Sunday, September 4, 2011

Belated happy 100th, Bernard Herrmann!

The centennial of Bernard Herrmann's birth took place last June, and as you can plainly see, I haven't exactly been keeping up with this blog so it's not surprising that it's taken me this long to post something in tribute. Herrmann is one of my favorite American composers...not just favorite "film composer" but one of my favorite composers period. There's no question that his work raised the art of film scoring to a new standard, at least for awhile. I'm not so sure about the period we are in now...there certainly are some great craftsmen working in the genre, but I'm not sure how many are as willing to push their comfort zone to create something truly original that ultimately becomes inextricably linked with the film itself in one's memory. Then again, how many composers are given that latitude in scoring a film today? Even Herrmann, as is well known, eventually ran up against that barrier, and even with Alfred Hitchcock himself despite a long string of successes.

Today most people who know Herrmann's work know it through those scores for various Hitchcock films, most notably "Vertigo" and "Psycho," and that's understandable given that those are not just some of Herrmann's greatest scores, but also two of the most accomplished and visionary films for which he wrote music. For this Happy 100th post, however, I'd like to pay tribute to some of my favorite Herrmann scores for non-Hitchcock films (or in one case, TV), to encourage everyone to seek out more of his work.

Number one among these "other" Herrmann scores would be the achingly romantic score for "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" in 1947:

A close second would be for the score to Francois Truffaut's film realization of "Fahrenheit 451," especially the Prelude and that otherworldly glockenspiel part:

Herrmann did an enormous amount of work for television, especially the CBS network, in the 1950's and 60's. Part of that included incidental music for a number of "Twilight Zone" episodes. Everybody knows the famous "ticking clock" Twilight Zone theme which was written by Marius Constant, not Herrmann...but to me the original Twilight Zone theme music which Herrmann did compose and which was used only in TZ's first season is far creepier, far more chilling. See what you think:

Let this be a jumping-off point for you to explore more of the vast body of work by this very significant American composer...including the concert works he composed. And, since I just love the guy's music so much, I'll relent and include one Hitchcock-film excerpt here, one of my very favorites if perhaps not quite as famous as Vertigo or Psycho...the Prelude from "The Man Who Knew Too Much":


  1. How does one compose a film score? Do you just touch on the major moods of a film, or do you actually write music for specific scenes, timed to fit?

  2. Well, we need a real film composer to answer that question, and it has definitely changed from what it was in Herrmann's heyday. My understanding is that in most cases, while there may be some early collaborating or consulting between director and composer, the composer really gets to work upon seeing at least a rough cut of the film. I think the real answer to your question is "both," that is, most film composers come up with a couple of main "themes" or moods, but then write specific variants of those to be fitted to various scenes. The technical way to synchronize onscreen action with the music varies, and there's a lot of fancy software etc. out there that can tweak the timing these days, things which definitely were not available the "old days."