Music in the movies: Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann was responsible for some of cinema’s most recognisable themes, from Psycho to Taxi Driver. Glen looks back over the finest moments of the composer’s illustrious career...

I’ve been watching a lot of Hitchcock films recently, which inevitably means that I’ve been exposed to some of Bernard Herrmann’s greatest scores, providing the inspiration for this article and prompting me to listen to some of his greatest scores.

Below are what I consider to be the highlights of his career, minus Taxi Driver, which was covered in the Scorsese piece and Psycho which was addressed in the Iconic Movie Music Themes article, linked below.

Citizen Kane (1941)

It’s quite amazing that one of Herrmann’s earliest scores was for a film that is widely regarded as the greatest film of all time. Welles was reportedly so enamoured with Herrmann’s compositions that many scenes were shaped to bring the most out of the music. Not only did Herrmann write the score, but he also wrote the opera aria that was sung rather unsuccessfully by Kane’s mistress in the film.

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Almost every aspect of the film holds up brilliantly to this day and Herrmann’s score is used to bring out a strong sense of drama as well as loss and sorrow. A stunning score that, like the film it accompanies, remains one of the all time greats.

Herrmann’s work here was Oscar nominated, but the award went to another one of his compositions for The Devil And Daniel Webster, which is a solid score, but is inferior to his score for Citizen Kane, in my opinion.

Amazingly, this would be the only Oscar he won throughout his career. In fact, he was only nominated a further three times, which is rather disappointing considering the quality of his output.

Beneath The 12 Mile Reef (1953)

This score is among the most inventive of Herrmann’s back catalogue, full of atmospheric moments thanks to beautiful use of the harp and other strings. Even to this day, some of the imagery in Beneath The 12 Mile Reef is stunning. I can only imagine how mind blowing it would have been to see some of the underwater sequences upon its original release.

Herrmann’s score provides a great accompaniment to the scenes in the film, but in many ways outlives the film it accompanied. His works here were used extensively elsewhere, nowhere more prominently than on the original TV series pilot for Lost In Space.

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The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (1947)

The score for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir borrows heavily from Herrmann’s work on Wuthering Heights, but is still widely regarded as the greatest score he ever composed.

It’s an incredibly dramatic piece of work that was distinctly different from other scores of the period in which the film was released.

The film itself is a rather unconventional love story including themes of lost love and the supernatural and Herrmann portrays the emotion of the film exquisitely as he brings out moments of humour and heartbreak with unparalleled skill.

Vertigo (1958)

For his score for Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Herrmann created a piece of work that was equal parts disturbing and beautiful. As the film credits roll at the start of the film, it’s like an assault on the senses in the best possible way and it also gives you the introduction to themes that would be heard throughout the film, to coincide with the titular condition and death.

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After the opening, the majority of the score is almost dreamlike and is an incredibly varied and experimental piece with incorporation of Spanish themes seemingly coming out of nowhere, although it’s relatively easy to understand the reasoning and thought behind the inclusion once the initial shock has surpassed.

The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958)

To this day, Herrmann’s score for Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad remains one of the greatest scores to accompany a fantasy movie. The rousing orchestral score is full of nuance, and it’s clear from the material that Herrmann had a lot of fun coming up with it.

As a standalone listen, this is absolutely fantastic, but like a good score should be it’s at its best when it’s accompanying the images on screen and it does that beautifully.

There’s a great range in the material from suspense and anticipation of tracks like The Fog to the dramatic bombast of The Cyclops. The material that makes up the confrontations with the Cyclops are the standout moments of this excellent score.

North By Northwest (1959)

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I recently enjoyed the Blu-ray version of this classic piece of cinema and the transfer really is amazing. The film looks and sounds like it was released within the last five years and, as a result, brings the most out of Herrmann’s brilliant score.

It’s an incredibly layered score that’s full of intricacies and little details that reveal themselves the more you experience it, much like the film itself. It’s a score that features many of the master composer’s trademarks as well as almost identical sections from some of his earlier works.

Still, the context they are used in here is vastly different and they accompany some of the most iconic scenes in cinema.

Jason And The Argonauts (1963)

Here we have another Ray Harryhausen collaboration and another brilliant score. Prior to composing for Jason, Herrmann worked with Harryhausen two other times providing scores for The Three Worlds Of Gulliver and Mysterious Island.

Herrmann’s score for Jason And The Argonauts is in direct contrast to his popular score for Psycho, which was heard three years earlier. Whereas Psycho was comprised entirely of strings, there’s a distinct lack of strings in this soundtrack. Instead, Herrmann relies heavily on brass and percussion to add emotional weight and a real sense of adventure and threat.

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Thematically there are similarities between this and The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, but the utilisation of different sets of instruments in the orchestrations makes them two very distinct pieces.

What are your favourite Herrmann scores? Add your thoughts to the comments…

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