Bernard Herrmann at 100: Music of the Fears

On his centenary, a tribute to the Master of Musical Suspense, who gave viewers shivers with his superb scores for Citizen Kane, Psycho and Taxi Driver.

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He had a grudge against the world and his place in it; his friend David Raksin called him “a virtuoso of unspecified anger.” His longest and strongest professional relationship, with Alfred Hitchcock, ended in one man’s rancor and the other’s humiliation. He also broke the composer’s cardinal rule in Hollywood’s Golden Age: that a background score, no less than the stars on the screen, should convey majestic romance, preferably with a signature tune that would insinuate itself into the audience’s memory and sell millions of records. Something, please, like Max Steiner’s theme for Gone With the Wind, whose first eight notes—dah DAH da-dah, dad DAH da-dah—were for decades as familiar as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Bernard Herrmann’s greatest hit? “Eek! Eek! Eek! Eek!”: the violins in the Psycho shower scene, knife-slashing with a madwoman’s fury into Janet Leigh’s flesh. Like everything else he wrote for movies, that piece didn’t become a chart-topping single—it didn’t, strictly speaking, have a tune—but, more than a half-century later, it lodges as a spike in even the casual moviegoer’s cardiogram. Herrmann’s movie music was tension made audible, and a crucial factor in the psychological profiles of some of the cinema’s most warped, enigmatic and powerful creatures: Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Norman Bates in Psycho, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

(MORE: See Citizen Kane, Psycho and Taxi Driver in the All-TIME 100 Movies)

That body of work, no less ruthless than it is imposing, earned him a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in 1999 as one of the Legends of American Music. (Steiner got a stamp too.) And now Hermann, who would have turned 100 this year, is being honored with a two-week tribute at Manhattan’s Film Forum, the country’s premier movie rep house. The career-spanning series—from Kane, his first feature, to Taxi Driver, his last—includes such mood monuments as Jane Eyre, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the malevolently menacing 1962 Cape Fear, the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion epics The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts and the all-but-forgotten The Devil and Daniel Webster, which won Herrmann his only Oscar. Film Forum also has Herrmann scores for movie-mad directors who had fallen in love with his work as kids: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and Brian De Palma’s Obsession.

But you needn’t go to Gotham to hear his work. You can and should rent Joshua Waletzky’s 1992 documentary Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, an invaluable guide to the composer’s life and career. Or check out Lady Gaga’s video for “Born This Way”: the first eerie sounds are Herrmann’s theme from the Hitchcock Vertigo. The FX series American Horror Story has plundered snatches of his Vertigo, Psycho and Twisted Nerve scores. Indeed, in any popular entertainment that has people shivering in full view or cowering in the dark, the baton of Bernard Herrmann is likely to be running up their spines.

A New York City boy who won a $100 award for composition at 13, Benny Herrmann studied at NYU and Juilliard. By 20 was running his own outfit, the New Chamber Orchestra, which played the newer, more demanding works, such as those of Charles Ives, not often found in the New York Philharmonic repertoire. He became a staff conductor at the CBS radio network, where he met another prodigy, Orson Welles. Herrmann was musical director for Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air, which stoked a sensation with its version of The War of the Worlds on Mischief Night 1938. But Herrmann’s imprint was palpable from the first moments of the first Mercury broadcast, Dracula, as tolling chimes and a taunting organ create the mood of a church bell heard in a cemetery.

(MORE: Welles and Herrmann on the radio)

Welles, at 23 four years Herrmann’s junior, had already won raves as the theater’s boy genius and fame as the radio voice of The Shadow. He’d often arrive only an hour or two before air time. “At the start of every broadcast,” Herrmann recalled, “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… He inspired us all — the musicians, the actors, the sound-effects men and the engineers. They’d all tell you they never worked on shows like Welles’.”

And there was never a film like Kane, for which Welles imported to Hollywood virtually all the Mercury players, plus producer John Houseman and, of course, Herrmann. The creeping, creepy opening chords, when the camera approaches the gates of the late Kane’s Xanadu mansion, announce the difficulty of resolving the film’s conundrums as surely as the NO TRESPASSING sign. For Kane Herrmann composed snatches from an opera, Salammbo (lyrics by Houseman), and plundered the RKO musical library and many other sources (Rossini, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Rodgers and Hart) for a score no less ambitious and daring than the movie it supported. There’s also a sassy pastiche, “Charlie Kane,” performed in the publisher’s honor by chorus girls. It’s arguably the one catchy tune in a Hermann film, but he didn’t write it.

(MORE: Praising Kane)

Herrmann scored only one other Welles picture, The Magnificent Ambersons, which, like the film itself, was radically cut and changed by the studio when the director lost control. And though Herrmann kept working in films and on radio, where he composed the music for the 1945 victory hymn On a Note of Triumph by Norman Corwin (who died this week at 101), he believed his entire career had suffered the mutilation wreaked on Ambersons.

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