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Bernard Herrmann and the North by Northwest Overture

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Bernard Herrmann (June 29, 1911 – December 24, 1975) was an American composer who was best known for his work in composing for motion pictures, and as a conductor championed the music of lesser-known composers.  Herrmann, the son of a Jewish middle-class family of Russian origin, was born on June 29, 1911, in New York City, NY, as Max Herman.  His father, Abram Dardik, was from Ukraine and had changed the family name. Herrmann attended high school at DeWitt Clinton High School, an all-boys public school at that time on 10th Avenue and 59th Street in New York City.  His father promoted music activity, taking him to the opera, and encouraging him to learn the violin. After winning a 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 and Philip James. He also studied at the Juilliard School and, at the age of twenty, formed his own orchestra, the New Chamber Orchestra of New York.

In 1934, Herrmann joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) as a staff conductor. Within two years he was appointed music director of the Columbia Workshop, an experimental radio drama series for which he composed or arranged music.  One notable program was The Fall of the City. Within nine years, he had become Chief Conductor to the CBS Symphony Orchestra. He was responsible for introducing more new works to U.S. audience than any other conductor — he was a particular champion of Charles Ives’ music, which was virtually unknown at that time. Herrmann’s radio programs of concert music, which were broadcast under such titles as Invitation to Music and Exploring Music, were planned in an unconventional way and featured rarely heard music, old and new, which was not heard in public concert halls. Examples include broadcasts devoted to music of famous amateurs or of notable royal personages, such as the music of Frederick the Great of Prussia, Henry VIII, Charles I, Louis XIII and so on.

Herrmann’s many U.S. broadcast premieres during the 1940s included Myaskovsky’s 22nd Symphony, Gian Francesco Malipiero’s 3rd Symphony, Richard Arnell’s 1st Symphony, Edmund Rubbra’s 3rd Symphony and Ives’ 3rd Symphony. He performed the works of Hermann Goetz, Alexander Gretchaninov, Niels Gade and Franz Liszt, and received many outstanding American musical awards and grants for his unusual programming and championship of little-known composers.  Also during the 1940s, Herrmann’s own concert music was taken up and played by such celebrated maestri as Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Eugene Ormandy.  Between two movies made by Orson Welles, he wrote the score for William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), for which he won his only Oscar. In 1947, Herrmann scored the atmospheric music for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1951 his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still featured the Theremin.

In 1934, Herrmann met a young CBS secretary and aspiring writer, Lucille Fletcher. Fletcher was impressed with Herrmann’s work, and the two began a five-year courtship.  The couple finally married on October 2, 1939. They had two daughters: Dorothy (b. 1941) and Wendy (b. 1945). Fletcher was to become a noted radio scriptwriter, and she and Herrmann collaborated on several projects throughout their career. He contributed the score to the famed 1941 radio presentation of Fletcher’s original story, The Hitch-Hiker, on the Orson Welles Show; and Fletcher helped to write the libretto for his operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights.  While at CBS, Herrmann met Orson Welles, and wrote or arranged scores for radio shows in which Welles appeared or wrote, such as the Columbia Workshop, Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air and Campbell Playhouse series (1938–1940), which were radio adaptations of literature and film. He conducted the live performances, including Welles’s famous adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds broadcast on October 30, 1938, which consisted entirely of pre-existing music.  Herrmann used large sections of his score for the inaugural broadcast of The Campbell Playhouse, an adaptation of Rebecca, for the feature film Jane Eyre (1943), the third film in which Welles starred.

When Welles gained his RKO Pictures contract, Herrmann worked for him. He wrote his first film score for Citizen Kane (1941) and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Score of a Dramatic Picture. He composed the score for Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); like the film itself, the music was heavily edited by the studio, RKO Pictures. When more than half of his score was removed from the soundtrack, Herrmann bitterly severed his ties with the film and promised legal action if his name were not removed from the credits.  Herrmann also created the music for Welles’s CBS radio series the Orson Welles Show (1941–1942), which included the debut of his wife Lucille Fletcher’s suspense classic, The Hitch-Hiker; Ceiling Unlimited (1942), a program conceived to glorify the aviation industry and dramatize its role in World War II; and The Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air (1946).

