Bernard Herrmann is widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time. But thanks to the score he wrote for the science fiction movie “The Day the earth Stood Still”, which involved the use of theremins played by Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure, he has also achieved a position in the Theremin Pantheon.
Bernard Herrmann (June 29, 1911 – December 24, 1975) was a composer, best known for his film scores, particularly for Alfred Hitchcock-directed films. He also wrote the scores for Citizen Kane, Cape Fear and Taxi Driver as well as for the original radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time.
Herrmann was born in New York City. His father encouraged musical activity, taking him to the opera, and encouraging him to learn the violin. After winning a small composition prize at the age of thirteen, he decided to concentrate on music, and went to New York University where he studied with Percy Grainger. After early work as a conductor, he went to work as a composer for CBS.
There he met Orson Welles, and wrote scores for his Mercury Theater broadcasts as well as for the famous adaptation of H. G. Wells War of the Worlds. When Welles moved to movies, Herrmann went with him, writing the scores for Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), although the score for the latter, like the film itself, was heavily edited by the studio.
Herrmann also continued to work as a conductor at CBS, and in 1940 became principal conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra. While there he was a champion of Charles Ives‘ music, which was generally ignored at that time.
Hermann is most closely associated with the director Alfred Hitchcock. He wrote the scores for every Hitchcock film from The Trouble with Harry (1956) though to Marnie (1964), a stretch which included Vertigo and North by Northwest. He oversaw the sound design in The Birds (1963), although there was no actual music in the film as such, just electronically created bird sounds.
Actually, the involvement of Herrmann with electronic musical instruments dates back to 1948, when he wrote “Jennie’s Theme” for the David O. Selznick production A Portrait of Jennie, whose score (based on themes by Debussy) utilized the theremin, which he used again for one of his most interesting scores, the one for The Day the Earth Stood Still. Robert B. Sexton has noted that this score involved the use of treble and bass theremins (played by Samuel Hoffman and Paul Shure) electronic violin and bass and guitar along with several pianos and harps, brass and percussion, and that Herrmann treated the theremins as a truly orchestral section.
The music for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was only partly by Herrmann, and the two most crucial pieces of music in the film – the song, “Que Sera Sera”, and the cantata played in the Royal Albert Hall (which is by Arthur Benjamin) – are not actually by Herrmann at all (although he did re-orchestrate the cantata). However, this film did give Herrmann an acting role: he is the orchestra conductor in the Albert Hall scene.
Herrmann’s most famous music is probably from another Hitchcock film, Psycho. The screeching violin music heard during the shower scene (a scene which Hitchcock originally suggested have no music at all) is probably one of the most famous moments from all film scores.
His score for Vertigo is just as masterful. In many of the key scenes Hitchcock essentially gave the film over to Herrmann, whose melodies, echoing Richard Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, dramatically conveys Scotty’s obsessive love for the woman he imagines to be Madeleine.
Herrmann’s relationship with Hitchcock came to an end when the latter rejected a score for Torn Curtain. Herrmann subsequently moved to England, and was hired by Francois Truffaut to write the score for his Fahrenheit 451.
From the 1950’s into the 1970’s, Herrmann applied his unique musical genius to a series of fantasy films including Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason & the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and It’s Alive!
Herrmann’s last film score was for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He died in his sleep one day after the final recording sessions in 1975 (the movie is dedicated to his memory) in Los Angeles, California.
As well as his many film scores, Herrmann wrote concert pieces, including a symphony (1941); an opera, Wuthering Heights; and a cantata, Moby Dick (1938).
Herrmann’s music is typified by frequent use of ostinati (short repeating patterns), novel orchestration and, in his film scores, an ability to portray character traits not altogether obvious from other elements of the film. He won an Oscar for All That Money Can Buy (1941), his second film score. In 1992 a documentary, Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, was made about him.
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
- Portrait of Jennie (1948) (uncredited)
- The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
- The Trouble With Harry (1955)
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
- The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
- Vertigo (1958)
- North by Northwest (1959)
- Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
- Psycho (1960)
- The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
- Mysterious Island (1961)
- Cape Fear (1962)
- The Birds (1963)
- Jason & the Argonauts (1963)
- Marnie (1964)
- Torn Curtain (1966)
- Farenheit 451 (1966)
- It’s Alive! (1974)
- Obsession (1976)
- Taxi Driver (1976)