To celebrate Bernard Herrmann’s work, we’ve had an in depth listen to some of his most iconic film scores, plus how some have helped to shape our memory of the films themselves.
(1976) - Martin Scorsese
Words by Paul Thomson
Herrmann’s final score was to a young Scorsese’s intelligent study of disintegration in Taxi Driver. Viewed through the mind of Travis Bickle as he struggles to hold on to his equilibrium, New York is a city in terminal decay. Despite being tortured by the ‘scum’ that he hopes a ‘real rain’ will wash away, Travis immerses himself in the night life of the city, working punishing hours.
Herrmann’s score is a masterpiece to match the cinematography, direction and acting. There are three elements. The steady, subtle jazzy pulse with very gentle swells gradually ramps up the tension over the entire movie, but keeps the night and Travis’ observational personality ticking along. The large swell motif, featuring high brass and gradually quickening percussive hits, leading to a low brass exhalation, gives a foreshadowing of the inevitable, traumatic climax of the movie. It is a musical rendering of building tension and release, quite masterful and unusual. As ever, Herrmann has found a brilliant way to infest and unsettle the viewer’s emotions, a truly original and creative musical gesture that is still immediately understood by the subconscious.
The last of the three elements is the sultry and slightly sleazy sax melody, immediately redolent of the New York of the 1970s, while gathering in the language of Film Noir, psychological thriller, and speaking aloud the loneliness and sadness of Bickle. Long sequences of music and sound effects drive us inside Bickle’s mind and this only makes the film’s denouement more shocking and disturbing. As a final piece of dramatic work, this score is one of the very highest achievements of Herrmann’s career, despite its apparent simplicity. In a way, it perfectly demonstrates his genius, creating from no ‘previous art’, something that in retrospect seems to be the obvious solution to a scoring problem.
(1960) - Alfred Hitchcock
Words by Christian Henson
I think for many people, Psycho is not only their first introduction to Herrmann - it is their first introduction to film music and the searing power it can wield. So for me, my relationship with this score fell over three decades. The first when I was young and witnessing that shower scene for the first time, grappling with how Bernard Herrmann conveyed the sense of horrific pain that was being inflicted, the damage, the tearing flesh, arteries and veins. I think for many people, whilst we remember the film is in black and white, we always remember the blood flowing down the drain as being a deep deathly red.
My second introduction was a Busta Rhymes tune, where the eerie strings had been sampled to fulfil the hunger of the trip hop zeitgeist.
But the final revelation for me came when the CD went on special at my local HMV, and I bought it thinking, “BH is pretty cool”. And low and behold that opening prelude - I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was as if I had found the keystone to my orchestral arch of love that starts with Russian dudes at the beginning of the 20th century, and ends with American dudes at the end of it. This score oozes such European glory, coupled with a cellular construction that has informed many systems composers many decades later.
For me, the greatest horror films never let you relax. In Psycho the partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann provides a simmering bed of fear and anxiety that makes watching this masterpiece the wonderfully stressful ordeal it still is to this day.
(1963) - Don Chaffey
Words by Paul Thomson
This was the first Herrmann score I ever heard as a young child, and it was a significant element in making this film one of my perennial childhood favourites - despite the terrible mono dub you can hear the extraordinary creativity and Herrmann signatures coming through loud and clear.
Not only does he dispense altogether with the Strings, this alone could mark this film out from literally every other fantasy movie ever made! But he expands the Woodwind, Brass and Percussion sections to powerful effect: among the mayhem are cues containing 6 Piccolo/Flute/Oboe, 3 Clarinets, Bass and Contrabass Clarinets, 3 Bassoons, 2 Contrabassoons, 8 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, 4 Tubas, 2 Timpanists, 3 other Percussionists, and 4 Harps. And it only gets more intense from there!
It almost seems like he was experimenting to see how far he could take things - but nothing is ever surplus to requirements, it is not needless extravagance.
