Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bernard Herrmann at 100

Composer Bernard Herrmann emerged from the Golden Age of cinema and contributed a signature sound to some of history’s most significant films. While his name may not be known to most of today’s filmgoers – he died, after all, a full generation or two ago in 1975 – Bernard Herrmann’s music is undoubtedly some of the best and best known the cinema has ever produced.

Chances are, if you care about film or film music, you know who Bernard Herrmann is and you either know or appreciate his importance. If, on the other hand, you just like movies or certain kinds of movies, then you may not know Herrmann’s name but you will undoubtedly know his mighty influence.

Born in New York City on June 29, 1911, Bernard Herrmann scored only 49 films from his first, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), to his last, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). But those two films alone should register the validity of the composer’s enduring significance.

Even deeming Herrmann’s filmic output to “only 49” features is like saying Beethoven wrote “only nine” symphonies. Herrmann’s output was so spectacular and dazzling from one score to the next – romance to thriller and fantasy to drama (very few comedies, to the composer’s own chagrin, but all in the realm of human irrationality that Herrmann himself experienced so mightily) – and each score so densely textured that it’s hardly considered background music or film music. It’s music of the highest order written for film.

Almost everything Herrmann touched or reflected upon was new and unique, with scarcely a lazy regurgitation of repeated themes, recycled riffs or pop-ified cover to be heard. Herrmann created visual symphonies with all the drama and action of a concert work for the pure benefit of not only aiding but enhancing a purely visual medium. Herrmann’s music greatly contributed to making film an aural medium as well.

Despite his training and musical pedigree (he founded the New Chamber Orchestra of New York when he was only 20), Bernard Herrmann brought something very different to the film medium than many of his peers at the time. While so many other composers working in film at the time were frustrated writers who took on lowly film work to earn a living and, resultantly, imprinted their own ideas on top of the story on the screen, however inappropriate that might have been (or writers who overstated emotion with overly emotional statements), Bernard Herrmann wrote music for film and only sought to enhance the action or the psychology of what was happening on screen.

Herrmann contributed a great body of work to radio and later to television during his long career. The composer’s radio career was launched in 1934 when he was appointed staff conductor of the Columbia Broadcasting System. He contributed music to many radio programs during these years, notably composing scores for many of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air productions, including the historic “War of the Worlds” (1938 – which recycled older music) and the riveting Campbell Playhouse production of “The Hitch-Hiker” (1941 – a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, Herrmann’s wife at the time and librettist for his opera Wuthering Heights and writer of the great Sorry Wrong Number).

Welles took Herrmann to Hollywood in 1940 to score his first film, Citizen Kane, the same year Herrmann was appointed chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, where the conductor helped reversed the fortunes of many little-known works and little-known composers. Herrmann scored Welles’s second film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but the studio cut as much of Herrmann’s score from the final film as they cut much of Welles’s original story.

Between those two movies, Herrmann wrote the score for William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), for which he won his only Oscar. In 1947, Herrmann scored the atmospheric and highly celebrated music for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Herrmann is best known for his work on Alfred Hitchcock films made between 1955 and 1964 and five of Ray Harryhusen’s fantasy films made between 1958 and 1963 – all of which he was perfectly suited to score.

While I haven’t heard or had the opportunity to appreciate everything Bernard Herrmann has ever done, I am especially thankful for the following works, which I continue to enjoy over and over and over again. My point is not to make a completist’s guide to Bernard Herrmann, nor a definitive guide to the composer’s allegedly “greatest hits.”

These are the Bernard Herrmann pieces that I have discovered and those that continue to give me the greatest joy. I’m sure there are others. Feel free to share yours if I haven’t covered them here. I would love to hear more Bernard Herrmann and I hope to help others continue to hear the composer’s fantastic and ageless work.

