Bernard Herrmann - Writer

Composer. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 29 June 1911. Education: Attended DeWitt Clinton High School and New York University; studied with Philip James, Bernard Wagenaar, and Albert Stoessel at Juilliard Graduate School, New York. Family: Married the writer Lucille Fletcher, 1939 (divorced). Career: 1931—organized New Chamber Orchestra; 1934–59—worked for CBS, as conductor, and composer (including music for Welles's Mercury Theater Playhouse ), and, from 1940, chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra; also composer of orchestra and stage works; 1941—first score for film, Citizen Kane ; also composer for TV. Awards: Academy Award, for All that Money Can Buy , 1941; British Academy Award, for Taxi Driver , 1976. Died: 24 December 1975.

Films as Composer:


Citizen Kane (Welles); All that Money Can Buy ( The Devil and Daniel Webster ; Here Is a Man ; Daniel and the Devil )(Dieterle)


The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles) (co)


Jane Eyre (Stevenson)


Hangover Square (Brahm)


Anna and the King of Siam (Cromwell)


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Mankiewicz)


Portrait of Jennie ( Jennie ) (Dieterle) (song)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise); On Dangerous Ground (Ray)


Five Fingers (Mankiewicz); The Snows of Kilimanjaro (H. King)


White Witch Doctor (Hathaway); Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (Webb); King of the Khyber Rifles (H. King)


Garden of Evil (Hathaway); The Egyptian (Curtiz) (co); Prince of Players (Dunne); The Trouble with Harry (Hitchcock)


The Kentuckian (Lancaster); The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock) (+ bit ro)


The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Johnson); The Wrong Man (Hitchcock)


A Hatful of Rain (Zinnemann); Williamsburg : The Story of a Patriot (Seaton—short)


Vertigo (Hitchcock); The Naked and the Dead (Walsh); The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (Juran)


North by Northwest (Hitchcock); Blue Denim ( Blue Jeans )(Dunne); Journey to the Center of the Earth (Levin)


Psycho (Hitchcock); The Three Worlds of Gulliver (Sher)


Mysterious Island (Endfield); Cape Fear (Lee Thompson); Tender Is the Night (H. King)


Jason and the Argonauts (Chaffey); The Birds (Hitchcock)(consultant)


Marnie (Hitchcock); Joy in the Morning (Segal)


Fahrenheit 451 (Truffaut)


La Mariée était en noir ( The Bride Wore Black ) (Truffaut)


Twisted Nerve (R. Boulting); Companion in Nightmare (Lloyd); Bitka na Neretvi ( Battle of Neretva ) (Bulajic—Englishversion)


The Night Digger ( The Road Builder ) (Reid)


Endless Night (Gilliat); Sister s ( Blood Sisters ) (De Palma)


It's Alive (Cohen)


Obsession (De Palma)


Taxi Driver (Scorsese)

Posthumous Films:


It Lives Again (Cohen)


It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (Cohen)


Cape Fear (Scorsese) (arranged by Elmer Bernstein)


By HERRMANN: articles—

"From Soundtrack to Disc," in Saturday Review of Literature (New York), 27 September 1947.

Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1971–72.

In Knowing the Score , by Irwin Baselon, New York, 1975.

In Film Score , edited by Tony Thomas, South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1979.

In Sound and the Cinema , edited by Evan Cameron, Pleasantville, New York, 1980.

On HERRMANN: books—

Bruce, Graham, Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1985.

Smith, Stephen C., A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann , Berkeley, California, 1991.

Kalinak, Kathryn, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film , Madison, Wisconsin, 1992.

Brown, Royal S., Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music , Berkeley, California, 1994.

On HERRMANN: articles—

Cook, Page, in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1967.

Films in Review (New York), June/July 1970.

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1970, corrections in November 1972.

Special Visual Effects , Summer 1972.

National Film Theatre Booklet (London), June/July 1972.

Thomas, Tony, in Music for the Movies , South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1973.

Dirigido por . . . (Barcelona), March 1974.

Steiner, Fred, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), Fall 1974.

Films in Review (New York), October 1974.

Ecran (Paris), September 1975.

Photon (New York), no. 27, 1976.

De Palma, Brian, in Take One (Montreal), vol. 5, no. 2, 1976.

Films in Review (New York), January 1976.

Skoop (Amsterdam), February 1976.

Film Français (Paris), 6 February 1976.

Films in Review (New York), March 1976.

Cinema Papers (Melbourne), March/April 1976.

Films in Review (New York), April 1976.

Focus on Film (London), Summer/Autumn 1976.

Broeck, John, "Music of the Fears," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1976.

Palmer, Christopher, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1976, corrections in January 1980.

Positif (Paris), November 1976.

Maffet, James D., in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 3, no. 1, 1977.

Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 3, no. 2, 1977.

Films Illustrated (London), April 1977.

Ecran Fantastique (Paris), no. 3, 1978.

Classic Film/Video Images , July 1980.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), Spring 1981.

Filmcritica (Rome), June 1981.

Filmusic (Leeds), 1982.

Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1982.

Lacombe, Alain, in Hollywood , Paris, 1983.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), September 1985.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), vol. 5, no. 18, June 1986.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), vol. 5, no. 19, September 1986.

Kalinak, K., "The Text of Music: A Study of The Magnificent Ambersons ," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Summer 1988.

Palmer, Christopher, in The Composer in Hollywood , 1990.

Chanan, Michael, "American Rhapsodies," in Sight & Sound (London), November 1991.

Fischer, D., "Bernard Herrmann," in Soundtrack (Mechelen), September 1992.

