Uneasy rider: Bernard Herrmann’s lush discomfort

Words by Pascal Wyse

“Herrmann smuggled ideas that might have been labelled “difficult” in the concert hall right in to the cinema – and in front of large, mainstream audiences.”

A successful (and drunk) film composer at a Christmas drinks do looked at me with horror when I started to list some of the film scores I enjoyed listening to. “Why on earth would you ever listen to any of that stuff?”, he asked. “Just go back to the source, listen to Stravinsky, Ravel, Mahler, whatever … I wouldn’t ever listen to film music.” That was that – until he added, as if it had been too obvious to mention: “Oh, apart from Bernard Herrmann, of course.”

Herrmann would have enjoyed the compliment – and who knows, if he were still alive he might agree about film music today, and hurl abuse at the screen in his famously croaky voice. He might not, though, have enjoyed being labelled a film composer. One of the things that set him apart was a refusal to see music for film as some separate or inferior category. He ignored the border checkpoints between film scores and the “art” music that he, or composers he championed such as Charles Ives, wrote. Herrmann smuggled ideas that might have been labelled “difficult” in the concert hall right in to the cinema – and in front of large, mainstream audiences.

The easiest advice to give can be the hardest to follow. Lurking in the back of the mind of anyone making music will be a mental note to do their own thing and not follow the pack, but it takes strength to not be influenced by the greats, especially in an industry that, whatever sense of experiment it likes to pay lip service to, is often magnetically attracted to the tried and tested. Herrmann, whose emotions ran, like his music, on a romantic cocktail of agony and ecstasy, had an honest need for acceptance, but he would never let that stop him going his own way, however lonely that path was.

That makes it healthily difficult to categorise Herrmann. Bill Wrobel’s piece, The Nature of Bernard Herrmann’s Music, is a great stab at getting to grips with Benny’s scores, but the writer ends up tongue-tied when he tries to sum things up. “So, considering all this,” he says, after unpacking the composer’s toolkit, “perhaps we can micro-classify Herrmann as a Neo-Romantic Eclectic Modernist.” Catchy!

“Hitch’ only finishes a picture 60 per cent, I have to finish it for him.”

There are lots of Herrmann techniques to unpick – “prismatic” writing, cell music, pyramid formations, unusual orchestration – and he could read and analyse scores right off the page as fluently as reading a newspaper, but none of that mattered to him unless the music, as he once said of Elgar’s writing, was an “affirmation of the miracle of life.” There had to be a beating heart. “In using modern techniques,” he said, “I have tried at all times to subjugate them to a larger idea or a grander human feeling.”

Not just any old feeling though. After all, when Herrmann started in film with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, there was plenty of feeling going around – if you liked the gushy stuff. “I think Kane was quite unusual,” says Spitfire’s Paul Thomson. “It went totally against the very florid, melodramatic taste of the time – Korngold and Rozsa – both European prodigies who had made their way to Hollywood, for example. His career as the conductor of the CBS symphony and his dedication to uncovering unusual and rarely heard music was in some ways the perfect melting pot to form a unique scoring style.”

Those feelings Herrmann was reaching for weren’t about the outward emotions on the screen, the stuff you were already being shown, but the twisted nerve below the surface. After all, to the eye, there’s not much to be worried about in the opening of Pyscho – just a woman driving along in her car. The score, though, makes your jaw clench. “Hitch’ only finishes a picture 60 per cent,” Herrmann once said of Alfred Hitchcock. “I have to finish it for him.”

The shower scene from that movie, of course, has the un-hummable trademarks of dissonant and difficult music, with violins hacking away as if wielding the knife. Herrmann once said “I don’t like this tune business”, and this could be called as supporting evidence of his preference for portable cells of music over wandering melody. But that dissonance doesn’t feel contrived out of cold intellectual curiosity – it is full of distressed humanity.

Herrmann’s music gets under the surface, but ironically it doesn’t disguise or bury its own methods. “His work often features an exoskeleton. The musical bones are often on the outside,” says composer Tom Haines. “Themes are made from the things (like arpeggios) that lesser composers hide inside their music, to fill holes and pad out otherwise uninteresting compositions. He is able to build sequences from very simple material. Then, through a slight turn of the musical ‘prism’ re-contextualise and reinvent the simple themes, often without the listener realising that anything has changed. He also has a rare skill in the art of surprise, and never let’s you get comfortable as a listener. The next note in a Herrmann composition is rarely the one you are expecting.”

I think what sweetens the bitter pill of all this uneasiness is the orchestration. Difficult ideas soothed by the velvet lower registers of clarinets and bass flutes, or sweetly curdled by the tinkling of a nursery-friendly celeste. This was another area where Herrmannn did his own thing. In fact, don’t get him started on orchestrators: “Colour is very important. And this whole rubbish of orchestration is so wrong. You know, they make everything shit. I always tell them, ‘Listen, boys. Don’t give me this shit’.”

If you’re looking for that lush discomfort, follow Jimmy Stewart along the rooftops of Vertigo and look down towards the sidewalk, while Herrmann’s strings and harps, flutes, triangle and vibraphone play snakes and ladders around your head. If vertigo is finding yourself irresistibly seduced towards the edge of danger, Bernard Herrmann is just the composer to have by your side.