Citizen Kane: For all the sound and fury of Orson Welles’s first film, undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made, it is amazing how little composer Bernard Herrmann’s contribution (in his first film score) is acknowledged or even considered as part of the film’s success. That is perhaps the point. Nothing about Citizen Kane was ordinary and Bernard Herrrmann knew that going into it. His music is far more suggestive than persuasive (as it might later be). Today, filmmakers are routinely celebrated for constructing fictional documentaries that owe a huge debt to Citizen Kane. This was never intended to be a film, as so many were in 1941, to knock you over the head with overstated drama or emotion. Orson Welles wanted you to believe that Charles Foster Kane was a real man. Phony movie music would never have accomplished this mission. That leaves viewers with scarcely little enough music to recall outside the film except the song Welles’s Kane sings with a chorus line of showgirls at his paper’s party and the horrific aria from the fictitious opera Salammbo. Herrmann’s underscore is so understated as to be practically silent, like the lonely winds whispering through the spacious eaves of a large, empty house like Xanadu. These are the cues that I like best, especially notable during the dramatic opening sequence (“Prelude/Xanadu/Snow Picture”) and the captivating closing (“Rosebud and Finale”). Herrmann later strung a few of the Citizen Kane themes into a medley called “Welles Raises Kane,” mostly fitted out with the more pronounced music Herrmann provided to Welles’s next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The medley contains only a minimal amount of music from Citizen Kane. A 1970 Phase 4 album titled Music From Great Film Classics (and subsequent reissues on various labels over the years) credits this music solely to Citizen Kane, which is unfair. Quite a number of variations of the Citizen Kane music have been made available over the years, but I would suggest the 14 minutes of the score Charles Gerhardt recorded, under Bernard Herrmann’s supervision, in 1974 and reissued several times since. I don’t think Herrmann’s score was intended to be enjoyed away from the film. But the most important pieces from the score are included in Gerhardt’s recording and offer enough of a glimpse into Herrmann’s method to satisfy most listeners (and Kiri Te Kanawa’s handling of the aria here suggests how nicely Herrmann’s impossible piece could have sounded).

Hangover Square: John Brahm’s tremendously atmospheric thriller starred Laird Cregar in a stunning performance (his last) as a talented composer who suffers bouts of murderous amnesia. Throughout the film, Cregar’s character, George Harvey Bone, is developing his concert-hall concerto, called here Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, while a scheming chanteuse provokes him to write melodies for her to sing in her nightclub act. His personality splits even further as he wrestles with being a composer and a tunesmith for his beloved. These anomalies present themselves in the final concerto, a remarkable piece by Bernard Herrmann, combining grandiloquent statements of Lisztian fury with slightly off sweet bites of melodic tunefulness (gleaned from Bone’s songs for the singer). Herrmann’s “Concerto Macabre” is indeed macabre and an achievement of longing and anger as much is revelation of sensitivity and despair. Its unrelenting and nearly unendurable crescendo leads to a (literally) fiery outcome, something for which Herrmann’s superb sense of drama and signature musical vocabulary is absolutely perfect. Herrmann personally selected this concerto for inclusion on a 1974 recording by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Herrmann was also present when the recording, titled Citizen Kane – The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann was made. Pianist Joaquin Achucarro delivers a truly fine performance, but it lacks some of the voltage of the original performance (which has been available, notably on an out-of-print Japanese CD).Gerhardt’s orchestra makes the effort worthwhile though.

The Man Who Knew Too Much: One of Bernard Herrmann’s most notable turns in film is, remarkably as himself, conducting – even more remarkably – another composer’s work. Herrmann can be seen conducting Arthur Benjamin’s (1893-1960) astonishingly Herrmann-esque “Storm Cloud Cantata” in the classic 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much, best known probably for the corny Ray Evans/Jay Livingston song “Que Sera Sera,” a huge hit in its day for the film’s star, Doris Day (not the only time the film’s composer was forced to work around a tune derived for the popular market). The conductor surprisingly declined the opportunity to record a composition of his own for the climatic sequence, favoring the idea of re-orchestrating Australian composer Arthur Benjamin’s concert piece from Hitchcock’s 1934 original – a piece Hitchcock especially commissioned (it derived its title later on). Herrmann felt the piece was ideal to the 12-minute dénouement and favored the idea of conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with a huge choir and a single pair of cymbals at the Royal Albert Hall. Such an inspired filmic climax so heavily dependent on the presentation of music inspired other directors to allow composers such as John Barry (Deadfall, License to Kill) and Lalo Schifrin (Red Dragon) to take turns in front of the camera at the podium doing what they did so often behind the scenes. Herrmann’s fierce seriousness with the baton shows that he knew and understood each and every sound of an orchestra, no matter how large, and how important each sound and silence was to the overall drama. Little wonder how he and Hitchcock were so perfectly paired and, miraculously, how they could accomplish all they did together. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a perfect display of mutual admiration between one of cinema’s few strong director-composer alliances. All this said, Herrmann’s main theme for the film is sumptuous and, remarkably, not nearly as celebrated as it ought to be.

