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The Most Under-Rated 20th Century American Composer — Take Two

Back in the thirties and forties, there were no American music historians to tell the story of American classical music. So the task fell to a couple of composers: Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. According to the official Copland/Thomson narrative, noting much of consequence was composed by Americans before World War I. Their focus was on themselves and kindred composers, many of them tutored – like Copland and Thomson – by Nadia Boulanger in France.

This Oedipal view, appointing modernists the inventors of a distinctly American classical music, remains potent today. How I wish it could be retired. Copland and Thomson viewed the two most consequential concert composers ever produced in the US – Charles Ives and George Gershwin – as dilettantes. They were ignorant of the American Dvorak. And even though they both composed for the cinema, they paid no attention to Bernard Herrmann, whom I have previously anointed in this space “the most under-rated 20th century American composer.”

It is about time that the magnitude of Herrmann’s contribution be acknowledged. Working with Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, and Alfred Hitchcock, he was a peerless composer for radio and film. As a radio conductor on CBS, he was a vital advocate of new and unfamiliar works and composers – the antipode to NBC’s Arturo Toscanini. And, notwithstanding advocacy in New York by John Barbirolli and Leopold Stokowski, his measure as a concert composer remains a well-kept secret.

Two years ago PostClassical Ensemble produced the first festival exploring Herrmann “in the round.” We’ve now turned it into a two-hour “PostClassical” WWFM radio feature, archived here at

Composing for radio dramas (a forgotten genre of high consequence), Herrmann mastered “melodrama” — the art of composing for music and the spoken voice. Our radio show samples “Whitman” (1944), a Corwin/Herrmann radio drama so potent it deserves to be revived by orchestras and actors. It originated as a patriotic wartime vehicle for Charles Laughton. Thanks to a reconstruction by Christopher Husted, PostClassical Ensemble gave the concert premiere as part of our 2015 festival.

Of Herrmann the film composer, PCE presented the DC premiere of his Psycho “symphonic narrative” – an integrated concert work lovingly reconstructed by John Mauceri, and far preferable to the Psycho Suite orchestras still perform by mistake.

Of Herrmann the concert composer, PCE presented the American premiere of the original version of the non-tonal 1936 Sinfonietta for Strings that Herrmann cannibalized for Psycho.

And we performed Herrmann’s chamber music masterpiece: the intoxicating 1967 clarinet quintet Souvenirs de voyage – on our radio show, preceded by pertinent excerpts from his two most intoxicatingly Romantic film scores: Vertigo and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Finally, our “PostClassical” show closes with the sailor’s chorus from Herrmann’s Moby Dick – a spellbinding excerpt that also allows us to sample Herrmann the conductor. Why this 1938 cantata is not performed is an unanswerable question. It would be a stirring vehicle for any Wagnerian bass-baritone interested in adding the towering role of Ahab to Wotan and Amfortas. It would be easy to market. It would ignite a standing ovation.

As ever, our broadcast features unrehearsed needling and jostling between Bill McGlaughlin, Angel Gil-Ordonez, and myself. We listen to the music in real time. We respond spontaneously. It is a fresh adventure every time.

I append a summary with time-code


5:08: Bernard Herrmann speaks — irascibly

6:33: His daughter Dorothy describes accompanying “Daddy” to Psycho

12:02: Herrmann’s Psycho Symphonic Narrative performed by PCE conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez (DC premiere)

28:30: An influence on Psycho? Bartok’s Divertimento, movement 2

41:10: Herrmann’s Sinfonietta for Strings performed by PCE conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez (American premiere of the original version)


4:14: Herrmann and radio: the Norman Corwin radio drama “Whitman” (1944) – an excerpt from the original broadcast, with Charles Laughton

14:09: Herrmann and Hollywood: the Love Scene from Vertigo

21:11: The “Liebestod” from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

26:10: Herrmann’s Clarinet Quintet (Souvenirs de voyage) performed by PCE members

54:33: The Sailors’ Chorus from Herrmann’s cantata Moby Dick, conducted by the composer









  1. William wolfram says

    I agree about Hermann and once played his Piano Concerto which is quite a piece It’s taken from a film


  2. Hermann’s music is very good, and he was extraordinarily facile, but I sense limitations in his originality. To my ears, at least, his music sounds dated, laced with too many cliched figures hinting at the Romantic Sturm und Drang of the 20s and 30s — a style that was already dated even then. And a little too much of a cinematic quality. While listening one senses that the black and white pictures and dialog are missing. The music evokes the feeling of old celluloid.

    How different Copland and Ives are. One also senses the time in which they lived, but something about their music remains in an eternal present.

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