He captured love, loss, and all the things that go bump in the night. But who is the man behind the music of America’s favorite classic films?
Bernard Herrmann was born in New York City in 1911 to immigrant parents. He began playing the violin and later studied composition at Juilliard with colleagues such as Aaron Copland. He began conducting for CBS Symphony and the London Symphony and composing, and much of his work was featured on the radio and in major concert halls. Herrmann was particularly well known for his unusual programming and strange orchestration in his film and radio scores as he had a penchant for new compositional technique.
Bernard Herrmann is best known for his film scores, especially in his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Most of his cues fall into the categories of love and suspense cues, highlighted in his work with Hitchcock. Herrmann’s love cues are beautiful, soaring melodies characterized by subtle, slow harmonic changes building tension to an explosion of passion in the resolution. An example of this tension and release model is found in his cue “Scene d’Amour” of the film Vertigo. This piece is filled with progressions ascending by half step, keeping the viewer enraptured in the turmoil of unrequited love.
This unrequited love is further foreshadowed by unrequited cadence, never entirely giving the listener or the lovers a sense of closure. Herrmann demonstrates the obsessive nature of John “Scottie” Ferguson in his usage of repeated melodic figures. His “Scene d’Amour” is also reminiscent of the famous “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a tale of star-crossed lovers. This allusion captures Scottie’s unrequited love and loss of Madeleine and his eventual (spoiler alert!) loss of Judy to the same fate.
On a more thrilling note, Bernard Herrmann composed brilliant suspense cues, keeping audience members and performers on the edge of their seats for decades. The most famous suspense cue of his is the shower scene from Hitchcock’s well known film Psycho. Originally in pre-production, this scene was not slated to have music but after the film’s premiere, Hitchcock admitted that the much of the suspense of film was enhanced by the music. The shower cue begins in the high-pitched stratosphere of the first violins and progresses through the rest of the members of the string orchestra. As the screechy, dissonant harmony grows, so does the audience’s horror as the screams of the violins are echoed by Marion, meeting her watery demise.
In his life, Bernard Herrmann composed over 50 scores for major films, radio dramas, and concert works. He died in 1976, three hours after completing his final cue for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. To hear excerpts of Vertigo, Psycho, Taxi Driver and more, please join Empire Film Music Ensemble on Monday, January 29, at 8 PM in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music for The Music of Bernard Herrmann.
Claire Caverly is a member of the Empire Film Music Ensemble (EFME). In addition to their Bernard Herrmann program, they will appear on WXXI Classical 91.5's Backstage Pass this week and perform at The Little Theatre Cafe on February 3rd before the screening of the film music documentary SCORE.