The magnificent skeleton scenes, from their inception from the hydra teeth through the battle scene are a masterclass in effective use of minimalism in scoring, cellular techniques that Herrmann used as his signature in many films, but never more precise and tightly defined as they are here. It gives the fight a horrific relentlessness and almost preshadows the Herrmanesque gestures in the first two Terminator films, an inhuman and implacable onslaught that seems too much to be resisted.
A child’s film with a superbly adult score, very unusual for its time, and very intelligent - a fact not missed by its young audience, and a very significant part of the massive popularity of the film.
(1962) - J. Lee Thompson
Words by Paul Thomson
In 1962 the British director J. Lee Thompson filmed The Executioners, a novel by the prolific crime writer John D. MacDonald. He shot the film deliberately in a ‘Hitchcockian’ style, and used Herrmann to write the score. Two years after Psycho’s bird-like shrieks, we have some of Herrmann’s new trademark sounds: cold strings, brass and woodwinds combining in bold and strident gestures. Thirds combine to create complex chord structures, and sighing discords and motifs based on semitone motion and tension and resolution abound. Elmer Bernstein had worked with Martin Scorsese (as producer) on The Grifters, so when Scorsese announced his intention to remake Cape Fear as his second studio picture, Bernstein, a friend and erstwhile pupil of Herrmann’s, persuaded Scorsese to allow him to arrange the music. Scorsese had been keen to use the original score, (along with hiring Saul Bass to create the titles, and using very Hitchcock-like shot framing) so Bernstein extracted Herrmann’s “building blocks” and created a new musical structure with them. The same instrumentation was used including 8 horns powering the main motif. Whereas in the original film, Herrmann uses his music as an engine to drive a rather pedestrian visual along, in the remake Bernstein judiciously uses Herrmann’s elements to build a score that has light and shade, at times sighing along coldly while the director’s camera swirls in a virtuoso performance and occasionally cooling down De Niro’s fiery performance. There is also an occasional fragment from Herrmann’s unused score to the film Torn Curtain. Bernstein also memorably expands the original film’s tense fight music during the showdown on the river, and with its revised orchestration and energetic performance, brings it to life with more energy than in the original, for the set piece of the Bowden family’s drive to the airport to flee Cady. It’s an audacious and extremely bold gesture, that would be surprising and unusual to hear in recent commercial scores.
The two Cape Fear movies provide a fascinating juxtaposition and insight into the scoring style of Herrmann and how flexible and adaptable his work is to a new movie even across a period of some thirty years. To have fitted an original score for one film to another is alone a fair achievement, but what makes Bernstein’s score to Scorsese’s movie so remarkable in places is the way that elements of thematic continuity have been introduced where there were none before. This is the luxury of starting a job with a work of genius to use as a toolkit! And as Bernstein said to Scorsese on the third day of recording: “We’d both be dead by now if we weren’t pleasing Herrmann.”
(1958) - Alfred Hitchcock
Words by Loren Sunderland
Vertigo has become one of the most celebrated masterpieces by Alfred Hitchcock, and Bernard Herrmann’s score perfectly accompanies the film from start to finish.
The film is a thriller of obsession, romance and mystery that continuously moves in circles, pairing perfectly with Herrmann’s soundtrack. The opening music Prelude And Rooftop, that follows the incident with detective “Scottie”, throws the viewer into the deep end with feelings of dread - that signature “sitting on the edge of your seat clenching your fists” scenario that Hitchcock and Herrmann were masters at creating.
The original recording of Vertigo wasn’t the smoothest process for Herrmann. There was a musicians strike in the US so he couldn’t conduct it himself. The majority of the score was recorded in London, and ultimately completed in Vienna.
However, what Herrmann created for this film is a true psychological masterpiece and every cue captivates you from start to finish. Some standout tracks for me are, Scotty Tails Madeleine, The Beach and Scene D’Amour.
From the very start, Herrmann’s almost vertigo-inducing music perfectly compliments the spiralling visuals of Saul Bass’ memorable opening title sequence. Throughout the score, phrases constantly rotate and shift uneasily from major to minor. The romance and mystery of this endlessly complex score is mesmerising making it unquestionably one of my favourite scores.