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Bernard Herrmann’s 100th Birthday Feature: June 28, 2011

Bernard Herrmann
Best of Bernard Herrmann
Play a "1-Click Concert™"

June 29, 2011 marks the 100th birthday of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), perhaps the most celebrated of the major film composers of Hollywood's heyday years during the 1940s through 1960s. Although not a traditional "classical" composer, Herrmann received serious training in composition and orchestration (at New York University and Juilliard, etc.) and in his film scores employed the full range of stylistic and technical devices available to a composer in the mid-20th century - from lush post-Romantic expression to atonal and dissonant writing (most famously in the "shower scene" from Psycho) to jazz inflection to electronic music, and beyond. In his collaborations with master filmmakers, most consistently Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann produced some of the most celebrated film scores of all time: Citizen Cane, Psycho, Vertigo, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Taxi Driver, etc. - thereby leaving a legacy that reverberates strongly even today.

In this celebration, we highlight the life and career of this film music legend, with overviews of his achievements both as a composer and conductor (including as a champion of new music) - along with a 1-click Playlist, quotes, and videos. Enjoy!

“I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward, or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally, it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.”
– Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann – Life and Works

Bernard Herrmann was born in New York City on June 29, 1911 (with the birth name Max) to a music-loving family, especially his father, Abram - who gave young "Benny" a violin and frequently took him to opera and orchestral performances. He began music lessons at the local school, and soon exhibited an obvious talent, winning a song-writing contest at age 12; the following year, Herrmann discovered Hector Berlioz' treatise on orchestration, which had a profound influence on him. At age 18, he began taking classes in composition and conducting at New York University, and soon thereafter entered the Juilliard School - where he studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar. After two years he returned to NYU in search of greater compositional freedom, which he gained from the Australian-born composer Percy Grainger - who instilled in him an appreciation for an eclectic approach to composition that served Herrmann well in later years.

Although Herrmann wrote a number of serious works in these early years - especially chamber pieces for violin and piano - the focus of his career from the early 1930s was as a conductor. Finding a dearth of progressive programming among established orchestras, in 1933 he founded his own, the New Chamber Orchestra of New York, where he gave early performances of works by progressive composers such as Charles Ives, as well as works by older English composers such as Purcell and Elgar. Herrmann's first big break came the following year when he became assistant conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra - soon becoming its principal conductor; at CBS, Herrmann was hailed for his adventurous and educational programming, performing works by little-known modern composers like Richard Arnell, Nikolai Myaskovsky, and Gian Francesco Malipiero. Even after his film career took off, Herrmann remained with the CBS Symphony Orchestra, off and on, until it disbanded in 1951.

It was in this capacity too that Herrmann began composing and arranging incidental music for CBS radio dramas - including episodes of the famed "Mercury Theater on the Air", directed by Orson Wells, such as Wells' now infamous 1938 production, "The War of the Worlds" - which Herrmann arranged from pre-existing music. His perceptive emotional handling of the music in these dramas inspired Wells to hire the composer to score his first big film, Citizen Kane in 1939. The film and its music were tremendously successful, and immediately established Herrmann as a valuable property in Hollywood. Already, his music displayed rare psychological insight into the film's characters and situations - often depicting personality traits or events not immediately obvious in the action on screen, which gave the film as a whole a heighted sense of emotional depth and intensity. Musically, Herrmann revealed his interest in unusual instrumentation to capture a peculiar mood in a scene - such as heightening a somber moment using bass clarinets, tubas, bass trombones, etc., an approach much emulated by later film composers. Despite this success, Herrmann collaborated with Wells as a director in only one other movie, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which the former disowned by virtue of what he felt was barbaric cutting of the music. This, moreover, reveals another notable aspect of Bernard Herrmann: his fierce pride and frequent irascibility, which at times made him the object of ridicule among his collaborators, not least the musicians in the orchestra.

“Every score Herrmann wrote, from Citizen Kane, to the original music for the Twilight Zone series (and much incidental music for that show), to all his Hitchcock scores, to Cape Fear, to Fahrenheit 451 for Truffaut and finally to Taxi Driver, his music has wielded the power to render the pictorial images not only to perfection, but to make them bloodless at the prospect of existing without his music. No other film composer in that art's history has ever matched or surpassed him on his gifts.”
– Christopher O’Riley

Regardless, Herrmann had found his calling, something ensured already in his second film, The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy, 1941), directed by William Dieterle, which won him his only Oscar for Best Film Score - the same year that Citizen Kane was also nominated!). From this point, Herrmann could afford to be difficult and demanding with directors - insisting on "total creative control" for the music he scored, or else he'd pass (which he did on many occasions). Herrmann's other films of the 1940s - notably Jane Eyre (1944), Hangover Square (1945; based on the life of a composer, for which he wrote an original piano concerto - found in the above 1-Click Concert, as the Concerto macabre), and his personal favorite, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) - continued to foster his unique skills as a film composer, both in his ever-creative orchestration and in the rich palette of musical styles he employed to capture just the right mood: from folk-based Americana to brooding neo-Romanticism to stark modernism, etc.

