From the Archive: Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins: A Look at Bernard Herrmann


His career bridged Welles and Scorsese, taking in Hitchcock, Truffaut, and DePalma along the way. Lir Mac Cárthaigh explores the life and work Bernard Herrmann, one of the greatest film composers of all time.

Collaboration often produces the greatest works of art. Sometimes the interaction between creative minds results in a work which neither would have been capable of alone. Unfortunately it is often easier to ascribe great works of collaboration to a single author; we bury Fletcher beneath Shakespeare, Macquet beneath Dumas, Lish beneath Carver. Today, when we listen to a minister’s speech or see the latest collection from a fashion designer we don’t think of the shuttered backroom where a faceless team do the work, we think only of the person who gives their official seal to it. While film is perhaps the most collaborative artform, the glory tends to accrue on the director. A mighty name like Welles, Hitchcock or Scorsese brands a film, defines it the work of an auteur, the men and women who labour in what David Thomson thoughtfully brands “the ‘subsidiary’ arts” tend to be forgotten; the writers, composers, designers and all of the other artists whose contributions can make or marr the finished work. One of the above-mentioned directors, Alfred Hitchcock, thoroughly disliked sharing credit, yet on one occasion he stated that his direction accounted for only two-thirds of a film’s impact, that for the final third he relied on the music of Bernard Herrmann.

Herrmann’s career in movies began during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ and continued into the rise of the Vietnam generation of filmmakers. His first film score was written for Welles’s Citizen Kane, his last for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Herrmann was a child prodigy, he won a composition prize at 13, and founded and conducted a chamber orchestra at 20. According to his daughter Dorothy, writing music came easily to Herrmann; he would start early in the day, and would often have his work finished by nine in the morning. When still in his twenties Herrmann was hired as staff conductor for CBS Radio, where he also presented Exploring Music, a programme devoted to airing unheard and underappreciated work. At CBS Hermann made the acquaintance of the airwaves’ best-known boy-wonder, Orson Welles. In his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich (later published as This Is Orson Welles) the director remembered a 1935 radio production of Hamlet which demonstrated the composer’s uneven temperament. Herrmann quarrelled with director Irving Reis seconds before the play was due to go on air, he broke his conductor’s baton and threw his script away. Welles managed to get Herrmann to go on with the show, but had no time to re-order his notes. The result was the music was one cue out through the entire performance: “We had fanfares when it was supposed to be quiet, approaching menace when it was supposed to be a gay party, and all live; it was riotous.” Welles, who liked to work with others of his generation, felt an affinity with the young composer, and Herrmann shortly became “an intimate member of the family.”

Herrmann was contracted to write the music for Welles’s first motion picture, but the project kept changing; Heart of Darkness became Smiler with a Knife, which finally gave way to Citizen Kane. The delay to production gave Herrmann time to compose his first symphony, featuring the heavy horns, prominent percussion and plucked strings which would become familiar features of his work. Herrmann’s concert pieces already included the impressive cantata ‘Moby Dick,’ whose sinister Salvation Armyish hymn presents a dark evocation of Melville’s novel. According to Welles, he and Herrmann worked “almost note for note” on the Kane score, as they had done for many years on radio. The film provided a real showcase for the talents of the young composer, as it allowed him to write in many different styles, from the Souza-esque ‘March of Time’ newsreel parody in the ‘News on the March’ sequence to the burlesque song ‘Oh, Mr. Kane,’ which Welles claims was based on a march he heard in Mexico. The highpoint of Herrmann’s score is the aria he wrote for Sallambô, the opera starring Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander. Welles told Herrmann in a telegram “here is a chance for you to do something witty and amusing,” Herrmann did so, writing the area in too high a key to show that the singer is out of her depth. The non-linear structure of Kane allowed Herrmann to flit between themes of levity and gravity; he evokes the sour dustiness of the empty Xanadu mansion with dark, doomy woodwinds, while Kane’s ebullient youth at the Examiner newspaper is recalled with giddy strings and xylophone. Herrmann was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Kane, but lost – to himself – for his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster (Aka All That Money Can Buy). The Daniel Webster score saw Herrmann return to the briny depths of his ‘Moby Dick’ cantata, using a hornpipe-flavoured melody which contrasts bright and carefree passages with moments of doom.

