorgeous modern stereo, preserving the tempo and
feel of the original but taking full advantage of contemporary technology. City
Halls in Glasgow must be an ideal recording environment, judging by the results
you get there.
I'm glad you feel that way. I must say that I love the room. It does take some
taming but on the days we are in top form and the room is behaving it is the
most glorious place on earth I can imagine recording. When I listen to The Trouble With Harry CD I just can't imagine the orchestra sounding any
better. Working as I always do with budget constraints that force difficult
decisions to be made sometimes, in this case I can honestly say that if I had
had unlimited funds, any orchestra, any conductor, any hall, any engineer and as
many sessions as I wanted, I can't imagine doing a better recording. Maybe in
someone else's hands but for me I feel confident that this is the best I could
do. I had always dreamt of making this recording. I can't believe that it's now
one I can look back on. I don't know how long it's going to take before I get
used to walking over to my CD rack and seeing a spine that says The Trouble With Harry. It hasn't happened yet. I still pull out the CD, look at it and
just shake my head.
The recording of the original soundtrack was an unpleasant experience for
both Herrmann, who was ill at the time, and for the Paramount Studios orchestra,
which he felt was not quite up to the task (the head music cutter even
reportedly called Herrmann "a prick"). Contrast that with your own experience
with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Joel McNeely's baton. I'm not
as hard on the Paramount players as Herrmann was, but it does seem that the RSNO
is a tighter outfit overall.
I had heard that the original sessions for this score were not very pleasant. We
actually had a little of our own trauma to deal with at our Trouble With Harry sessions as they had unexpectedly turned into the end of Joel McNeely's Bernard Herrmann series. By this time John Debney was already hard at
work in Los Angeles studying for the Sinbad recording, among others, not
to mention getting ready for a two-week trip to Scotland he had only just found
out about. Meanwhile the musicians kept a smile on my face. Hearing how
beautifully they were playing and hearing this great score come back to life
after some forty-three years--how could I not be smiling? They just make
everything sound so good! As I have said time and time again, they are an
absolute joy to work with. The day I leave for Scotland I am exhausted by what I
have had to go though to get ready. Then there is the physical wear and tear of
traveling on top of that. Finally the first downbeat comes and I am filled with
energy. By the time I am back in Los Angeles I am completely wiped out again.
Two weeks later I already can't wait to do it all again.
Once again I think Matthew Joseph Peak should be mentioned for his cover
painting. It depicts almost every major character from the film (including
Harry, in his favorite horizontal position), and the impressionistic fall leaves
and blue sky perfectly capture the mood of both the music and the film. Will
Matthew be on board for your next Herrmann release? And incidentally, what and
when is your next Herrmann release?
Matthew's The Trouble With Harry painting is one of my favorites.
Actually I absolutely adore every one of the Herrmann paintings he has done.
Matthew's work for The Trouble With Harry, like the score for Herrmann,
is a radical stylistic departures from his other pieces. We talked about keeping
things light on this one. Matthew's Sinbad painting was a thirty-six inch
square oil on panel, for Harry it was time to break out the water colors
and pastels. Matthew will most definitely be on board for the next Herrmann
release (Citizen Kane), and most assuredly the next after that, whatever
it may be. It really was unfortunate that schedules conspired to work against us
on Torn Curtain. That is the only Herrmann recording Matthew has not been
involved with. I try to let Matthew know about new recordings as early a
possible to allow him as much time as possible to schedule the time he feels the
project will need. Scheduling is always my biggest nightmare, with all of my
work on new soundtracks, the composers I work with and their film schedules
which slide around on them with frightening frequency, kind of a "where it stops
... nobody knows" situation, the orchestra's completely full concert schedule
and then Matthew with his many projects. It really is a wonder we ever get
anything recorded, let alone as much as we actually do! With six newly recorded
Bernard Herrmann CDs behind me now and Citizen Kane on the way, I'm
really looking forward to adding to the series.
All illustrations taken from Matthew Joseph Peak's cover
painting for Varese Sarabande's The Trouble with Harry.
Copyright © 1998 by Kurt Luchs / The Bernard Herrmann Society.|
Images copyright © 1963 by MCA/Universal.
All rights reserved.