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The Mystery of the Ambersons

Orson Welles' second film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) while still a magnificent film, often hailed as a masterpiece like the director's first, it was 'cut to pieces' due to studio interference after the initial preview. The 131-minute film was cut down to 88 minutes, removing 31 minutes of Herrmann's score. New scenes were shot and accompanied by new music by RKO studio composer Roy Webb. All done without Welles' og Herrmann's knowledge. Viewing the recut film, Herrmann furiously demanded his name cut as well, from the film's credits (no composer was credited).

Herrmann's score was based around the waltz Toujours ou jamais by Emil Waldteufel which is heard in it's original version in the beginning of the film.

Now [in 1997] Rhino Records have released a CD called Composed by: Classic Film Themes from Hollywood's Masters (Rhino R2 72847) with over twenty original cues from RKO, Warner and MGM films. Included is the prelude from Citizen Kane, 'The Wild Ride' from North by Northwest (from Rhino's complete CD of the score) and a cue stated as being the 'Main Title' from The Magnificent Ambersons as composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. The latter is what I'll try to discuss here.

First, the film doesn't have a real main title sequence (just two cards saying 'A Mercury Production by Orson Welles' and the film's title; no music). The film then begins with a narrated sequence lasting (in it's cut form) a little over two and a half minutes. This is accompanied by Herrmann's 'Themes & Variations'. This is not the music found as track 12 on Rhino's CD.

Second, this music is not part of Tony Bremner's (just about) complete rerecording of Herrmann's score based on the original manuscript.

Third, watching the film closely this music can not be heard in the surviving 88-minute version of the film.

Fourth, this music is very untypical of Herrmann's style. It resembles more the conventional Hollywood-scoring of the time.

So, what is it? There's many reasons to doubt that this piece of music has anything to do with The Magnificent Ambersons, and even more reasons for doubting that it was composed by Herrmann. The only thing telling us otherwise is the track listing on the Rhino CD...

Well, not quite.

Roy Webb composed about 6 minutes of additional music for this film (he also arranged and conducted dance music for the ball sequence). There are no records saying that he composed a 'Main Title' cue or alternative music for the opening narration. Although the opening sequence was recut Herrmann's music was still used. Now for a little experiment.

If you view the opening sequence of the film and start track 12 of the Rhino CD just after Welles' first line, "The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873" (this is where Herrmann's theme starts), the music plays in perfect sync with the film through two scene changes, peaking at the smash into the bass viol, and ending with Eugene (Joseph Cotten) tipping his hat at the townspeople when entering the Amberson mansion.

This clearly suggests that this is alternate music for the opening sequence, probably composed by Roy Webb but never used. While many people will clearly be disappointed by not hearing Herrmann's wonderful opening music, we might consider thanking Rhino for revealing more of the story behind this film's sad fate.

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The only surviving recordings of Herrmann's original music as recorded in 1942 (apart from what's in the film itself) is known to be a rehersal of Toujours ou jamais in Waldteufel's orchestration and one take of the cue Second Nocturne. These recordings and Herrmann's complete manuscript are located in the Bernard Herrmann Archives as the University of California, Santa Barbara.


- Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. University of California Press, 1991.
- Husted, Christopher G. Liner notes for The Magnificent Ambersons. Compact disc. Preamble PRCD 1783. Fifth Continent Music Corp., 1990.
- Carringer, Robert L. (with Christopher Husted). The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction: University of California Press, 1993.
- Composed by: Classic Film Themes from Hollywood's Masters. Compact disc. Rhino Movie Music R2 72847. Rhino Entertainment Company.
- The Magnificent Ambersons. Laser Videodisc. Produced by Robert Stein and Robert Carringer. The Criterion Collection. Voyager Company, 1986.
- The Magnificent Ambersons. Compact disc. The Australian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tony Bremner. Preamble PRCD 1783. Fifth Continent Music Corp., 1990.

Copyright © 1997 by The Bernard Herrmann Society.
CD cover copyright © 1997 by Rhino Entertainment Company.
All rights reserved.

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International Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)