Herrmann continued to work with Welles on the director’s ill-starred second feature The Magnificent Ambersons. Ambersons was to be even more astonishing than Citizen Kane, but was mutilated by executives at RKO. Part of the film’s splendour was the lavish score, based around Emil Waldteufel’s waltz ‘Toujours ou jamais.’ Thirty-one minutes of Herrmann’s music was removed by the studio after they re-shot the ending; new music by RKO composer Roy Webb was substituted. When Herrmann viewed the studio’s cut of the film he insisted that his name be removed from the credits.

The mid-1940s have been referred to as Herrmann’s ‘romantic period.’ Scores from this time include landmark music for Jane Eyre, Hangover Square and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The plot of Hangover Square involves a composer who suffers from bouts of murderous amnesia, and afforded Herrmann the opportunity to write the chilling, manic and intense piano concerto Macabre, performed by the deranged man in a burning auditorium. Herrmann’s all-time favourite score was for Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; he told his brother Louis that the music for the film expressed his feelings better than anything he’d done before. In the film a widow falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain; Herrmann’s biographer Stephen C. Smith believes that the composer felt an affinity with the strong but lonely Mrs. Muir. Doomy woodwinds ascend, becoming strings; bright passages of piano and glockenspiel conclude in maritime bells and a harp. The dark/bright contrast used so often by Herrmann occurs as the low woodwinds and gong push their way into slow harp-led strings. An urgent, startling passage of strings foreshadow Herrmann’s work on Psycho, but are modulated here by horns, finally giving way to a thematic four-note figure played on a flute. Around this time Herrmann was working on his only opera, Wuthering Heights, with a libretto by his wife Lucille, based on Emily Brontë’s novel. The opera shares some of Mrs. Muir’s melody and, according to his daughter Dorothy, Herrmann loved to play it, considering it his masterpiece. The composer refused to make any changes to the opera, and consequently Wuthering Heights was not performed until some years after his death.

Perhaps Herrmann’s greatest claim to fame results from his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann worked with Hitchcock over an eleven-year period, scoring some of the English director’s most famous films, among them The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Know Too Much and Marnie. Three of these, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho featured credit sequences which married visuals by designer and animator Saul Bass with Herrmann’s music. These opening sequences are much more than a simple list of credits, instead they provide what film critic Leonard Maltin describes as an ‘overture’; a self-contained prelude to the film which gives the audience an idea of what to expect. The spiral device of Bass’s Vertigo credits is complimented by the central six-note figure that Herrmann has devised for the film. The composer passes the spiralling figure back and forth between the strings and a harp, producing a disconcerting sensation augmented by terrifying horn notes which cut across it when the titles appear on the screen. As well as displaying his talent for writing unsettling stings, Vertigo also allowed Herrmann to exercise his romantic side; his daughter Dorothy believes that her father felt an affinity with the film’s theme of romantic obsession. Scottie, the smitten hero, doesn’t speak to his inamorata Madeleine for the first half hour of the film, his feelings for her are expressed only through the music. Allowing the composer to establish the most important relationship of the film, rather than stating it directly through dialogue or voice-over, shows the trust which Hitchcock had in Herrmann at this time.

