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EXPLORING MUSIC: ''A Superb Technician'' B Hermann--Music from Hitchcock Films

The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987

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David M. Greene


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Culture is the glue that holds a civilization together. It not only provides us with something meaningful to talk about besides our own personal concerns; it enables us to avoid the generation gap and communicate with our grandparents, our parents, our children, and our grandchildren. It was what Joseph Conrad was thinking of when he wrote in Nostromo: "Life, to be large and full ... , must contain the care of the past and of the future in every passing moment of the present. Our daily work must be done to the glory of the dead, and for the good of those who come after."

There was a time when the honchos in the media, and those who pay for the pro-gramming, must have been dimly aware of such things, for, along with the ephemeral pop stuff that dies like the mayfly, they gave us an occasional taste of more solid fare. Some of my older readers may recall that the networks, like European radio systems today, had their symphony orchestras. Toscanini reigned supreme at NBC, of course, and Alfred Wallenstein was prominent at Mutual. Even CBS had its own symphony, which, under Bernard Herrmann, then thirtyish, offered often unusual and inventive programs, albeit at such odd times as early Sunday afternoon or 11:30 P.M.

Herrmann, the son of a New York optometrist, was enchanted by music from childhood. At 13 he won a prize for a song he had composed. He went on to study with Percy Grainger and Philip James at New York University, where he became fast friends with Arthur Berger and Jerome Moross. After two years at the Juilliard, a school he found too conservative, he quit to organize his own chamber orchestra, and a year later (1934) he joined CBS, where he wrote radio scores and conducted. One of his clients was Orson Welles, who, in 1939, summoned him to Hollywood to provide the music for Citizen Kane. (It was Herrmann who wrote the operatic scene in that film that many people suppose to be an excerpt from the real opera Salammbo by Ernest Reyer.)

Herrmann remained in Hollywood, where he was in great demand and where he scored many notable pictures (e.g. Anna and the King of Siam, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Naked and the Dead). In 1955, with The Trouble with Harry, he became Alfred Hitchcock's composer of choice. The association lasted for 11 years, until Hitchcock (because his backers didn't like it) refused the music for Torn Curtain.

With the adoption of rock by the Hollywood moguls, Herrmann packed his bags and moved to England. There, though he continued to write film music, he returned to his conducting career and made many records, including his opera Wuthering Heights, and began to compose for himself again. He returned to California for what proved to be his final film, Taxi Driver. He completed the score on December 23, 1975, and died in his sleep late that night at the age of 64.

Personally I find film music often effective in underlining dramatic situations-- something of which Monteverdi had an inkling. But for me it rarely stands on its own two feet for detached listening. Yet I am aware that it has many aficionados. I suspect they are people who know the films in question, and who find that the music re-creates the images in the mind.

I personally have seen some of these Hitchcock opuses, but only some, and those long ago. (As an auteur, compared to, say, Ingmar Bergman, I see Hitchcock as Agatha Christie to, say, Thomas Mann.) I recognize that the screaming strings had a shock effect in Psycho, but don't recall where or how, and find them merely intrusive in the present selection.

I should warn the Hitchcock buffs that these pieces are not, for the most part, excised from the film scores, but are instead later compositions worked up from the raw material. Whatever you may think of the content, be assured that Herrmann is a superb technician and a masterful orchestrator.

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