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