In the early 1950s, Herrmann rode his successful wave with a series of well-paying scoring posts, while continuing to expand his musical tool-box - as in the early science-fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), for which the composer utilized the then rarely heard Theremin, providing the perfect "eerie" sound the subject matter called for. But the most significant collaborations of the decade - indeed of Herrmann's career - was with the great English director Alfred Hitchcock, with whom the composer collaborated on eight films between 1955 (The Trouble with Harry) and the 1964 (Marnie; these include the director's most famous films, Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963).

The first three mentioned represent among the best film scores ever created, where the composer perfectly matched the director's fascination with psychological obsession and the blurred line between reality and fantasy. Indeed, Hitchcock utilized the music - for which he generally gave Herrmann free range - as a virtual character in the film, often receiving more time than actual dialogue, as in the famed 5-minute "Scène d'amour" from Vertigo, where music alone accompanies the surreal transformation of Jane (played by Kim Novak) into Scottie's (played by James Stewart's) deceased love Madeleine (the excerpt is included in above 1-Click Concert). The Vertigo score is also famed for its lush, swirling adaptation of Wagner's "Liebstod" from Tristan und Isolde, which perfectly suits the dizzying state of vertigo that plagues the lead character. The most famed score, however, is certainly that of Psycho, which Herrmann limits to a string section - most dramatically in the shrilling glissandi of the "shower scene" (the music of which was adapted from his earlier Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, from 1935); interestingly, Hitchcock initially intended this famed murder segment to appear without music, a directive that Herrmann typically - and effectively - ignored.

“Bernard Herrmann is one of the great film composers. His score to "Psycho" can only be called a masterpiece.”
– John Corigliano

The 10-year partnership between Hitchcock and Herrmann came to an abrupt end in 1965, during production of Torn Curtain: the era was changing, and under pressure from the studios to be more "up-to-date", the director asked the composer to write a jazz- or pop-influenced score; when the composer blatantly ignored the request and wrote a lush and elaborate "romantic" score, Hitchcock rudely stopped the play-back and insisted that Herrmann re-write it. The composer, not surprisingly, refused, and sadly the two men barely spoke to each ever again.

Even prior to this break, however, Herrmann had fostered other productive partnerships; most notable was his collaboration on several "fantasy" films with stop-motion special effects artist Ray Harryhausen - including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), all of which allowed the composer to indulge in lush scores for large and/or unusual forces. A similar project was his 1966 score for François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, scored for strings, two harps, vibraphone, xylophone, and glockenspiel - whose insistent and rhythmic score is famed for its influence on Beatles producer George Martin's arrangement on "Eleanor Rigby".

Though Herrmann produced some outstanding scores in the 1960s, his music began to appear as dated and increasingly unpopular, only adding to the composer's penchant for surly retorts to those he considered inferior or subordinate. His film output diminished, which allowed for a few "concert works" - including two chamber pieces, Echoes, for string quartet (1965) and Souvenirs de voyage, for clarinet and string quartet found in the above 1-Click concert. Still, young filmmakers, such as Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese reverently sought out the storied composer, namely for De Palma's Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976); and Scorsese's Taxi Driver - the latter two which received Oscar nominations. Even in these late years, Herrmann continued to experiment, including the use of a Moog synthesizer in Sisters, and at times (as in Obsession) providing an intensity and psychological impact rivaling such earlier films as Vertigo. Herrmann even found inspiration to include some jazz-tinged music in his final score, Taxi Driver. With striking timing, Bernard Herrmann died just hours after recording the final scene of this film - on December 24, 1975, at the age of 64.

Herrmann belonged to the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood film music - along with composers like Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner and Miklós Rósza. More than these others, however, his influence remains very strong and palpable today - with active film composers such as Danny Elfman, Richard Band, and Brian Tyler citing him as a major influence. Increasingly, too, modern conductors, such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, are interested in re-recording his scores; and labels are re-issuing Herrmann's own recordings of his film scores - such as Decca's recent re-release of Herrmann's 1970 recording of Citizen Kane with the London Philharmonic. In all, Herrmann's music dispels the notion that film music cannot stand apart from the film, and will surely be influencing composers, and engaging audiences, for many years to come. Classical Archives is thus very pleased to celebrate the life and music of this great American composer on this, his 100th Anniversary!

For more information on Bernard Herrmann, including articles and forums, visit the website of the Bernard Herrmann Society.

Nolan Gasser
Artistic Director, Classical Archives

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