September 1, 2009


Every Tuesday night in September, starting tonight, TCM will be screening a diverse selection of films (23 in all) scored by the legendary Bernard Herrmann. As an appetizer, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite Herrmann scores, from radio, TV, and film. It’s easy to forget, but Herrmann was a master of radio orchestration before he created those distinctive tonalities for the screen. He had an innate sense of how to adapt his musical ideas to different formats, sounding more descriptive on the radio, and increasingly atmospheric and emotional on the screen. His work wasn’t merely music added to images – he composed out of these images, creating an organic whole that lifted the films he worked on into another level of artistry. How can one think of The Mercury Theater, Citizen Kane, or Hitchcock without him?

10. Taxi Driver1976

Biographer Steven C. Smith (buy his Hermann study, A Heart at Fire’s Center, here!) relates that after Scorsese pitched Herrmann on the idea of scoring Taxi Driver, the composer snapped, “I don’t know anything about taxi drivers.” After reading the script, and being particularly impressed that Bickle ate cereal with peach brandy, he signed on. Thus this swooningly melancholic score was created, with a little help from his friends. That opening theme, with its ebb and flow of muted trumpets, riding cymbal, insistent snare and pizzicato bass, is the low key entree to Bickle’s tortured psyche. Herrmann asked friend and collaborator Christopher Palmer to adapt an older piece of his for a jazz melody he needed for a scene with Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster. Smith says Palmer, “took the first four bars of the soprano solo “As the Wind Bloweth” from The King of Schnorrers, then continued the melody line in a piece he titled “So Close to Me Blues.” Hermann was so delighted with the result that the theme became a key part of the score.”

9.  DraculaMercury Theater on the Air. Aired July 11th, 1938 on CBS Radio.

Bernard Herrmann was “reluctantly assigned” to Orson Welles’ landmark radio program. He had a terrible experience working with Welles a year earlier, on the Columbia Workshop radio production of Macbeth. Producer John Houseman relates that Welles arrived onto set with a script twice as long as expected, and so Herrmann’s score was useless. Welles brought along a bagpiper and conducted his own music cues throughout the show, while Bernard stood helplessly at his podium. The second time ’round, while still creatively fraught, was far more productive. Hermann himself looked back with fondness:

Welles’ radio quality…was essentially one of spontaneity. At the start of every broadcast Orson was an unknown quantity. As he went along his mood would assert itself and the temperature would start to increase till the point of incandescence…. Even when his shows weren’t good they were better than other people’s successes.

All of the Mercury radio productions are worth a listen, but the first is still my favorite. Herrmann’s work is spare and mournful.  Steven C. Smith, isolates his instrumentation as “muted brass and graveyard bell”, and that alone gives a sense of its haunted grandeur. Paired with Welles’ tour-de-force performances of the majority of the roles, it’s an unforgettable listen. Most of the episodes are available for download here, as well as anywhere else you care to look.

8. On Dangerous Ground1952

I’ll let the work speak for itself here, one of the most galvanizing themes of all time.

7. Cape Fear, 1962

Simplicity itself. A descending figure of four notes, with slight variations to freak you out. The repetition never resolves itself into a theme, but suspends in an air of uncertainty, putting you off center as the credits roll. When the swirling strings kick in, you think you’re losing your mind. Scorsese hired Elmer Bernstein to incorporate this theme into his 1991 remake. Bernstein told The Bernard Herrman society that Herrmann would “have killed me, he would have yelled and screamed with no question.” This theme was memorably used in The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare”, in which Sideshow Bob takes the Mitchum/DeNiro role.

6. North By Northwest1959

Herrmann takes a fandango figure, repeats it over and over again, and helps to create one of the most suspenseful sequences in film history. This is what they call genius.

5. Citizen Kane1941

Ok. You’re sick of seeing Citizen Kane on lists. I understand. But do you realize how important Bernard Herrmann was to the film’s success? Part of Orson Welles’ genius was his ability to surround himself with other geniuses, so he was able to wrangle Herrmann and Gregg Toland onto his first feature. Music is of paramount importance to the film, and Hermann carried over many tricks from their radio days, with a complex series of musical cues joining scenes, commenting on the action, and helping to tip Kane into hysteria, in his words, “unorthodox instrumental combinations…sound effects blended with music, music used in place of soundtrack.” (quoted in Simon Callow’s Orson WellesThe Road to Xanadu) Herrmann was given the luxury of composing music before editing began, so Welles could form the picture around the score’s rhythms. In short, Herrmann’s contribution to this inexhaustible work of art is immeasurable.

4. Twisted Nerve1969

You have Quentin Tarantion to blame for this one. This remarkable theme, of a childlike whistle couched against some soothing vibes, has a gothic, Ennio Morricone feel. I only became aware of it through Tarantino’s use of it in Kill Bill, when Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver whistles it as she attempts to fatally inject Uma Thurman. I have never seen Twisted Nerve, and have no idea of its value as cinema, but this theme has wound its way into my cerebral cortex, and I don’t think it’s ever going to leave.

3. The Twilight Zone, 1959

Self-explanatory. Possibly his most famous musical phrase, again utilizing a simple repeated melody to create an overwhelming sense of unease, and then the swirling strings take you away.

2. Psycho, 1960

Those slashing violins open up your veins and let loose fear. As often as it has been parodied, it still retains its power to shock and awe.

1. Vertigo, 1958

Jack Sullivan, in his book Hitchcock’s Music, nails it straight off:

Vertigo opens with triplets spiraling in contrary motion, plunging the audience into cinema’s most beautiful nightmare. Obsession receives its definitive sound in Hermann’s endless circlings, re-circlings, and suspensions.

The opening theme is seductive, hypnotic, and romantic. One wishes to get lost in its grandiloquent tremors, an artistic height that Jimmy Stewart will peer down from, causing his psychological breakdown. Blame Herrmann. Which in this case, means celebrating him. The greatness of Vertigo is inseperable from this score, which would be enough to put him in the pantheon. But as I hoped to have sketched out here…there is so much more.

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