Bernard Herrmann Double Feature *
* or, How Many Double Features Have You Seen Without a Single Violin?
Reprinted with permission from the 2022 Boston SciFi Film Festival program.
Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was one of film music’s first and most important innovators. Of the same tradition as Hollywood’s Golden Age romantic-influenced composers, he became a cross-over figure who developed modern approaches that remain staples of film music today.
With a career that starts in 1941 with Citizen Kane and ends in 1976 with Taxi Driver, he composed for some of Hollywood’s greatest and most critically acclaimed films.
Herrmann cut his teeth in New York at CBS Radio, where he began his historic collaboration with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. Working on radio productions such as The War of the Worlds, he gained a fresh perspective he would bring to Hollywood when he went with Welles and his collection of wunderkind to work on Kane. This included his cellular-style of writing (now ubiquitous in film and video game music), and an understanding that the recording/broadcast/film was the finished work. So there was no need to confine his orchestration to a standard orchestra as if writing for the concert hall. He could write for whatever instruments the story and other factors (including practical ones, like budget) demanded. Both of today’s films provide wonderful examples of these approaches.
The score to director Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Hollywood’s first socially conscious sci-fi film, is written for the eerie, electronic theremin, 4 pianos, 4 harps, 16 brass, marimba, organ and no strings, woodwinds or (non-pitched) percussion, creating a strange, unique soundscape for this story of other-worldly contact. The music’s minimalist writing makes for a clear example of another of Herrmann’s innovations learned from radio – ”cellular” writing. Short ideas of a few bars are repeated, altered and passed among sections of the orchestra. This leads to music that can be interesting without distracting, and is easily modified live on the scoring stage, a skill for which Herrmann was well-known among his colleagues.
Pay attention to the very ending of the film — a wonderful moment because of the clarity with which the music supports the final reveal by joining the two main musical themes (the mysterious “Klaatu” and bittersweet, patriotic “Arlington”), alternating ‘cells’ from each.
During his illustrious career Herrmann wrote majestic scores for some of Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films, including Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, as well as Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black, Cape Fear (both versions), Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Obsession, and his only Academy Winning winner, the now obscure 1941 The Devil and Daniel Webster. He was also a prolific television composer, writing for sci-fi classics The Twilight Zone (including the lesser known original Season 1 theme) and Lost in Space, as well as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun, Will Travel, and Gunsmoke.
Much of this television work took place around the same time as the last of his four collaborations with stop-motion savant Ray Harryhausen. Jason and the Argonauts is an epic tale from mythology that gave Herrmann the chance to bring to bear all of his storytelling skills. He doesn’t disappoint! He created a heroic fantasy score in the tradition of Max Steiner’s King Kong, using intense music to help sell phantasmic special effects and extra-human experiences, and Wagnerian leitmotifs (musical ideas that represent various characters and themes) to tell the story.
This is another uniquely Herrmannian instrumentation—huge brass, woodwind and percussion sections (including 10 timpani), but again no strings! (Contrast today’s soundtracks with Herrmann’s strings-only score to Psycho.) Note all the imaginative textures Herrmann builds with this pallet, expressing emotions heroic to mysterious, warlike to serene, and the use of harp/lyre to reference the gods—spoiler alert!—even when secretly embedded among humankind!
- Lace, Ian. Review of Jason and the Argonauts Intrada (MAF7083), Composed by Bernard Herrmann, Conducted by Bruce Broughton, Performed by The Sinfonia Of London Movie Music UK, 1999, Film Music on the Web.
- Lysy, Craig. Review of Jason and the Argonauts Intrada (MAF7083), Composed by Bernard Herrmann, Conducted by Bruce Broughton, Performed by The Sinfonia Of London Movie Music UK, 1999, Movie Music UK.
- Malpede, William V., et al. Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still score analysis and discussion. Academy of Scoring Arts. 19 Sept. 2021, Online, hosted from Los Angeles, CA.
- Mirowitz, Sheldon. Seminal Composers: Bernard Herrmann, coursework and lectures. Berklee College of Music, Fall, 2008.
- Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. University of California Press, 1991.
All images used in public domain.
Thank you to Gerald Peary for his valuable feedback.