Posted in Movie Reviews, Music, Television

That Hollywood Sound: Bernard Herrmann

I was geared up to continue with my discussion of the wonderful Charles Gerhardt series of classic Hollywood film scores, but I confess I hit a major bump. Next on tap would have been Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, but then it seemed Max belonged with the Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn albums, since all four were on Warner Brothers’ payroll for so long. My next thought was to shoehorn Alfred Newman in there instead, but as I started to assemble the material, I realized I needed to come clean once and for all:

Bernard Herrmann is my favorite film composer. He more than deserves a solo bow.

Herrmann is justly famous for his scores for Alfred Hitchcock movies, from “The Trouble With Harry” (featuring that quirky scherzo) through “Marnie,” and along the way composing the iconic soundtrack for “Vertigo,” the wild opening fandango for “North by Northwest” and the unforgettable musical horror show of “Psycho” (No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s list of Best American Film Scores). While director and composer severed their relationship over Herrmann’s rejected score for “Torn Curtain,” the length and quality of their collaboration is unmatched. There is so much to admire, but my favorite Herrmann selection from his Hitchcock years is the opening to “The Wrong Man”—that bouncy samba with the unexpected accents, flavored by a worried solo flute so emblematic of the looming fate of Henry Fonda’s Stork Club musician:

Herrmann’s range is enormous. Classically trained at Julliard with a solid background in orchestration and conducting, his music spans the eternal romanticism of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” through the futuristic theremin-laced “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Like Korngold (whom I swear I’ll be discussing soon), he composed a number of classical works—his Symphony No. 1, the opera “Wuthering Heights” and a cantata based on “Moby Dick.” Herrmann was a staff conductor at CBS radio when he came to the attention of Orson Welles, who tapped him to write the score for his infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Herrmann then went on to begin his Hollywood career alongside Welles with his score to “Citizen Kane.”

The centerpiece of Gerhardt’s Bernard Herrmann album is a suite from that film, introduced by a morbid bassoon/trombone combination depicting ghostly Xanadu. A host of flutes (including four bass) and vibraphone come to the fore—Herrmann did love his electronics—and after Kane’s death we get that marvelously scored transition to young Charlie in the snow. The “breakfast scene” montage is justly famous for Welles’s artistry in so economically depicting a decaying marriage, but Herrmann’s accompaniment, ranging from a lovely turn-of-the-century waltz to bickering woodwinds to hushed strings as the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Kane vanishes in thin air, geometrically increases the effect. Perhaps the highlight of this section is Herrmann’s take on grand opera, the exotic “Aria from ‘Salambo'”, sung by a young Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Kiri, possessor of one of the most beautiful voices of the last hundred years, does her damnedest to sound Susan Alexander-awful, but fortunately doesn’t always succeed (though that last note can truly peel paint off the wall).  The final segment of the suite accompanies the ending of the film, and I have to confess I’ve always hated the sight and sound of Rosebud’s incineration, even though Herrmann’s music is apt.

Fortunately Gerhardt does a 180 with his next selection, a suite from “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” which has enough swash and panache to last for days. Herrmann’s talent is so extensive that he has no need to borrow from “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” to depict the ocean, but if my ear is correct, the sea motifs from the two films are in the same key and share the same note values and rhythm—quite Wagnerian of him. I also like the “Concerto Macabre” from “Hangover Square,” but for me the real ear-catcher is the suite from “White Witch Doctor” with its exotic talking drums and Big Bwana sound. Herrmann’s skill as an orchestrator is nowhere more apparent than in his music depicting a deadly tarantula, scored for an ancient woodwind called a serpent, which is an utter bear to play in tune. Its swollen, menacing blatt is so utterly perfect you’ll laugh out loud.

In addition to his work with Hitchcock, Herrmann wrote extensively for sci-fi and fantasy films and TV shows. He did a great deal of work on the original “Twilight Zone” series, including an opening theme that unfortunately got bumped after a few episodes by the now-iconic Marius Constant music. Fans like myself can tell you that his achingly nostalgic score for the episode “Walking Distance” resulted in a perfect accompaniment to a perfect episode. Equally as famous were Herrmann’s scores for “Fahrenheit 451” and the series of Ray Harryhausen fantasy films. Of these my favorite by far is “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” which I’m old enough to have seen in its first release (when evil Torin Thatcher turned the Princess’s waiting woman into a four-armed, green-faced serpent, I nearly dove under the movie seat). I can’t get enough of Herrmann’s Arabian Nights mode, and it’s a tribute to his talent that while he comesthisclose to ripping off “Scheherazade,” he never really does:

Herrmann died at the still-young age of 64, only hours after completing the recording of his score for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” By all accounts he suffered no fools gladly, but did have the great fortune to work with those who appreciated his gifts. American film was never better served.

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