Saturday, December 24, 2011

BERNARD HERRMANN: Some Centenary Thoughts

I was thinking about ringing the doorbell at 11 Cumberland Terrace, London, with some fear and trembling on that long ago day in May of 1971. Approaching the front step I could hear a loud piece of choral music blaring from a fine audio system and knew that I was in the right place, the domicile of composer Bernard Herrmann. But it would require courage to press that button. After all, I was still only a teenager, yet even then the stories about this man’s irascibility were well-known to me.

When the doorbell was finally pressed the sound of a dog frantically barking and many scuffling paws and feet were heard. The music went suddenly silent. The door opened very slowly it seemed to me and the first thing I saw was that prominent nose, the horn-rimmed glasses, the scraggly hair and an extreme scowl on the face.

“Whaddya want?” in thick, threatening Brooklynese was said, loud and clear. And that was the first encounter I had with Bernard Herrmann.

I could only stand there stammering a few clumsy pleasantries and words of adulation which must have annoyed him to no end. What an ass I was, thinking I could just appear at the door of this famous man and expect him to greet me with gracious charm and benevolence. Why are we so stupid as young people? Yet, amazingly, he gazed at my trembling figure and must have taken some pity over this because he promised me a meeting a few days later before I had to leave London. (How someone at my age then got to London, alone, and how I managed to get his address are stories for another day.)

On that trip I intended to meet as many of the film people I admired as possible who were known to live in London. I managed to meet and, if I may be so bold to say, befriend a couple of others who treated this young dreamer with extreme courtesy and friendliness. I cannot claim to have befriended Mr Herrmann, alas, but after all was said and done I believe he thought I was at least a sincere admirer.

Bernard Herrmann was and is one of those forces we know have to be reckoned with. In this, the centenary year of his birth, there are some thoughts that it might be worthwhile to explore.

Born in 1911 in New York of Russian and Ukrainian ancestry (something to note when listening to his music) he had a proper musical education which included a stint at Julliard. It isn’t necessary in this essay to go over every detail of his biographical details for they are readily available elsewhere, and for those who wish to dig a little deeper there is a good if superficial biography of him in book form. What is interesting to this writer is not only the power of music but the power of his music. It was capable of changing lives. Can many contemporary composers claim as much? That Herrmann was an authentic original there is not the slightest doubt, even if we acknowledge the influence of the French impressionists on him. Miklos Rozsa called him an “outstanding musician.” Alfred Newman, a sensitive, gifted artist, all, I believe, a bit bowled over by his musical ideas. In my own particular case it was to composers like Herrmann, Rozsa and Newman that I owe my interest in and love for and appreciation of classical music; their music for films certainly could bowl this writer over.

It was, of course, a film that first introduced this writer to the music of Bernard Herrmann. It was that ever-fresh, exhilarating and utterly charming fantasy of 1958, THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, still one of the finest cinematic essays into the fantasy genre. Herrmann’s score for that picture was nothing short of traumatic. It was also undeniably brilliant, and it captured the imagination of the viewer with the first three powerful notes and kept them hoohad enormous respect for him. Stokowski admired him, as did Babriolli and others. They were ked through the wonderfully original title designs of artist Bob Gill, the solid fairy-tale adventure well acted by Torin Thatcher, Kerwin Matthews and others (and well directed by Nathan Juran) and the beautiful special visual effects created by Ray Harryhausen. Herrmann’s score was then, and still is now, unsurpassed as an accompaniment to this type of movie. That music did it for me, even as a child. I was an admirer of Herrmann forever with that one picture.

The late Elmer Bernstein, the composer’s friend and colleague, probably unlocked the secret of the power of Herrmann’s music when he stated that unlike other composers who wrote “illustrative” music for their films Herrmann wrote for the viewer’s emotions. That is very likely true. Think of his PSYCHO film score and the point is made. But another film score in that year, THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER, also has this same intense emotional power though less obvious than PSYCHO. Herrmann literally sweeps us into the Swift story and plays on both our joys and our fears as Gulliver encounters his three very different worlds. So Bernstein is correct in saying that the power of Herrmann is in his grabbing at the emotions of the listener/viewer, and I might boldly add that the same emotional appeal can be found in the composer’s concert works…certainly in his grand opera Wuthering Heights, his Symphony No 1 and in many of his shorter works, e.g. For the Fallen.

But if the chief interest in Herrmann is ever to be his notable film scores then it is that aspect of his career which must be dealt with, and dealt with fairly. Herrmann has recently become fashionable so it is important to survey that aspect of his life’s work carefully without succumbing to the sentimentality found in some of the composer’s "newbie" fans. Let me begin by making two sweeping statements. First, Herrmann was probably the greatest composer of film music since the dawn of cinema, and if not the greatest most certainly in the very top tier. Secondly, his later film music career from 1964 onwards, with several exceptions, showed evidence of a decline, not in his musicianship but in his judgment. I have no doubt that there will be some significant disagreement with both statements. I shall try to explain.

