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Bernard Herrmann:
The Man Behind the Music

Bernard Herrmann was one of the most influential composers to work in film. Today, for example, we can readily hear his impact in the Batman scores and in several of the Star Trek movies. But today's composers—gifted as they are—have yet to penetrate a film's drama and translate it into music quite the way Herrmann did. From his work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane through his groundbreaking work with Alfred Hitchcock to his late work with Hollywood's cutting-edge directors of the 1970s, Herrmann's career is astonishing, for both its length and consistently profound quality.

Herrmann's journey into film actually began in radio. He was a staff conductor for the CBS Symphony Orchestra in the late 1930s, and he composed scores for CBS Radio dramas. Among others, he worked with such people as Norman Corwin and—most importantly—Orson Welles. This apprenticeship gave him the experience he would later draw on to underscore the drama in a scene.

Herrmann's radio work with Welles landed him a stunning debut film job: writing the score for Citizen Kane (1941). Unlike most composers (who are usually called in at the end of the production), Herrmann worked with Welles from the beginning of the production and had compete control of the score.

That same year, he wrote the score for The Devil and Daniel Webster. Both scores were nominated for Academy Awards. The Devil and Daniel Webster won.

It was a good beginning for a busy decade.

In 1941, he completed his first and only symphony. And after scoring Jane Eyre (1944), he began working on a grand opera based on Wuthering Heights (it wouldn't be completed until 1951).

In 1945, he scored the remarkable Hangover Square with its haunting Piano Concerto Macbre.

The decade's creative burst of energy culminated with the moving, romantic score for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which Herrmann considered his masterwork. (In fact, he told his brother Louis that the film and its score were the closest to his heart.)

The 1950s began magically for Herrmann with the score he wrote for Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). (Wise had worked with Herrmann on both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.) Herrmann's electronic score for Wise's sci-fi allegory was so innovative that it became ubiquitous before the end of the decade.

Twentieth Century Fox music director Alfred Newman was also keenly aware of Herrmann's genius. With Newman's help, Herrmann was chosen to score many of Fox's films, including Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef (1953), Herrmann's first Cinemascope and stereo-sound film. Newman and Herrmann collaborated on scoring The Egyptian (1954). (It was Herrmann's first entry in 'historical epic' genre.)

That same year (1954), Herrmann began his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock by scoring The Trouble with Harry. Before the decade was over, he would write scores for four other Hitchcock films. (Side note: Herrman's sole appearance in a film occurs in the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much; he shows up as the composer in the Royal Albert Hall assassination scene.) Their success was so great that Herrmann became known as the Hitchcock composer, which seemed to pigeonhole his talents for some film makers.

But only a few years passed before Herrmann entered another important partnership—this time with Ray Harryhausen, the special effects wizard. Their first collaboration, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), is a masterful fantasy with one of Herrmann's most exciting and beloved scores.

But, not surprisingly, many people recognize Herrmann's Hitchcock scores most readily. Vertigo (1958)—with its striking musical tapestry of obsession, compulsion, mania and romantic longing—is considered by many critics to be the crowning achievement of their collaboration.

Critical assessment aside, Psycho (1960) remains the score by which Herrmann is best remembered. Its shrieking-violin shower scene was so innovative and startling that it is still imitated today.

For Hitchcock's next project, The Birds (1963), Herrmann and Remi Gassman provided eerie, electronically created sound effects instead of music—a bold undertaking, both artistically and technically. Unfortunately, Hitchcock and Herrmann worked together on only one more film—Marnie (1964). In 1966, they had a strong disagreement over the scoring of Torn Curtain. They never resolved their differences, and they never worked together again.

But the Hitchcock work (and the disagreement) shouldn't overshadow Herrmann's other work of the 1960s. He scored three other films for Harryhausen, including The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) with its sparkling eighteenth century wit and Mysterious Island (1961) with its magnificent opening theme (the verve and counterpoint of the music accompanying the creature scenes are also quite powerful). The third Harryhausen film, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), was also revolutionary: to give the ancient story a metallic sheen, it was scored mostly with brass and percussion (harps and woodwinds were the only other instruments used).

But Herrmann's best work can be heard in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966), where he managed to capture the characters' loneliness and their longing for passion and compassion.

It is one of the most powerful scores ever written for film.

In 1971, feeling Hollywood had turned its back on him, Herrmann moved to London. There, he scored several films, including The Night Digger and Endless Night. But it was Brian DePalma who brought Herrmann back to American films with Sisters in 1972. It was an homage to Hitchcock and a perfect film for Herrmann. (It was a great success for both Herrmann and DePalma.)

Herrmann's health began to deteriorate in 1974. But although he was suffering from congestive heart failure, he was determined to continue working. By now, he had become something of a cult figure with young filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, DePalma, Stephen Spielberg and Nicholas Meyer, and he found himself awash in offers.

Among the scores from this period, Herrmann's music for DePalma's Obsession is one of the most deeply felt, mixing powerful romantic feelings with the trademark Herrmann suspense. One critic said at the time of its release that "It would make blank film compelling."

In the fall and winter of 1975, Herrmann completed what would be his final score—Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. It is one of the more unusual Herrmann scores, breaking new ground as a bluesy, saxophone-based jazz piece.

On December 24, 1975, the morning after finishing the Taxi Driver recording sessions in Hollywood, Herrmann died in his sleep. He was sixty-four years old.

—Review by Bruce Crawford

Bruce Crawford is a film historian and documentary producer. He has produced a two-and-a-half-hour-long tribute to Herrmann entitled Bernard Herrmann: A Celebration of His Life and Music. He has also produced a two-hour-long documentary entitled Ben-Hur: The Epic Film Scores of Miklos Rozsa. Both documentaries have been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Note: This essay first appeared in a different form in Classic Images.

Posted August 1, 1999







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