Herrmann’s most famous film score, and a good contender for most famous film score of all time, was written for Hitchcock’s Psycho. According to his daughter, the composer himself was less than enthusiastic about the film while working on it, regarding it as “a cheaply-made exploitation film.” When the film proved successful Herrmann changed his mind, and would often cite it as a favourite score. The film had a stringent budget, Hitchcock insisted on making it for under $1m; it was to be shot in black-and-white using the crew from his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Herrmann composed the score entirely for strings, claiming that a black-and-white picture called for an equally black-and-white sound. While Herrmann wrote various fills for Psycho, they are quite minimal; the chief musical ingredient is the well-known theme which runs through the film, played on different combinations of instruments to suit the various moods. The ‘master of suspense’ became one of the first victims of the shocking music for his film; Hitch thought that a contemporary jazz score would suit the Psycho, and was keen that the composer use no music during the murder scenes. When Herrmann screened the film for him he showed him two versions, one with no music during the murders, and a second with the ‘shrieking strings’ which have become synonymous with the film. Herrmann tells how when Hitch saw the scored version he exclaimed: “‘We must have the music, of course!’ And I said, ‘But you were against it.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no. All I made was a poor suggestion.’” Herrmann went on to compose one of the oddest ever movie ‘scores’ for Hitchcock’s The Birds, an electronic collage replicating bird noises played on an electronic keyboard.

Herrmann and Hitchcock’s partnership came to an end when they quarrelled over the music for Torn Curtain. The director was working with two young stars, and was under pressure from Universal to deliver a film with a ‘happening’ score. Herrmann suggested that he was not the best person to compose the music they wanted, but the studio insisted. The musicians who recorded the score were so impressed that they applauded it; Hitchcock was not so happy. After hearing Herrmann’s work in progress he insisted that recording be stopped, even though the score had already been paid for. The music was finally composed by Briton John Addison, but Herrmann’s surviving prelude, a swooping, western-style theme foreshadowing some of John Williams’s best-known work, gives an idea of how the score could have been. Whether by coincidence or not, Herrmann’s parting from Hitchcock marked what is generally considered the end of the director’s great period.

Through his friendship with Alfred Newman, the musical director of 20th Century Fox, Herrmann came to compose a number of fantasy and science fiction scores. Descending chords and a moody organ give his music for Journey to the Centre of the Earth a suitable chthonic feel, while the eerie theremins from The Day the Earth Stood Still are used melodically, rather than to produce an ‘effect.’ According to his friends Herrmann was always challenged by writing ‘monster music.’ In order to get the desired accompaniment to a giant octopus attack in Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, Herrmann used an orchestra featuring nine harps. Fellow composer Sir Malcom Arnold remembers asking him if the sound of nine harps was much different from that of two; Herrmann replied: “No, but I do it anyway.” The composer’s talent for scoring unusual situations was tapped by fantasy filmmaker and stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen, with whom he worked on four films. One of the most famous moments from Harryhausen’s films was greatly enhanced by Herrmann’s music; the duel between Sinbad and the skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Rather than settle for standard ‘dramatic music’ Herrmann used castanets and xylophones to weave a complex percussive rhythm and evoke the rattling bones of Sinbad’s skeletal opponent.

Herrmann once told Hitchcock that if he had another life to live he would like to be the landlord of an English country pub; the composer’s affection for England led him to relocate there from Hollywood in the late 1960s. He had grown disillusioned with the film business; he saw the kind of symphonic film music that he composed give way to popular music and a commercially viable soundtrack. Despite commercial pressure, creative filmmakers will always have a use for creative musicians; Francois Truffaut, familiar with Herrmann from his work with Hitchcock, had him score Farenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black. When Herrmann asked Truffaut why he had chosen an old-timer like him rather than a young French composer Truffaut replied “they will give me the music of the 20th Century, but you can give me the music of the 21st century.”

It was not long before a new generation of American filmmakers emerged and, like Truffaut, sought out the man who had written the scores for the films they loved. When Brian DePalma was trying to attract investors for his film Sisters he assembled a sample murder sequence cut to Herrmann’s music for Psycho. It seemed logical that when the film was financed he seek out Herrmann himself to score it. DePalma’s editor Paul Hirsch describes a dishevelled Herrmann arriving in a rumpled overcoat flaked with dandruff, and with a mad gleam in his eye. His score for Sisters does not look back at Hitchcock as much as DePalma’s films do, but is flavoured by his more recent science fiction work. The romantic score for DePalma’s next film Obsession is far more reminiscent of Herrmann’s earlier work, but not without innovation, using a choir to help lift the score from its darker recesses of organ and orchestra. Paul Hirsch remembers Herrmann crying for ten minutes after a studio screening of Obsession; he tried to comfort the composer, telling him how beautiful his score was. Herrmann agreed, but told the editor “I don’t remember writing it.”