To illustrate the first point I offer this incomplete list of some of his earlier film scores, in no particular order of brilliance, that explain why Bernard Herrmann must be regarded as one of cinema’s most important artists: THE EGYPTIAN (co-written with Alfred Newman), ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (his only Oscar-winner), FAHRENHEIT 451 (his last major work for the screen, composed in 1966), ON DANGEROUS GROUND, THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD, CITIZEN KANE, JANE EYRE, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, HANGOVER SQUARE, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, VERTIGO,THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, PSYCHO, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE SNOWS OF KILIMONJARO and THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER. There are more that could be named but those will suffice. Interestingly, his radio and television work is equally distinguished and so must be classified with his cinematic work. Indeed his TV work was often as powerful as his film scoring. A recent CD release of all seventeen of his scores for the ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR television series is a real eye-opener and I would highly recommend that everyone who has an interest in the creative use of music should order these discs.

Now I will argue that certain individual scores by other composers are as good as or better than most of those listed above. Alfred Newman’s THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD score, even after being stupidly truncated by director George Stevens, is one of the major musical works of the 20th century on or off the screen and certainly on a par with anything written by Herrmann or anyone else (Another sweeping statement? Yes, but a true one nonetheless). Walton’s RICHARD III, Rozsa’s BEN HUR, Alwyn’s ODD MAN OUT, Auric’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Prokoviev’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY are other examples that come quickly to mind. Any of those above-mentioned scores will give goose bumps to many listeners, along with a great sense of admiration for the skill and craft that went into composing them.

Herrmann the man was, as we know, a man with a very short fuse yet many who knew him testified to a tender streak that always lurked beneath that troubled surface. I can well imagine that to be true, especially when listening to his often poignant melodies. But there were faults in him and one fault in particular I believe, led to the artistic decline evident in his final scores: he was apparently overly fond of money. So overly fond of it that it cost him one of the most fruitful collaborations of his career, his association with cinema’s doyen of special visual effects, Ray Harryhausen and his rather tight-fisted producer Charles Schneer. This worry about accumulating money – not helped, to be fair, by Hollywood’s neglect of their old masters in favor of younger and less-expensive composers – would cause him, tragically, to waste his enormous talents on such distasteful farragoes as TAXI DRIVER, SISTERS, IT’S ALIVE, OBSESSION, ENDLESS NIGHT, etc. “These new young guys, they want me!” he exulted in the early 70s when approached to score these pictures. Yes, they wanted him, to put a veneer of quality over their infantile works. It can no longer be denied that these latter film scores mark a sad coda to a great career. One fellow composer once pleaded with him, “Benny, why do you do such crap?” Herrmann looked at him stunned for a moment before tears started to well up in his eyes. Yet he would go on doing such crap. Before he died in December of 1975 he had, amazingly, accepted the job to score a cheap piece of hack-work called GOD TOLD ME TO, a gore-fest of no merit whatsoever and which would certainly not have done his reputation the slightest bit of good. But it paid well. It would break this writer’s heart to see a man whose work included masterpieces like VERTIGO lend his name to such rubbish, and even though there was merit to some of the music he wrote even for schlock like this it hurt to see him accept the cash and the flattery of the non-talents who employed him in his later years. (A famous anecdote on this debacle has it that after Herrmann died the director of this piece of dreck asked Miklos Rozsa to score it in his place. Rozsa passed on it, and when someone asked him why he turned it down his reply was classic: “God told me not to.”)

It must not be forgotten that while Herrmann was working on these pictures he was putting aside his work on his Second Symphony, an organ symphony. The very thought of such a loss to music made many a heart sink? We could have had a Herrmann Organ Symphony; instead we got ITS ALIVE 2. Many Herrmann admirers have tried to justify his willingness to lend his name to such low movie projects by offering examples of major classical composers who often put their fine music to inferior operas or operettas and that the world of music should be grateful that they did. Maybe. But I believe I will be forgiven if I remain unconvinced that Mozart would have accepted the scoring job on TAXI DRIVER.

When Herrmann raised his composing fees around 1963 it caused the cessation of what was one of the two most interesting collaborations in films. He had scored four fantasy adventures for Ray Harryhausen and his long time producer Charles Schneer, and when it came time for Herrmann to write the music for their 1964 version of H.G. Wells’ FIRST MEN IN THE MOON Herrmann raised his fee by an additional $5,000 for composing and orchestrating. Schneer, a notorious penny-pincher, simply could not abide by that and did not use Herrmann on the film. This is rather astounding considering the power and exuberance Herrmann had brought to their previous films. And even in 1963 $5,000 was hardly an excessive amount of money when films could gross millions (The later comment by the producers that they “could no longer afford” Herrmann rings a bit hollow all things considered). Yet the reality is that this increase in his price did cause him to lose some work. He never did another Schneer-Harryhausen picture.

Of course, also contributing to his decline was his artistic breakup with director Alfred Hitchcock in 1966. This time, however, it was Herrmann’s musical integrity that did him in, to the detriment of those who asked him to forego that integrity. It is well known that after providing excellent music for a string of Hitchcock successes and masterpieces, the composer was summarily fired by the director after refusing to provide his film TORN CURTAIN with a “pop”-sounding main theme.