A Hatful of Rain: Movies about drug usage weren’t only disdained and more or less prohibited in the 1950s by social watchdogs that sought (or claimed) to protect American interests, but it was believed that respectable audiences would never want to see such things. Don Murray’s excellent performance in Fred Zinnemann’s terrific film proved otherwise. Contributing to the film’s success was Bernard Herrmann’s mercurial music, which pulses with emotional highs and lows to a thoroughly riveting climax that suggests the physiological and emotional sturm and drang of drugs’ effects long before loud hippie-rock clichés were ever even considered. A 16-minute suite of the film’s original themes is included in the 1999 Varese Sarabande CD Bernard Herrmann at Fox Vol. 1. The Varese Sarabande CD also includes the scores for The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) and Tender is the Night (1962), both of which are worth a listen or two. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, in particular, supports Nunnally Johnson’s popular and topical (for the time) film. But for a talky two and a half hour film that resonates with a generation at least three times removed from today’s current viewership, it offers very little music and certainly not enough of Bernard Herrmann’s signature flair. A notable exception, though, is the absolutely stunning “Maria,” named for Marisa Pavan’s character, a war-time lover of Gregory Peck’s Tom Rath.

Vertigo: As film soundtracks go, perhaps none are finer than Bernard Herrmann’s sublime Vertigo, a haunting reverie on love and a romantic reflection on loss. Anyone who has ever known the intersectional subterfuge of these paralyzing handicaps of emotion will certainly understand, appreciate and celebrate Bernard Herrmann’s supreme musical achievement here. The film, like the music that accompanies it, is a timeless masterpiece of odd, though hardly inhuman, emotion that will resonate long after box-office receipts are counted and critical diatribes are debated. The film is perfect. So is the music. Like so much in Bernard Herrmann’s repertoire, one could scarcely improve in any way on what is presented. This is a magnificent achievement that resounds with the timelessness of any great classic. Only the Orson Welles-directed Citizen Kane, also scored by Bernard Herrmann, could be said to best Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as an American cinematic triumph. But Herrmann’s music here is so much stronger and more persistent than that which he presented in Citizen Kane - mostly to accompany long passages of exposition without any dialogue at all – that the music can be said to contribute significantly to the success of the final piece of art (an argument against the contrived “auteur” theory of filmmaking). Like so many of the best Bernard Herrmann scores, nothing in Vertigo should be isolated apart from the rest of the score. Vertigo is intended, like a symphony or concerto, as an entire performance; not a string of themes where something cute and clever or pulpy or popular can be pulled to “say it all” or say anything that can make a radio audience immediately happy (although the main title theme, “Prelude” was sampled beautifully in a perfectly sci-fi way for Lady Gaga’s recent “Born This Way” and “The Nightmare” can still freak out just about anyone still to this day). Varese Sarabande producer Robert Townson indicated in his notes to the 1996 CD release of the Vertigo soundtrack (the most complete version of the original soundtrack available) that “Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, like the film, continually reveals new aspects of itself on each hearing.” This is absolutely true and appropriate to point out. Vertigo remains impressive, revealing and new some half century after its initial release. Its themes are used to this day in many contemporary film and TV scores, most recently in Tom Ford’s beautiful A Single Man (2009), to reflect on the tragic poetry of love and loss.

