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Bernard Herrmann and Musical Topography

With the waning of modernism, and of the high value once placed on conspicuous complexity and originality, the topography of twentieth century music is rapidly changing. One of the chief American beneficiaries is certain to be Bernard Herrmann.
Everyone appreciates Herrmann for his singular achievements as a film composer. Without him, there would be no Psycho, North by Northwest, or Vertigo, and Citizen Kane would be a lesser film. But Herrmann also produced a substantial catalogue of concert works in the same style. Though he clung to tonality, he created a palette of mood and sonority that is instantly recognizable and wholly his own. I would unhesitatingly rank his accomplishments above those of, say, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, or William Schuman — all of whom once far eclipsed him in reputation because they did not bear the taint of Hollywood. (Of Herrmann’s scores for Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Vertigo, and Psycho, Alex Ross writes in The Rest is Noise that they “contain some of the century’s most piercingly effective dramatic music.”)
Herrmann’s concert music has figured in the last two installments of Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival — itself a singular enterprise. We have had occasion to offer three West Coast Herrmann premieres: of his “experimental” radio melodrama City of Brass; of his World War II elegy For the Fallen; and of Souvenirs de Voyage, a 30-minute quintet for clarinet and strings. Herrmann’s concert output also includes a symphony, an oratorio, a string quartet, and an opera.
That this music went unheard and unknown was a source of bitterness and frustration for the composer. A notoriously irascible and impatient man, he knew the dimensions of his talent. He once said: “Musically I count myself an individualist. I believe that only music which spring out of genuine personal emotion is alive and important. I hate all cults, fads, and circles.” And also: “My feelings and yearnings of are those of a composer of the nineteenth century. I am completely out of step with the present.” And (in 1948): “I will never do a movie again. . . . I now understand that it was the movies that exhausted me and sapped my strength. I sincerely hope that I will never see Hollywood as long as I live.” His favorite composers — an unfashionable twentieth century list — included Debussy, Ravel, Elgar, Delius, Holst, and Ives. His distinctive compositional style was a direct suffusion of his morbid Romantic self. Among his musical signatures are nervous ostinatos, irresolute motivic scraps, and lurid colors.
The 1967 clarinet quintet we presented at Pacific Symphony’s 2009 festival is a
stubbornly inward work, suffused with nostalgia and melancholy. The memorably disturbing love music from Vertigo is a pertinent frame of reference. Herrmann here eschews sonata form and all other generic molds. He also largely eschews contrast. Ever the film composer, he suggests pictures and narratives. (Steven Smith, in his indispensable Herrmann biography, cites an A.E. Housman poem and one of Turner’s Venetian paintings as key influences.)
The intoxication of this score, and of its clarinet part, are not in question. Its possible weaknesses are two: is there variety enough to sustain a half-hour span? Is there structure enough to establish trajectory and shape? In California, we prefaced our performance with a Vertigo clip: the restaurant scene in which James Stewart first glimpses Kim Novak. The quintet followed seamlessly, without pause. For the musicians (and this is an orchestra whose principal string players are the equal of any), the Herrmann quintet was a revelation. The audience was hypnotized. I cannot think of a more seductive, more finished chamber work by an American.
George Gershwin is another twentieth century American whose taint (Hollywood plus Broadway) will fade, whose stock will rise. Some reviewers of my Classical Music in America (2005) treated my moderate enthusiasm for Aaron Copland as an obvious lapse in judgment. But what seems obvious to me is that Copland’s reputation will ebb as Gershwin’s greater genius is absorbed in classical music circles that once patronized him as a dilettante. It’s already happening – witness the belated redesignation of An American in Paris and Concerto in F as mainstream subscription fare, rather than pops fodder, by such orchestras as Boston and Chicago.
And then there’s George Chadwick and his divine Jubilee (1895).
We’re all loosening up.


  1. Rightly or wrongly, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson lumps everything to do with film scores and composers under one heading: “Bernard Hermann”, though he gives other great composers their due in this one entry. I think Hermann’s composing saved some movies that were strong on special effects and weaker in other aspects and turned them into virtual symphonic music videos. There is some positive commentary on the web about that opera, based on “Wuthering Heights”, and reportedly a recording exists (on CD yet?).

  2. Thank you, Mr. Horowitz, for this post. There is no doubt that Herrmann was one of our greatest composers. His scores for “North By Northwest” and “Vertigo” would by themselves put him in the front rank. But he wrote much more and we are lucky to have the opportunity to explore all of his music. And you are absolutely correct about Gershwin.


    Yes, there is a CD recording. It is in the Minuteman Library system in Greater Boston. He paid for it himself.
    He hoped to have NY City Opera present it, but refused to make changes suggested by Rudel. Phyllis Curtin had commissioned Carlyle Floyd to do a concert aria. He chose to do one related to that novel, and then went on to compose a whole opera. The Floyd opera has been presented in NY, and by Boston’s Lyric Opera in 1993. Probably elsewhere. Wonder if the Hermann has ever been staged. Should be. Glorious music!!!

