Bernard Herrmann - Film Composer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Bernard Herrmann - Film Composer

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It has been said that a good film score should not be noticeable - it should be so well integrated into the film that it is inseparable, as much a part of the finished production as the sets or cinematography. But sometimes a score is more than that. Sometimes it can help lift a film from two hours of celluloid to something that is indelibly stamped on a culture, a defining moment, remembered vividly by those who have yet to see it. Bernard Herrmann's unsettling and violent score for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho can certainly claim to have made that leap. But whilst Psycho remains his most famous work, Herrmann's influence on cinema extends much further than that.

Early Life

Born on 29 June, 1911, Herrmann came from a family that was not innately musical. His father, however, would often take his sons to the opera and symphony, and gave young Bernard a violin to play at an early age. At 12 years old, Herrmann gave an indication of what was to come - he won a prize for a self-composed song.

In 1927, Herrmann started study at DeWitt Clinton High School, where his tastes in music ran contrary to the norm. He championed unusual and forgotten composers, and when he moved on to NYU in 1929 he was inspired by musicologist Percy Grainger1. By 1933 he was concentrating on composing and conducting - he had conducted the New Chamber Orchestra, both with his own compositions, and with music written by the obscure artists he admired. He was hired in 1934 by CBS Radio as an assistant to the music director, and in 1937 he was allowed free reign to compose and conduct for a radio series. The following year, he composed the music for Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Suitably impressed, Welles invited Herrmann to score his first Hollywood film. As it turned out, this picture would cement their reputations in film history - Citizen Kane.

The Music

Before Herrmann, scoring films was a straightforward task. Each major character would have a theme, which would play when that character was present. The hero would have suitably heroic music, while the villain would have music that sounded more villainous. Herrmann was more concerned with deeper psychology, and mood, which in turn means his music is often unsettling and makes for difficult listening on its own.

Citizen Kane (1941)

You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... sixty years.
- Charles Foster Kane

Citizen Kane is a landmark in cinema history. Much has been written about the quest to unravel Charles Foster Kane's final word, and Orson Welles' influence over cinema's history since the film's release. Suffice to say, it is a picture held in high regard, and Bernard Herrmann's score for the film, although also his debut in the world of cinema, plays no small part in the film's incredible success.

In much the same way as Welles experimented with film techniques, Herrmann's approach to scoring was unusual, despite the fact that this was their cinema debut. Most of Hollywood preferred sweeping, romantic scores, making use of the orchestra as a whole. The score for Citizen Kane was different, using short motifs, and small sections of the orchestra at a time. It lacked the popular bombast of his peers, but the result was a more expressive score. The score now sounds at times a little hackneyed, but this is only because of the strong influence the film has had.

The score also allows Herrmann an indulgence. 'Salaambo's Aria' is, in the narrative of the film, a poorly-received operatic piece that destroys the career of the singer - Kane's second wife - and is part of Kane's downward spiral. But to Herrmann, this was a chance that didn't come along often. Herrmann longed to compose in an operatic style, and while the opinion of the piece within the film is less than enthusiastic, it is considered one of his best works.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.
- Klaatu

A cold-war parable, The Day The Earth Stood Still was considerably different from many Sci-Fi movies of the time. Unlike films such as The Thing, the alien visitor is benign, but has a stark warning - either the people of Earth make peace with each other, or they will be destroyed.

For this score, Herrmann rejected a traditional orchestra, and instead used an ensemble that included four pianos, four harps, an electric violin, an electric bass, brass, and - most striking of all - two theramins. The addition of these two singular instruments brought a whole new atmosphere to the score, their spooky whine conjuring up an otherworldliness unattainable with any traditional instrument. As a result of this score, the 'ooo-eee-ooo' of the theramin has become synonymous with UFOs, prompting Danny Elfman to make heavy use of it when scoring Tim Burton's sci-fi pastiche Mars Attacks!. The score is easier on the listener than most of Herrmann's other scores, with a playful piano in 'Radar', and the orchestral pomp of 'Prelude' and 'Finalé' generate smiles rather than despair.

Psycho (1960)

There are plenty of motels in this area. You should've...I mean, just to be safe...
- a highway patrolman

Right from the beginning of Psycho, the score grabs you and refuses to let go. If ever there was an example of a film score that was integral to a story's mood and suspense, this is it. Herrmann creates an almost unbearable air of menace, even from the Prelude. To complement the stark black and white of the film, Herrmann used only strings to score this film2, a most unusual and effective trick, albeit one that has been imitated in the 'slasher' genre ever since. It is almost unthinkable now, but originally Hitchcock did not want the shower scene scored, thinking it would have much more impact without music. Herrmann, one of the few people who believed in the project3, scored it anyway, the result being possibly the most famous piece of music in cinema history.