North by Northwest: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film is one of cinema’s most enduringly entertaining pleasures. From the beautifully-worded script, the pitch-perfect acting, the glorious cinematography and the elegant production design, to say nothing about Hitchcock’s assured delivery of it all, this is a film that weaves action, adventure, comedy and romance together with unerring precision and clever fortitude. It is, as Hitchcock always said, “pure cinema.” Almost everything about this bravura film is perfect and it continues to entertain over half a century later. Add to this Bernard Herrmann’s sensationally varied score and the film is hard to better in any way. Just like Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann’s music is probably the sine qua non of Alfred Hitchcock’s film and certainly among both masters’ highest achievements. The music is as much of a rollercoaster ride (sans clichés) as the film (clichés turned somehow to coinage), which wrests Madison Avenue man Roger Thornhill out of his comfortable if not meaningless existence and throws him into a Josef K. like morass where he finds himself a suspected spy/double agent/murderer. From Herrmann’s striking all-over-the-map (get it?) main theme, “Overture,” scored brilliantly to Saul Bass’s dazzling titles sequence, to the very last note, this score – like the film itself – excites attention and lures listeners with its dazzlingly differences. Action and chase themes abound (“Overture,” “Cheers,” “The Station,” “The House,” “The Knife,” “The Stone Faces,” “The Cliff”), peppered by those that suggest the mystery of Thornhill’s conundrum (the great “Kidnapped,” “The Return,” “The Airport,” the brilliant “The Cafeteria”) and relieved by the blossoming love themes (“Interlude,” “The Forest,” “Finale,” which of course hints at what triumphs?) that hint at Roger Thornhill’s emerging humanity. Unlike many other Herrmann scores, several cues here are repeated in slightly altered form, including the main titles theme (loveliest with added harp glissandos in “On the Rocks”) and the obligatory love theme that unites Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill with Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall. There’s also more a fair bit more source music here than usual for a Bernard Herrmann score too (“It’s A Most Unusual Day,” “Rosalie,” “In The Still of the Night,” “Fashion Show”) but it works perfectly well in the film as well as on the soundtrack, which was issued in full on CD on the occasion of the film’s 40th anniversary in 1999.

The Twilight Zone: In the 1950s, composer Bernard Herrmann was no stranger to the increasingly popular medium of television. He had scored several TV shows during the ‘50s and wrote a popular and memorable theme for the Richard Boone starrer Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-1963). Herrmann also scored seven episodes of Rod Serling’s influential and still much loved TV show, The Twilight Zone, between 1959 and 1963. His most notable achievement here, though, was for the exceedingly memorably pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?” (1959), where the composer provided over 11 minutes of highly distinctive music that beautifully underscored the panic and dread of total isolation and the pervasive horror of “being watched.” Herrmann’s original 11-minute score is included on the 1985 Varese Sarabande disc The Best of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone along with Marius Constant’s immortal theme, several of the series’ more memorable scores (by Jerry Goldsmith and Nathan Van Cleave) as well as Herrmann’s 12 and half minute score to “Walking Distance,” the show’s fifth episode and Herrmann’s second TZ offering, a beautiful reflection on the haunting visions of Vertigo and a first consideration of the poetic unreality of Marnie.

Pyscho: Without a doubt, Psycho is Bernard Herrmann’s best known score, even if the only piece that is widely known is “The Murder,” which accompanies the film’s notorious and justifiably celebrated shower scene. This one piece of music alone is instantly recognizable to generations of film goers, even those that don’t pay attention to film music, and says as much economically as do such themes from “The Twilight Zone,” “Mission: Impossible” or “Jaws.” But each and every note of this remarkable symphony set to filmic images is magnificent, noteworthy and memorable. Even without one clear melody or tuneful piece, Herrmann’s music more than succeeds in aiding the film’s influence and continued popularity. The psychologically colorful score is as much a high point in composer Bernard Herrmann’s career as the provocative black-and-white film was for director Alfred Hitchcock. From the startling main title sequence (“Prelude”) – which shocks viewers into submission as dramatically as Herrmann’s main title sequence for On Dangerous Ground (1951) – and the hauntingly soothing “The City” (and other such gently foreboding cues heard early on) to the adrenaline rush of “Temptation” and the mysterious strain of “The Search” and other later cues such as the strikingly disturbing “Finale” – this is music that evokes fear and provokes tension better than just about anything that ever came before or since, with the possible exception of the darker cues from Ennio Morricone’s giallo scores. Psycho is nothing less than the ideal symphony of terror and dread and the single most perfect musical statement in the thriller/horror film genre. That’s why it’s been lifted (as in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of the film) or copied countless times for other such productions and the reason such young up-and-comers of the ‘70s like Brian De Palma and Larry Cohen wanted Herrmann’s music to ramp up their own significantly slighter horror-film projects. While Herrmann’s originally recorded score for Psycho has yet to appear on record or disc in an official capacity, the composer recorded a suite of the Psycho themes (“A Narrative For Orchestra”) for a Phase 4 LP that has been reissued under quite a few different titles, including the misleading appellation Psycho: Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers (Decca, 1992). The composer was finally afforded the opportunity to record his score to Psycho on October 2, 1975, for the British Unicorn label, right before leaving London to work on Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Fronting the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Herrmann presents his Psycho music in all its glory. It is a magnificent recording and as close to an original soundtrack as we’re likely to get.