Although Herrmann’s health was beginning to fail, his spirit was never stronger. He had befriended maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen, and scored his movie It’s Alive. Composer and friend David Raskin remembers Herrmann telling him “The new guys, they want me!” Herrmann’s final score was written for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and while it uses more contemporary instrumentation, it is a score in the grand tradition of Herrmann. The soundtrack is Herrmann’s swan-song, a sinister, brooding and menacing piece of work. The main theme switches back and forth between two separate pieces; a sombre horn theme with building snare drum, and a saxophone piece reminiscent of ‘Harlem Nocturne.’ The dual nature of Travis Bickle’s theme music reflects the fractured nature of his personality and the danger which squats behind the insomnia-creased surface. Readings from Travis’s journal are accompanied by plucked double bass and horns, the sound of the city’s polluted lungs wheezing in and out. Continuing the organic feel, Herrmann provides a heartbeat drum sound when Betsy, the object of Travis’s fixation first appears by his cab. Friends of Herrmann’s suspected that knew he had little time left; he worked hard to finish the score, pushing to get it completed. According to David Raskin, all of the orchestra sessions for the film were finished, only one cue for a small jazz group remained, which was scheduled for a later date. Hermann decided at the last minute that he wanted to record it before leaving the studio. It was the 23rd of December 1975, the next day he was dead.

Herrmann was known as a somewhat difficult person, Ephraim Katz characterised him as “a pedantic autocrat and uncompromising perfectionist”, Scorsese called him “a marvellous, but crotchety old man” and Ray Harryhausen believed that his brash, cantankerous exterior hid a wonderful person. Editor Paul Hirsch remembers having dinner with a cranky Herrmann after the composer had seen a rough cut of Taxi Driver. Herrmann complained that the soup was too cold, and dismissed a fan seeking his autograph. In one of the changes of mood which seem to have been normal with Herrmann, he later gave the autograph hunter a signed copy of the first two measures of the Psycho score.

Dorothy Herrmann remembers her father bringing her to see his films at the local cinema; if the sound was too low, Herrmann would complain. At a showing of Five Fingers, the projectionist responded to the composer’s grumbling by cranking the volume up to ear-straining heights, causing the other patrons to storm out demanding a refund. Herrmann’s irascible tenacity was combined with an enormous talent, he knew when the music was right even when the director didn’t. Hitchcock complained that when you worked with composers you put yourself in their hands, that once the music has been composed it can’t be changed; sometimes this can be for the best. The trouble with an auteur like Hitchcock is his unwillingness to cede control, to trust another artist to produce something which is both meritorious in itself as well as complimentary to the movie. Herrmann’s scores are among the few that can stand on their own, detached from the scaffolding of the film they were composed for. The piano concerto Macabre from Hangover Square has been performed at concerts, and the Salammbô aria from Citizen Kane has been recorded (in the proper key) by Kiri Ti Kanawa. In February 2001 the Eos Orchestra staged a concert in New York called Bernard Herrmann: More Than the Movies, consisting of selections from Herrmann’s film scores (accompanied by projections of the relevent scenes), as well as excerpts from his favourite work the opera Wuthering Heights. Herrmann’s legacy continues a quarter century after his death, his influence can be heard in the work of many contemporary film composers; Danny Elfman’s scores for Batman and Sleepy Hollow recall Herrmann at his darkest. Herrmann’s posthumous filmography is vast, his music has been used in sequels and remakes, such as Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. The number of films which borrow from Herrmann are a lasting testimony to his influence. Unlike fellow composers Lalo Schiffrin and Henry Mancini you are unlikely to hear a Herrmann theme as a mobile phone ringtone, but his music is still reaching audiences where it was meant to be heard – in the cinema.

The Bernard Herrmann Society provides an indispensible online resource; most of the material referred to in this article is archived in its entirity at

Quotations from Orson Welles are taken from This Is Orson Welles, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and published by Harper Collins.


This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 91, 2003


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *