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Vertlieb's Views

Vertlieb's Views

Commentary on movies past and present by Steve Vertlieb

Frenzied Genius: The Romantic Passion of Bernard Herrmann

An overview of the soundtracks of Bernard Herrmann.

If music is the light by which cinematic imagery is emotionally defined and illuminated, then Bernard Herrmann was the flame that danced atop the candle. Dominating the expressive art form from his explosive emergence into dark celluloid waters, Herrmann's massive contributions forever changed the way we listen to movies, delving musically into a psychologically complex, meaningful exploration of characterization and definition.

From Orson Welles' Citizen Kane in 1941 to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in 1976, Bernard Herrmann wrote over fifty scores for motion pictures, with notable stops along the way during which he composed an opera, Wuthering Heights, a symphony, numerous ballets, tone poems and cantatas, as well as countless orchestral works for radio and television. Read more Vertlieb's Views

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  • On radio, Herrmann gave melodic voice to The Mercury Theatre series for Orson Welles while later, on television, his presence was palpable, creating music for Have Gun Will Travel, and much of the richest, most atmospheric scoring for the first season of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone on CBS.

    Still, it was his music for the cinema that generated some of the most remarkable music in screen history. He composed the musical tapestry upon which Klaatu and his imposing robot, Gort, sailed across galaxies and stars to calculate The Day The Earth Stood Still. We accompanied him on a tantalyzing Journey To The Center Of the Earth. He fired the degrees Fahrenheit at which books would burn in Ray Bradbury's visionary fantasy, Fahrenheit 451. He kindled the passion between a ghostly sea captain and a lonely widow in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's haunting and lyrical romance, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and provided the majestic symphonic carpet upon which Sinbad and Jason would heroically rendezvous with dragons, hydras, and cyclopean predators in the wondrous, unforgettable fantasies of Ray Harryhausen.
    Orson Welles and Bernard Herrmann

    His most enduring collaboration remains, however, his films with director Alfred Hitchcock. If Hitchcock was the master of the eloquent absurdity, then Bernard Herrmann was its maestro, translating Hitchcock's visual expressionism into its purest orchestral reflection. In these dreams, we suffered the exquisite romantic longing and spiritul deprivation of James Stewart's Wagnerian melancholia in Vertigo, were exhilarated by the sheer ferocity of the opening titles from North By Northwest, and were both tormented and haunted by the insistent note structure luring Janet Leigh, as Marion Crane, to her tragic demise behind the torn shower curtain in Psycho--the screeching violins a ravishing warning of murder most "fowl."

    In tribute to his contribution to the art of film, an Oscar nominated documentary, focusing on the composer's life and career, was released theatrically in 1992. Produced by Alternate Current/Les Films d'ici, narrated by Philip Bosco, and directed by Joshua Waletzky, Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann provided a serious, sobering, cinematic canvas marked by turbulence and temperament. Brilliant, yet difficult...romantic and moody, self righteous, while broodingly sensitive...Bernard Herrmann was a complex, confused, conflicted artist whose enormity of talent towered eloquently over Hollywood's studio system during the nineteen forties and fifties, falling into decline in the sixties, while finding ressurection and redemption in the seventies.

    A meticulous, sometimes amusing, often heartbreaking dissection of genius, Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann remains a fascinating and poignant examination of both the pain and compensation of creativity. Released originally for home consumption by Sony Classical Film and Video Tape in 1995 and on dvd in France last year, this riveting documentary has finally been released on dvd domestically by Kultur Internation Films.

    Rare film clips and home movies punctuate this rare glimpse inside the life of a deeply private artist. Lucille Fletcher (first wife, and author of Sorry Wrong Number) speaks, often poignantly, of her first glimpse of the man who would become her husband at a performance of his La Belle Dame Sans Merci. She tells a delightful story of young Herrmann at age eight, breaking his fiddle over the head of a music teacher, he claims, when the teacher had the temerity to suggest that the lad play "Rustle of Spring," rather than a more esoteric work.

    There are wonderful images of the lovers dancing together joyfully, during the thirties, in a sprawling public park. Fletcher recounts her exasperation over Herrmann's desire to conduct, rather than compose, and his gently accusatory note during their divorce proceedings, decrying his inability to leave composing for motion pictures behind. She talks wistfully of his falling in love with her cousin, and his subsequent desire to leave her. Ironically, when Fletcher's celebrated radio play "The Hitchhiker" was adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1959, it was Bernard Herrmann who was asked to score the teleplay.