Pool, Jeannie, "Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann: An Interview with Director Joshua Waletzky and Composer David Raskin," in Cue Sheet (Hollywood), Spring 1993–1994.

Landrot, Marine, "La musique qui tue," in Télérama (Paris), 1 December 1993.

Doherty, Jim, "Concert Works," in Soundtrack (Mechelen), June 1994.

* * *

Surely no film scores have inspired so many passionate admirers or so much detailed analysis as have those of Bernard Herrmann. Even the general public, asked to cite memorable "movie music," may think not only of tunes such as the title theme of Gone with the Wind (Max Steiner) or Breakfast at Tiffany's "Moon River" (Henry Mancini) but of the violin shrieks of Herrmann's Psycho score (or turning to television, his Twilight Zone theme). Arriving on the film scene to score Orson Welles's Citizen Kane , and reaching his greatest fame working for Alfred Hitchcock—a collaboration which produced in a row three of the director's and the composer's finest achievements, Vertigo , North by Northwest , and Psycho —the famously cantankerous Herrmann achieved little public recognition among his peers: he did receive an Oscar in 1941 but only two other nominations (in 1941 and 1946) until two more posthumous ones in 1976. Still, he was championed in his later years by a younger generation of major directors—François Truffaut, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese—and is now one of the few composers of film music to be the subject of full-length book treatments (a biography and a critical study of his work).

Herrmann's first notes of music for the cinema—the portentous opening of Citizen Kane —already offer many characteristics of the Herrmann style: unusual orchestrations (e.g., low winds, vibraphone); unresolved chords that are not simply suspenseful in some melodramatic way but also create a brooding sense of time suspended; and melodic fragments (or what Graham Bruce calls cellular units rather than lengthier leitmotifs) that will later be developed. Herrmann worked closely with Welles on the project, rather than being brought in only on postproduction. Thus the two were able to achieve some virtuoso fusions of music and drama, as in the breakfast montage portraying the collapse of Kane's first marriage, in which the editing is done to match Herrmann's theme-and-variations, and in the opera-house scene, with Herrmann's French aria à la Massenet providing music that Susan is ill-equipped to sing, as well as a grandiosity that seems to mock Kane's ambitions.

A later 1940s score, one of Herrmann's personal favorites, for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir , is superficially closer to standard Hollywood practice, but it too is suggestive of Herrmann's qualities as a whole. Mrs. Muir's first visit to the haunted cottage is scored with music that is, as one would expect, suspenseful, but again not crassly melodramatic or spooky: indeed, much of it is rather tender (befitting a wistful supernatural romance, as the film turns out to be), if not downright yearning. It is not melodic in the usual sense (such as, say, the tune for Laura ), but its curious harmonic suspensions keep us in a state of suspension. The technique is essentially the same in Herrmann's score a few years later for The Day the Earth Stood Still , except of course for the electronic instruments giving a greater eeriness to that science fiction film. And we are not far from the moody music for investigative scenes in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo .

Herrmann worked in fewer genres than the majority of Hollywood veterans: chiefly dramas of suspense (including no less than eight about demented killers, and as many again about haunted or driven men) and more boisterous action-adventure tales, including a fantasy series beginning with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad . But there are consistencies in his style, beginning with a special attention to orchestration. Unlike most Hollywood composers (if one may use a term he detested), Herrmann always did his own orchestrations—one reason he was less prolific than many. There are characteristic Herrmann sounds and favorite instruments, e.g., clarinets in low register, French horns (nine used for the manhunt in On Dangerous Ground ), and harps (again nine solo parts in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef) . But equally characteristic is his experimentation with unusual sounds: the sonic palette reduced to strings for Psycho , no strings in Journey to the Center of the Earth , the contrabassoon-like serpent in White Witch Doctor . (For The Birds , he composed no music at all, but worked closely with Hitchcock to integrate electronic renditions of bird sounds into the drama.)

He is hardly the only composer, classical or popular, to use seventh chords extensively for a mood of suspense, tension, or irresolution; but few have used such unresolved chords as such a basic principle of musical organization, as studies of Herrmann's Hitchcock scores have demonstrated. Passages in Herrmann scores certainly hark back to classical music: the scene in Vertigo of Scottie waiting to see Judy transformed back into his lost Madeleine virtually quotes from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde , and echoes of Ravel, Elgar, even Tchaikovsky (the love theme of North by Northwest ), and others are common enough. Yet his particular choices of melodic fragments, harmonies, and orchestrations, all combined, make Herrmann one of the most readily identifiable of all soundtrack composers.

If one were to single out a Herrmann score as the composer's supreme achievement, a major contender would be the one for Vertigo . Unforgettably passionate and yearning, sometimes nightmarish and other times coolly eerie, the music drenches the San Francisco Bay Area setting in varied moods and seems the very essence of the protagonist's obsessive love. But one could make a case for several others, including the score for Psycho , alternately conveying frantic desperation and a state of being frozen in time, or even the exuberant, witty North by Northwest . Herrmann may not have been responsible for a measurable "40 percent" of the success of Hitchcock's films, as the composer liked to boast, but his contributions to those films' astonishing sense of seamless artistic wholeness are incalculable.

Dismissed by Hitchcock in a disagreement over the soundtrack for Torn Curtain , Herrmann found himself less in demand in a world where pop or rock scores, with their lucrative soundtrack recording possibilities, were becoming the norm. One regrets that the composer did not live into an era, signaled by John Williams's work for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, when the orchestral score was again in high repute; but at least he did end his career with work for major films by De Palma and Scorsese. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the composer, beyond the books devoted to him and his work, has been Scorsese's splendidly prominent use of Herrmann's 1961 score for Cape Fear in his 1991 remake.

—Joseph Milicia

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