Cape Fear: The breathtaking music Bernard Herrmann composed for the 1962 J. Lee Thompson film of Cape Fear never found its way onto a soundtrack album during Herrmann’s lifetime, which certainly must have convinced the composer that Hollywood didn’t take him seriously. Trouble was the tawdry thriller probably wasn’t the equal of Herrmann’s masterly music. Indeed, following this film Thompson continued to attract top-shelf composers to his increasingly trashy thrillers while Herrmann’s scores at this point start outclassing the films they accompany. When Martin Scorsese was slated to direct a remake of Cape Fear some three decades later, the great film composer Elmer Bernstein wanted the job; not to insert his own Herrmann-influenced score, but to re-score Herrmann’s original work for the new film. Bernstein found in Herrmann, whose final score was for Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, both an inspiration and a friend. But he also strived to ensure that Herrmann’s musical statements stayed with this film and, more importantly, were better suited to Scorsese’s dynamic presentation than Thompson’s original.

As Scorsese’s film was denser, more layered and considerably longer than the original, Bernstein sought to insert some of Herrmann’s music from Herrmann’s previously unused score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966). Bernstein was a champion of Herrmann’s Torn Curtain score, having recorded it in 1977 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for his Film Music Club label in 1977 (the album was reissued with greater distribution in 1978 on the Warner Bros. label and in 2006 on the FSM CD box set Elmer Bernstein’s Filmmusic Collection). Of course, the pairing makes perfect sense. Bernstein’s flawlessly realized score, presented on a still readily available CD, does his mentor proud. He derives a symphony of menace the composer himself would have done and, despite Bernstein’s claim to the contrary, would have been very proud of. A lot of this music, especially the second part of the main theme “Max,” was used in The Simpsons spoof episode “Cape Feare” (1993) as well as later episodes of the popular animated show where the Sideshow Bob character recurs. Highlights from Torn Curtain are many and include the lovely source cue “Valse Lente,” the stirring “The Farmhouse“ and “The Killing” (a scene that is scored without music in the original film). The Torn Curtain score has since been recorded – apparently more fully than under Bernstein’s direction (even though the score was never fully completed) – under the supervision of Joel McNeely.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour Composer Bernard Herrmann scored a whopping 17 episodes of the hour-long The Alfred Hitchcock Hour shows between 1963 and 1965 (his music for the series was tracked in other episodes too). Surprisingly, none of these episodes was directed by Hitchcock himself and, even more remarkably, Herrmann never worked on any of the better-known Alfred Hitchcock Presents shows that aired between 1955 and 1962, many of the best of which were directed by Hitchcock. But the music Herrmann provided to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour really ranks among some of the greatest work the composer ever did in the televisual medium and certainly stands mightily alongside his best film work. The shows themselves are strong enough to warrant Herrmann’s magnificent musical counterpoint. Perhaps it was due to the show’s hour-long length, affording the composer, as Varese Sarabande producer Robert Townson puts it, the opportunity to create “mini-film scores unto themselves.” During Herrmann’s centennial year, Varese Sarabande issued – for the first time ever – eight of the 17 scores Bernard Herrmann composed for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour series. Apparently the music from only 14 of these episodes survives and the excellent 2011 Varese set - the only Herrmann release thus far in this centennial celebration - is said to be the first in a series of what can only be two volumes. The best music here also corresponds to the series’ best shows (from its second and third seasons), including “A Home Away From Home” (starring Ray Milland), the excellent “Behind The Lock Door” (starring James MacArthur and Gloria Swanson), the riveting “Body in the Barn” (starring Lillian Gish) and the terrific “Change of Address” (starring Arthur Kennedy). No worthy collection of Bernard Herrmann’s music should be without this tremendous disc, filled with “action, romance, macabre humor and lots of classic, chilling Herrmann suspense.”