    Surviving musicians from Hollywood's Golden Age talk of the difference in styles between Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann at 20th Century Fox. While Newman favored a lush, romantic "hot" sound, Herrmann preferred a "cold," more realistic recording of his music. James G. Stewart (a sound mixer on Citizen Kane) recalls that "Benny understood what kind of music should go under dialogue." Composer Elmer Bernstein refers to Herrmann's music, however, as "emotional." "Benny felt you didn't develop story through tunes, as had been done by middle European influence up to that time but, rather, by creating atmosphere."

    Bernard Herrmann
    Bernstein terms Herrmann's musical style as "post-Tchaikovsky romanticism," commenting on the deceptive simplicity of Herrmann's thematic structure for Cape Fear, remarking that "if you call it slight material, you'd have to attribute the same criticism to the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony".

    "It isn't about the notes," Bernstein continues, "but, rather, what you do with them."

    Orchestrator Christopher Palmer comments that "Herrmann didn't have that wide a musical vocabulary. He didn't need one."

    Composer David Raksin remembers film critic Arthur Knight being asked by Herrmann if Raksin was still teaching film music at the University of Southern California. When Knight answered in the affirmative, Herrmann raged "What does Raksin know about film music?"

    Raksin smiles, unperturbed. "Yet, this is the guy who recommended me to John Houseman to do The Bad and the Beautiful." Raksin beams, recalling that he once referred to "Benny" Herrmann as "a virtuoso of unspecific anger." In contrast, Elmer Bernstein comments that Herrmann was "superficially gruff in order to hide his sentimentality." "Just listen to The Ghost & Mrs. Muir," Bernstein remarks.

    Herrmann, along with Miklos Rozsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Franz Waxman regarded their film scores equally important as their work for the concert stage. Bernstein observes that "Benny never wrote down for movies. He was a serious composer wherever he wrote." Music critic Royal S. Brown tellingly reflects that "Herrmann was a quintessential romantic --a nineteenth century manic depressive, cast in a twentieth century, old New York City, Jewish role."

    Among the most fascinating moments in the documentary, however, are the crucial examinations of Herrmann's collaborations with Alfred Hithcock, shown both with music, and with the nearly disastrous absence of scoring. Film Editor, Paul Hirsch, talks of watching Hitchcock's Psycho one night on television, noting the intensity of Janet Leigh's emotions while being followed on the highway by a suspicious state police officer. Hirsch turns off the volume, and the intensity and power of the scene evaporate, leaving him to conclude that Leigh's "extreme emotional duress in the sequence is due entirely to the music."

    David Raksin recalls the terrible blow up with Hitchcock over the scoring of Torn Curtain, and the director's calculated humiliation of Herrmann in front of the orchestra, assembled to record the soundtrack. The scene from the film in which Paul Newman fights a Russian agent in an isolated farm house is shown, as released theatrically, entirely without music...and then accompanied by the surviving remnant of the score as originally recorded by Herrmann. The power and dramatic rage of Herrmann's music bring life and fury to the death struggle, hitherto unrealized in the theatrical version. Christopher Palmer suggests that "Hitchcock was beginning to resent the enormity of Herrmann's contribution to his films".

    Another telling sequence includes the recording by Herrmann of "The Flight of a Scarf" for the soundtrack of The Bride Wore Black. Director Francois Truffaut is visibly disturbed by Herrmann's interpretation of the scene, requesting a lighter touch. Elmer Bernstein remembers Herrmann as "a superb composer who wrote superb music with strong statements...and, if the picture couldn't stand up to that kind of strength, then it would collapse underneath the score."

    Martin Scorsese remembers working with Herrmann on his last film, the brooding, violent Taxi Driver. Scorsese reflects that the score "was not what I expected." "Herrmann felt that he was starting something new with his work...going in a new direction," recalls the director. "His music is like a vortex." Hours after completing his score for the film on Christmas Eve, 1975, Herrmann complained of not feeling well. He retired to bed after eating dinner, and died in his sleep that night.

    Elmer Bernstein called Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa the greatest composers for film since the flickering image found its voice. Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann is an incomparable celebration and pictorial record of a profound and eloquent "voice."

    Steve Vertlieb

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