  4. Now I long to hear Herrmann’s quintet, thank you! I enjoy learning about the sea-changes you document. It shows, I hope, that we continue to think. My own enthusiasm for Copland, for instance, never has settled into one place, but where I once thought that I ought to know my mind on such things (as I certainly did when I was a sophomore in college), I now am very comfortable with Katharine Hepburn’s line to James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

  5. Scott MacClelland says:

    Hermann’s opera, Wuthering Heights, is not only a great dramatic stage work, loaded with tremendously atmospheric ‘cinematic’ music, but a defining example of that oddly elusive art some call American Opera. We are fortunate–even lucky considering the odds–that Hermann recorded it.

  6. Jeffrey Sultanof says:

    We are now undergoing a major reevaluation with regard to concert music and music for big band. There are so many composers whose music was played once or twice and then gathered dust in libraries or publisher warehouses. To say that Herrmann’s accomplishments are greater than such venerated names as Harris and Schuman is something I never expected to see, and I am delighted that someone actually went the distance and wrote it. Herrmann was not a critical darling, but he was fortunate that he composed and conducted music for CBS radio for years. He was also one of the group of American composers who admired and promoted the music of Charles Ives.
    Those of us who’ve long known Herrmann’s concert music (he recorded much if not all of it when he had a recording agreement with a label named Unicorn) are hardly surprised at his music’s resurgence. Herrmann was certainly a major composer whose work rarely received the respect it deserved. And now that the years have gone by so that old rivalries are now meaningless and the music is important, George Gershwin continues to beguile and amaze audiences. Great art rises to the top again. That gives one hope.

  7. Mitchell Arnold says:

    Dear Mr. Horowitz:
    I recently discovered your blog “The Unanswered Question” and have enjoyed reading all your posts. One that I am particularly interested in is the 16 Feb post on Bernard Herrmann. What intrigues me most is your mention of the Pacific Symphony’s programming of For the Fallen. I had no idea that the festival performance was the West Coast premiere, although it does not come as a surprise. I love this little piece and have programmed it three times but have found little written about it.
    The most recent was with my orchestra at West Virginia University this past November. It was programmed along with Lincoln Portrait (Lincoln’s 200th year, etc.) with which it made at the least an interesting chronological pairing. Chen Yi’s Flute Concerto and works by Rimsky and Kraus (the fellow called the Swedish Mozart) completed the evening.
    Back in May 2002 I did a program around Memorial Day with the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra. Lincoln Portrait, an overture by William Schuman and For the Fallen were amongst the works programmed. The next week, I did the Herrmann piece again with the New Mexico Symphony in Albuquerque. Not quite the West Coast, but possible the furthest this piece traveled west until the Pacific Symphony performance?
    Below is my program note from this past November’s performance. Ii is a first draft; the final edited version is unfortunately, not on my computer.
    Dr. Mitchell Arnold
    Associate Professor
    Director of Orchestral Activities
    Division of Music
    West Virginia University
    For the Fallen Bernard Herrmann
    For the Fallen was composed in 1943. It is scored for 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, harp and strings.
    While a staff conductor at CBS radio in the 1930’s Bernard Herrmann became associated with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater, collaborating on numerous radio productions, including conducting music for the famous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938. He later scored Welles’s groundbreaking film Citizen Kane, and became one of the most important composers of film music. His association with Alfred Hitchcock, resulting in scores including Psycho and Vertigo, is noteworthy if only for the fact that Hitchcock would usually edit scenes to the finished music, rather than require the music to fit the edits. His last film score was for Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver.
    For the Fallen is one of Herrmann’s concert works and is written as a tribute to the war’s dead. Its 6/8 meter creates a gently-rocking sensation that calls to mind the barcarolle, a form used by Venetian singing boatmen. Herrmann could have been evoking an image of the mythic boatman, Charon, who, in Greek mythology, ferries the newly deceased across the river Styx.
    Herrmann writes:
    For the Fallen is a tribute to the War’s dead. It is a berceuse [lullaby] for those who lie asleep on the many alien battlefields of this war. The work opens quietly with an undulating rhythm in the strings, over which the bassoon intones the principal melody. The horns then follow with a secondary motive. The entire composition is built on these two melodies, except for the Coda, which contains a quotation from Handel’s Messiah, “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd.”

  8. I came across this blog quite by accident. It was my great pleasure to know, and to work with, Bernard Herrmann in the final years of his all too short life. I produced several albums featuring his film music over the years. Incidentally, an abbreviated performance of “Wuthering Heights” was premiered in Portland, Oregon, sometime in the 1980s. I attended the 2nd performance, and wrote about it in Pro Musica Sana, the publication of the Miklos Rozsa Society. I do not remember the exact year or dates. I am recording several chamber and solo works by Herrmann in Australia in early 2011. These will be released in time for Herrmann’s centenary in 2011. The recording will be licensed to an as yet determined record label.

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