Herrmann is also closely associated with the director Alfred Hitchcock. He wrote the scores for seven Hitchcock films, from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964), a period that included Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. He also was credited as sound consultant on The Birds (1963), as there was no actual music in the film as such, only electronically made bird sounds.  The film score for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was composed by Herrmann, but two of the most significant pieces of music in the film — the song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”, and the Storm Clouds Cantata played in the Royal Albert Hall — are not by Herrmann (although he did re-orchestrate the cantata by Australian-born composer Arthur Benjamin written for the earlier Hitchcock film of the same name). However, this film did give Herrmann the opportunity for an on-screen appearance: he is the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in the Albert Hall scene.

Herrmann’s most recognizable music is from another Hitchcock film, Psycho. Unusual for a thriller at the time, the score uses only the string section of the orchestra. The screeching violin music heard during the famous shower scene (which Hitchcock originally suggested have no music at all) is one of the most famous moments in film score history.  His score for Vertigo (1958) is seen as just as masterful. In many of the key scenes Hitchcock let Herrmann’s score take center stage, a score whose melodies, echoing the “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, dramatically convey the main character’s obsessive love for the woman he tries to shape into a long-dead, past love.  A notable feature of the Vertigo score is the ominous two-note falling motif that opens the suite — it is a direct musical imitation of the two notes sounded by the fog horns located at either side of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (as heard from the San Francisco side of the bridge). This motif has direct relevance to the film, since the horns can be clearly heard sounding in just this manner at Fort Point, the spot where a key incident occurs involving the character played by Kim Novak.

In 1963 Herrmann began writing original music for the CBS-TV anthology series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which was in its eighth season. Hitchcock himself served only as advisor on the show, which he hosted, but Herrmann was again working with former Mercury Theatre actor Norman Lloyd, co-producer (with Joan Harrison) of the series. Herrmann scored 17 episodes (1963–1965) and, like much of his work for CBS, the music was frequently reused for other programs.  Herrmann’s relationship with Hitchcock came to an abrupt end when they disagreed over the score for Torn Curtain.   Reportedly pressured by Universal executives, Hitchcock wanted a score that was more jazz- and pop-influenced. Herrmann initially accepted the offer, but then decided to score the film according to his own ideas.  Hitchcock listened to only the prelude of the score before confronting Herrmann about the pop score. The score was rejected and replaced with one by John Addison.  Herrmann’s unused score for Torn Curtain was commercially recorded after his death.

From the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, Herrmann scored a series of notable mythically-themed fantasy films, including Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Ray Harryhausen Dynamation epics The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island and The Three Worlds of Gulliver. His score for the 7th Voyage was particularly highly acclaimed by admirers of that genre of film.  During the same period, Herrmann turned his talents to writing scores for television shows. He wrote the scores for several well-known episodes of the original Twilight Zone series, including the lesser known theme used during the series’ first season, as well as the opening theme to Have Gun–Will Travel.  In the mid-1960s he composed the highly regarded music score for François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Scored for strings, two harps, vibraphone, xylophone and glockenspiel, Herrmann’s score created a driving, neurotic mood that perfectly suited the film.

As well as his many film scores, Herrmann wrote several concert pieces, including his Symphony in 1941; the opera Wuthering Heights; the cantata Moby Dick (1938), dedicated to Charles Ives; and For the Fallen, a tribute to the soldiers who died in battle in World War II, among others. He recorded all these compositions, and several others, for the Unicorn label during his last years in London. A work written late in his life, Souvenir de Voyages, showed his ability to write non-programmatic pieces.  By 1967 Herrmann worked almost exclusively in England. In August 1971 the Herrmanns made London their permanent home.  Herrmann’s last film scores included Sisters and Obsession for Brian De Palma. His final film soundtrack, and the last work he completed before his death, was his sombre score for Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese. It was De Palma who had suggested to Scorsese to use the composer. Immediately after finishing the recording of the Taxi Driver soundtrack on December 23, 1975, Herrmann viewed the rough cut of what was to be his next film assignment, Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, and dined with Cohen, after which he returned to his hotel for the night. Bernard Herrmann died from cardiovascular disease in his sleep at his hotel in Los Angeles, CA, during the night on December 24, 1975. Scorsese and Cohen dedicated both Taxi Driver and God Told Me To to Herrmann’s memory.

My collection includes the following works by Bernard Herrmann:

North by Northwest (1959): Overture.

Psycho (1960): Main Theme/Murder.

Taxi Driver (1976): Main Theme.

Twisted Nerve (1968): Main Theme.

 

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