Marnie: Although this 1964 Alfred Hitchcock film has never received the respect or appreciation it deserves, many consider Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film, his last for Hitchcock, to be among his very best. It truly is. From the powerful, attention-grabbing opening, this elegant orchestral music courses through a variety of jagged emotions in a way that tells a compelling story without any need of visual accompaniment at all. I’ve seen this film so many times, I know exactly where every note of this score belongs. Herrmann’s Marnie is a masterpiece of form and content, with such a strong signatory flair as to rank among one of the three or four greatest film scores Herrmann ever did (my vote for the others would be from Hitchcock films too). The music tells of substantial psychological trauma and the subsequent delusional mindset that results with such strength and conviction that Hitchcock could have presented a real half-assed story (as many believe he did) and Herrmann’s music would tell you all you need to know. A 45 of the theme was issued in 1964 and then the score was issued on vinyl in 1975. The Japanese Tsunami label issued a CD of the 48 and a half minute score in 1994 (pictured above). Herrmann recorded a suite of the film’s themes for his 1969 album Music from the Great Movie Thrillers (aka The Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers). Several other conductors have recorded suites from Herrmann’s “Marnie,” including Lalo Schifrin, Paul Bateman, Nic Raine and Esa-Pekka Salonen, but Joel McNeely conducted the full score for a 2000 Varese Sarabande CD. For a less doomed spin on Marnie’s more romantic passages, consider Herrmann’s Joy in the Morning, the composer’s next film assignment and last American studio film, issued on CD in 2002 by Film Score Monthly.

Endless Night: In 1966, Bernard Herrmann left the United States and relocated to London, where he lived until the end of his life. Divorced from his second wife and disenchanted with Hollywood, Herrmann was occasionally sought out by European directors like Francois Truffaut for Fahrenheit 451 (1967) and The Bride Wore Black (1968) until his American rediscovery came in 1972 with Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Unlike the big-budget Hollywood dramas and fantasies of yore and those starry Truffaut efforts, Herrmann was often contracted (at his regular “elder statesman” working rate) to work on low-budget films that often never even played in the United States. For his thriller/horror films of this period, he would introduce an unusual solo instrument into his orchestrations that had significance to the story at hand: a whistler in Twisted Nerve (1968 – a theme later used as is by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 1) and a harmonica in The Night Digger (1971). For 1972’s Endless Night, Herrmann used a Moog synthesizer to underscore the perplexingly haunted nature of the lead character. Although based on a terrific Agatha Christie whodunit – a genre Alfred Hitchcock despised and repudiated throughout his career – the film of Endless Night was directed by former Hitchcock associate Sidney Gilliat (Jamaica Inn, The Lady Vanishes) in a Hitchcockian style that recalls Suspicion and Dial M For Murder, peppered with a bit too much psychology and further seasoned with too much suspicious sexuality. Herrmann’s music here is masterful, despite a regrettable song bizarrely voiced by Shirley Jones - known at the time as Mrs. Partridge on The Partridge Family and whose voice doesn’t come close to suggesting the film’s pictured singer, Hayley Mills - with lyrics from a poem by William Blake (also used in a song by The Doors). The film’s terrible reviews and utter lack of success prevented it from ever opening properly in the United States or attaining a soundtrack release in any form. Still, it is a grand piece of work from Bernard Herrmann that deserves better than it ever got – not unlike the film, which is a jolly good mystery of pleasurably rousing though campy delights. Herrmann’s music helps you take it seriously. But just about everybody could have probably done a little better here. Curiously, while the film offers up former Hitchcock actor George Sanders (who killed himself a few months before the film’s release), the film’s two lead actors, Hywel Bennet and Hayley Mills, had previously appeared together in Twisted Nerve, also scored by Bernard Herrmann.

