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Bernard Herrmann and Musical Topography


  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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