Bernard Herrmann

(1911 - 1975)

1941    Citizen Kane

1945    Hangover Square

1951    The Day the Earth Stood Still

1958    Vertigo

1958    The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

1959    North by Northwest

1960    Psycho

1961    Mysterious Island

1966    Farenheit 451

1976    Taxi Driver

To many composers, Bernard Herrmann is the most influential composer in the history of film, and yet his life ambition was to be a professional orchestral conductor. Early opportunities led him to Hollywood, where he worked until 1966. 

Herrmann was born in New York City in 1911, and studied music at New York University and at Julliard, where he studied with Percy Granger (composition) and Albert Stossel (conducting). He was also a member of Aaron Copland’s group of young composers in the 1930’s, and an early admirer of the composer Charles Ives. Hermann’s first professional work was as a conductor-composer for CBS Radio beginning in 1934, where he composed music for Orson Welles’ famous broadcast “War of the Worlds”. It was Welles who brought Herrmann to Hollywood, where he scored Welles’ groundbreaking film, Citizen Kane in 1941.

Herrmann’s music is striking in its power and substance- a feature that provided great success when matched with the right film. Many of these “right films” were created by Alfred Hitchcock, and as Hitchcock succinctly put it, Herrmann’s music was “33% of his films’ success”.  One notable feature of Herrmann’s music is that he orchestrated all of his own scores. This was highly unusual, and a factor in Herrmann’s relatively low output (1-2 films per year) as compared to many of his contemporaries. He was also a bit of an outlier in Hollywood, never allowing himself to become part of the Hollywood system.

Citizen Kane (1941)

"It is remarkable that this uncompromising individualist, who certainly did not belong to the clan of the Hollywood studio hacks, made such a splendid career there, at a place for which he never professed to have overwhelming love. From his very first film score on, he was acknowledged both by the producers and his colleagues as one of the outstanding figures of the Hollywood music scene and only when this Hollywood started to crumble away did he find it necessary to settle in his beloved England. As fate is often cruel, his last film was a Hollywood product and there, tragically, he died.”

       Miklos Rozsa, foreword to Bernard Herrmann: Hollywood’s Music-Dramatist (Triad Press, 1977)

Orson Welles’ landmark film, Citizen Kane, is regarded by many film critics to be the most important film ever made. Herrmann’s earlier collaboration with Welles at CBS Radio led to his assignment on Citizen Kane, and the success of Welles’ film catapulted Herrmann into the upper echelon of Hollywood film composers. 

‘In orchestrating the picture I avoided, as much as possible, the realistic sound of a large symphony orchestra. The motion picture soundtrack is an exquisitely sensitive medium, and with skillful engineering a simple bass flute solo, the pulsing of a bass drum, or the sound of muted horns, can often be more effective than half a hundred musicians sawing away. Save for the opera sequence, some of the ballet montages, and a portion of the final scene, most of the cues were orchestrated for unorthodox instrumental combinations’.

Bernard Herrmann, as quoted in the New York Times, 1941

Citizen Kane (1941) - Opening Scene

Hangover Square (1945)

Herrmann’s concert music come to the fore in this obscure film about a deranged composer who has a tendency to black out and commit murder. Herrmann’s Concerto Macabre, a concert work for piano and orchestra, is featured in the movie.

Hangover Square (1945) - Final Scene

Vertigo (1958)

Herrmann’s score to the 1958 Hitchcock thriller about an acrophobic police detective remains one of his most known and studied film scores. The “Love Scene” is primarily a paraphrase of Richard Wagner’s Liebestod (love-death) aria from his opera Tristan und Isolda (1865). The Vertigo score was Herrmann’s personal favorite among the scores he wrote for Hitchcock films.

Vertigo (1958) - Kiss Scene

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad marks a departure for Herrmann into the fantasy/adventure genre. Herrmann originally declined to score the film, and was not the first choice of special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhousen, who preferred Max Steiner or Miklos Rozsa for the job. After six months of negotiation, Herrmann agreed to do the film.  The score is a treasure of orchestral color, from which Herrmann enriches the mystical elements of the film’s exotic creatures. Large and evil characters are given a low/heavy treatment, while “good” characters receive much more balanced scoring. Because of a Hollywood musician’s strike in 1958, the soundtrack had to be recorded in Germany with a conductor other than Herrmann.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) - Cyclops

North by Northwest (1959)

This landmark score was composed and orchestrated by Herrmann in 51 days. The film shows Hitchcock at his best, and exerted a strong influence on the James Bond genre that was to follow. The film opens with a musical “fandango”- a South American dance which alternates between 3/4 and 6/8 time. The fandango theme becomes the foundation of the score and returns throughout the film. 

In the “cropduster” scene, Hitchcock wanted to build tension by having no music throughout most of the scene. Music enters only after the plane crashes into a truck, serving as a release of built up tension.

North by Northwest (1959) - Cropduster Scene

Psycho (1960)

This most famous scene for both Hitchcock and Herrmann alike, almost fell prey to Hitchcock’s desire to experiment with no music. Herrmann, on the other hand, ignored HItchcock’s directive, and scored music for the scene. After hearing what Herrmann had composed for the scene, Hitchcock grudgingly agreed to use the music.

The score for Psycho is unique for Herrmann, employing small motivic clusters within a pastel orchestral palate. The use of strings and percussion without brass or woodwind instruments parallels the decision by Hitchcock to make the film without color.

Psycho (1960) - Shower Scene

The Torn Curtain (1966)

The Torn Curtain marked the end of the long, fruitful relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Bowing to pressure from the film studio to use a pop-music soundtrack, Hitchcock rejected Herrmann’s muscular scoring approach to the cold war drama, and humiliated Herrmann by halting the film score recording session after only 3 cues had been recorded. Hitchcock and Herrmann, both in the twilight of their Hollywood careers, never worked together again. Herrmann soon left for England, where he worked until returning to Hollywood for a brief flurry of films shortly before his death in 1976.

The film’s pivotal scene, the gruesome murder of a police investigator named Gromek, provides an interesting opportunity to study a scene with three different musical treatments. The first example shows the scene from the theatrical release of the film, in which Hitchcock decided to not use music. Herrmann, in his usual fashion, scored the scene anyway, so we can now view the scene as it would have existed with Herrmann’s music timed to the cut. A third example is the scene scored by John Addison, the composer hired to replace Herrmann on the film.  Addison’s music for the scene was recorded, but not used.

The Torn Curtain (1966) - Killing of Gromek (Herrmann and John Addison scores)