Sisters: Composer Bernard Herrmann hadn’t scored an American motion picture since 1965’s little-known film Joy in the Morning (a nice score issued on CD recently by FSM) when director Brian De Palma convinced the composer to score his 1973 horror/thriller Sisters, starring Margot Kidder. Indeed, De Palma laid in previously-recorded cues by Herrmann from films like Vertigo and Marnie as “temp tracks” to the movie to indicate what he wanted the score to be like. The director has said that some composers appreciate this musical guidance a director provides while also indicating that composers such as Ennio Morricone are deeply opposed to such suggestion. One guesses that Bernard Herrmann, too, was opposed to De Palma’s use of temp tracks, stating – as IMDb suggests – that while De Palma was showing the film to Herrmann, the composer stopped him with, "Young man, I cannot watch your film while I'm listening to Marnie ." Ironically, Herrmann was probably more influenced by the past accomplishments De Palma reminded him of than he thought as Sisters is much more of a reflection on Herrmann’s achievements than he might have liked to admit. Still, Bernard Herrmann recycling his past glories (and truthfully, few composers aren’t susceptible to such temptation) still makes for a first-rate soundtrack of classic proportions. Without any doubt, Bernard Herrmann’s classy score for Sisters far outranks and outflanks the cheap, nearly sleazy quality of Brian De Palma’s concept thriller, a bit of ‘70s psychological mumbo jumbo mixed with the pure grind-house horror churned out then for the drive-in crowd. “Main Title,” “Phillip’s Murder” (the equivalent of Pyscho’s shower scene), “Siamese Twins” and “Separation Nightmare” mostly recall Cape Fear mixed with the Moog-y overtones of Endless Night. “The Dressing Room” and “The Ferry, The Apartment, Breton” all reflect upon Vertigo with a touch of Marnie thrown in for good measure. And so on and so on. As Bernard Herrmann had undoubtedly developed a truly signature musical vocabulary by this point in his storied career, it was inevitable that his previous work in the thriller genre would influence his work here. But this is not to undermine the validity or originality of this truly great music, filled with as much that is new and interesting (in cues such as “Apartment House: The Windows” “The Couch,” “The Solution, The Clinic, Hypnotic Trance,” “The Syringe” as well as instrumentation, which always allows Herrmann to differentiate ideas for specific films) as that which hints at earlier glories. Sisters is another of Herrmann’s exciting and enticing macabre dances, perfectly complementing the emotion and action on screen and one that stands frighteningly well on its own. The soundtrack, presumably recorded in London in 1973, was issued on an Entr’acte LP in 1975 and has been reissued on CD in Japan in 1996 and by the Australian Southern Cross label in 2001.

Taxi Driver: While Bernard Herrmann’s final film score is among his greatest achievements, it is neither the prototypical Herrmann soundscape nor is it the most obviously Herrmannesque in what it accomplishes. But Bernard Herrmann as much as ever creates the perfect musical equivalent for the story a film is telling. The presence of a steamy saxophone (played by Ronny Lang, for the most part) causes many to consider this a “jazz” score when it really is anything but. The saxophone suggests a jazzy respite from the composer’s orchestral flourishes, which provides a perfect counterpoint to the teeming underbelly of an urban nightmare right out of Dante. But the little jazz that is present here (usually the painful wail of the saxophone) is only suggestive in the way that Jerry Goldsmith’s use of a mournful trumpet suggests a stilted romanticism of a corrupt L.A. in Chinatown. Herrmann’s use of a saxophone here isn’t unlike the use of the predominant solo instruments in his later scores (whistle, harmonica, synthesizer, etc.) to carry a certain thematic mood across his otherwise dominating themes. Like the expressive considerations of jazz, the saxophone here represents a soul crying for release. Even Herrmann’s atypically melodic main theme hints at jazz. But I don’t think jazz was ever on Bernard Herrmann’s mind, either before or during the writing of this score. I liken the sound of the saxophone to a romantic ideal of something that doesn’t really exist. It is the inner world of Travis Bickle – a sad, lonely place that’s even dirtier than the world he feels at home in. Bernard Herrmann died the night he finished this score for Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly conceived film. One senses that the great composer said all he had to say and accomplished all he wanted (my favorites are the most Herrmann-like: “Main Title,” “Phone Call,” “Sport and Iris,” “God’s Lonely Man”). Written by Paul Schrader in a poetic language all his own and starring Robert De Niro in an unforgettable performance (not to mention beautiful turns from Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks and Harvey Keitel), Taxi Driver represents an apogee for all concerned, even though some of its participants went on to other great work. It certainly was one of Bernard Herrmann’s greatest of many great achievements.

A very special thanks here to Jon Burlingame and Paul Conway, for the information, affection and insight that allowed me to write whatever I did here. I can never claim to have their knowledge or understanding of Bernard Herrmann’s music. But I hope my appreciation is evident. Any inaccuracies or offences are my own fault and I apologize to anyone who might be offended by any comment I’ve provided. I especially thank the erudite Christopher Palmer and Royal S. Brown for their glorious writings and incredible scholarship and the expressions of deep and abiding appreciation they have dedicated so lovingly to Bernard Herrmann.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Doug, wonderful tribute to Mr. Herrmann. Thank you! BTW, John Barry conducts on camera in "The Living Daylights" rather than "License To Kill" which was composed by Michael Kamen. I hope more of the younger generation will discover and embrace Herrmann in the future thanks to efforts such as yours.
All my best,
Paul

John Ninnis said...

I loved Herrmann music like Psycho and Cape Fear are both masterpieces. Taxi Driver is great swansong.

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