Tons of abuse has been heaped upon Hitchcock over this horrible episode, some of it deserved, but what is often avoided is the main reason for Hitchcock’s decision: pressure by corporate head Lew Wasserman to get a “pop song” he could sell along with the picture in order to increase revenues. This was the era of the pop song and Wasserman was going to have one come hell or high water. He also despised Bernard Herrmann for the very simple reason that Herrmann was unwilling to compromise his musical standards or his personal integrity by being obsequious to the powerful Wasserman. When Wasserman in one incident leveled a less-than-veiled threat to Herrmann that a word from him might result in the composer finding he may have to go hungry Herrmann is said to have replied, “Lew, when I’m hungry I go to Chasen’s”. It would not be too difficult to imagine mogul Wasserman's reaction to that statement. In any event this writer is convinced it was Wasserman’s pressure on Hitchcock which forced Hitchcock to fire Herrmann when the composer knew perfectly well that the opening titles to TORN CURTAIN needed tension and drama rather than the warblings of a singer.

Hitchcock should have, and more importantly could have, stood firm against these pressures. That he did not do so reveals that disagreeable streak of ingratitude which occasionally showed up in the director’s career. Imagine VERTIGO, PSYCHO or NORTH BY NORTHWEST without the music of Herrmann and it is easy to see why Hitchcock owed him so much.

This breakup of his collaboration with Hitchcock must be taken into account when finding reasons for Herrmann’s decline after the mid-1960s. That it affected him professionally is obvious. There really was, after that only one film score by him that is worthy of serious attention. It turned out to be one of the most profoundly beautiful things he ever wrote. Of that, more later.

Let us then return to the most satisfying years of Bernard Herrmann’s illustrious career and recall his contributions to music in general and film music in particular. Herrmann always insisted that the music he wrote for films should be heard only with the film, never on its own. There are many who would disagree with him on that point but for the sake of illustration let us accept his view for the moment. Rather than waste a million words on why this particular film score or that is a fine achievement I could do no better than to tell you to experience the films themselves. I will simply recommend that you beg, borrow, buy or steal any of the films mentioned in the early paragraphs of this review and let your eyes and ears be the judge. A short list of currently available dvds should suffice: THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, THE EGYPTIAN, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and JANE EYRE (1943) would be a good place to start to introduce you to the talents of a man of whom it was once said, “He could make blank film compelling.”

Of his concert works give his Symphony No. 1 a try. Several versions are available including one conducted by the composer. Charm just oozes from his Currier and Ives Suite and that is just the tip of the iceberg of his “Americana” period. There is an exciting new recording out of his magnificent Moby Dick Cantata which should be in the collection of anyone interested in this composer. It is an exciting work.

The finest recording of his grand opera Wuthering Heights is still the one Herrmann himself conducted in 1967, sadly out of print, though there are other good recordings of it that are available. It is to be hoped that this monumental work will one day find a major production with top voices. Herrmann tried for years, in vain, to get it produced but was continually rebuffed due to concerns over length and cost. The music all by itself is so evocative of Bronte’s windswept moors that I would venture to say that expensive sets would be minimal. With so many weird, experimental operas finding their way to New York these days one would think a place could be found for this beautiful work.

A recent CD release of seventeen scores Herrmann wrote for THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR television gives us a solid introduction into Herrmann’s prolific efforts for the small screen. These scores are classic Herrmann in every sense of the word and the cds cannot be recommended too highly. What they reveal is a composer who was not only supreme in the art of “terror” music, if you will, but also one gifted with a rare sense of beauty. Of those TV scores for Hitchcock one must surely single out “Body in the Barn”, one guaranteed to make the tears start to flow. Here, perhaps, is what Herrmann did best, touching the deepest recesses of the heart, odd from a man who could freeze the blood with the murder music in PSYCHO.

Herrmann maintained a sense of humor even as he was frustrated about being increasingly marginalized by the new crop of bean-counters and artistic dwarfs who began to control Hollywood. When he wasn’t exploding with rage over some imagined (or real) slight he was reaffirming his reputation as a notable wit. That classic New York drawl of his would be in stark contrast to his cultured views on art, which were always interesting and opinionated. He was, as is well know, a champion of the works of composers who were at once talented but rarely performed. It was he who almost single-handedly brought Charles Ives to the attention of the musical world. William Grant Still and Anthony Collins were others who benefitted from Herrmann’s enthusiasm over their work. He knew music intimately and had an amazing almost total recall of practically every note written by every composer who ever lived. I exaggerate here…but not much!

It is too unpleasant to dwell on Herrmann’s later film music career but there was at least one notable exception, and as it happened this exception turned out to be a work of quiet beauty echoing the cries of a soul in agony over what had once been but was now lost. It is the Truffaut film FAHRENHEIT 451. It was his last important film score and, fittingly, it was one of his most personal. To experience it is to really see what Bernard Herrmann was all about. More knowledgeable writers have written eloquently about this deeply moving work. I can only stand back in admiration of it.

Bernard Herrmann passed away on Christmas Eve, 1975. Happy 100th, Bernard Herrmann. We shall not see your like again.

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