The sharp and urgent 'Eee! Eee! Eee!' of the violins in that piece, as well as brilliantly amplifying a truly shocking moment, also help to disguise the fact that no violence is actually seen. We see the knife go down, we see the shadow on the wall, we see the blood flowing down the plughole - but at no point do we see the knife cut through flesh. Herrmann's score contains enough gore to satisfy the viewer that a brutal murder has taken place before their very eyes.

Vertigo (1958)

And when I come to the end of the corridor, there's nothing but darkness. And I know that when I walk into the darkness, that I'll die. I've never come to the end. I've always come back before then, except once.
- Madaleine Elster

While the distinction between Good and Evil in Psycho was somewhat muddied - opportunist thief is murdered by man who loved his mother a bit too much - this theme was taken much further in the earlier Vertigo. The title not only refers to the dizzying fear of heights, but also the fear of the darkness of the soul, the terror that accompanies 'staring into the abyss'. Scottie, an all-round good guy you can't fail to like, who suffers from an acute fear of heights after an accident, finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with a woman he is being paid to follow. Following the death of this woman, his obsession overtakes and consumes him.

Herrmann's music circles and swirls during the opening sequence, creating an unsettling effect with a repeating six-note pattern. Combined with the strong, abstract visuals created by title sequence supremo Saul Bass, the effect is one of dislocation, mirroring perfectly Scottie's disturbed mental state. Later, A scene where Scottie transforms a woman into the one he failed to save is scored by Herrmann's 'Scene D'Amour'. It is a lush, romantic piece, but it has enough darkness around the edges to remind the viewer that what is shown is far from the perfect romance. Vertigo is now regarded by many of Hitchcock's fans to be his masterpiece, and Herrmann, with his rich score, can claim a sizable chunk of the credit.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man.
- Travis Bickle

Taxi Driver is a character study of loner Travis Bickle, with a tour de force performance from Robert De Niro. Despite Bickle's assertion in voice over that 'one should not devote oneself to morbid self-attention', there is again a strong theme of obsession in this film. There is Bickle's romantic obsession with election campaign-worker Betsy - which ends in rejection - and his dreams of avenging the prostitution of teenager Iris - which ends in extreme violence. There is also the film's obsession with Bickle - there is only one scene in which he is not featured.

The heavy use of saxophone in this score sums up the contradictions of New York, the sophistication and the sleaziness; it's a place where Betsy and Iris co-exist. The slow ponderous percussion is indicative of the 'ticking time-bomb' that is Bickle, while the way the music differs from the fashions of the time serves to emphasise his dislocation from society. This is not an easy score to listen to, but its evocation of Bickle's damaged mind is perfect - and Herrmann's penchant for musical experiment is evident to the end. It was suggested to Herrmann that a cymbal clash at the end of the film, which coincides with the realisation that Bickle is still an active danger, was a bit clichéd. 'Play it backwards', answered Herrmann gruffly. The sting now had a more demented feel, more in keeping with the film as a whole.

The Man

The dark and brooding nature of Herrmann's scores betrays much about the man himself. He did not suffer fools gladly, and had a reputation for an explosive temper4. This often affected his relationship with the directors and producers who sought his talent. After a streak of highly regarded scores for Alfred Hitchcock, the director called on Herrmann to score his 1966 film Torn Curtain. Orchestral music was beginning to become unfashionable, and Hitchcock had asked for a score that was influenced more by jazz and pop music. Herrmann scored it the way he saw it, with an odd combination of instruments that included french horns, flutes, timpani, tubas, and cellos. Hitchcock was unimpressed, and the ensuing argument meant that they never spoke again.

Despite this falling out, his fruitful collaboration with a series of auteurs - Welles, Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen - meant that his services were sought by a new generation of directors. Brian De Palma, a director who could be fairly described as heavily inspired by Hitchcock, was able to procure his services for Sisters and Obsession. His final score was for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (a project Herrmann was initially reluctant to undertake). Ironically, considering the Torn Curtain debacle, Herrmann used jazz stylings to great effect to convey the sleaze and corruption of 1976 New York - despite the fact the funk and disco were now the more typical soundtrack to city's streets. Herrmann died in his sleep mere hours after the completion of the soundtrack, on 24 December 1975, leaving behind a body of work that helped change film scores from an afterthought to an art.

Further Reading

1Grainger is best described as an eccentric. Amongst his inventions were 'Free Music Machines', which would help free the composer from the restrictions of rhythm and pitch.2It's significant that this score was orchestrated specifically for strings; the motion that each musician would make with their bow mirrors that of the stabbing of the murderer on-screen. It's a consideration that would appear to have eluded Danny Elfman in his arrangement for the 1998 remake when he included a harp in the string ensemble.3At one point, Hitchcock wanted to re-cut the film for his television show, such were his doubts.4The title of this entry would have greatly displeased him. He was, he said, 'not a film composer, but a composer who worked in films'.

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