The Film 100: Bernard Herrmann, no. 51


Born: June 29, 1911, New York, NY
Died: December 24, 1975, Universal City, CA

Herrmann’s works introduce a new dimension of dancing light and sound.
—Gordana Vitaliano

Bernard Herrmann’s radio experience was instrumental in developing the skills to become a modern movie composer. His ability to pull together short, catchy melodies and borrowed pieces of historical ballads was a trick born of the time constraints of live broadcasting. It would help him succeed on a grand scale in Hollywood, where he became the preeminent film musician, an innovative master of the small arrangement. At first unorthodox, his use of brief pieces of music systematically replaced the traditional melodies of the silver screen with short, lively themes.

Herrmann started in music early. In 1924, at age thirteen, his first-prize composition in a neighborhood (Queens, NY) contest was followed by an audition to the famed Julliard School of Music in New York. By the time he was twenty, he had formed his own orchestra; a few years later, he was writing the radio score for Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. When the panic of that famous show subsided and Welles was offered a job directing films in Los Angeles, Herrmann went west as well. His first work on a musical score was for Citizen Kane (1941), and after the phenomenal success of that film, Hollywood quickly made Herrmann’s musical style its own. At the time offers started to roll in for other movies, he was not yet thirty years old.

For the score of Kane, he took elements of Mexican marches, operettas and children’s rhymes to match many of the juxtapositions Welles had developed in the story. He liked to be intimately involved with the production, and after viewing the daily rushes, he would discuss his ideas with Welles, talking over musical approaches to the ambitious scenes of the film. For a compressed vignette examining the first marriage of Charles Foster Kane, Herrmann used violin strings that became increasingly agitated as the couple’s relationship became strained. He attempted to create two basic themes for Kane: the one he called “Power” served to reinforce the aggressive, dominating spirit of the lead character, and the other, called “Rosebud,” echoed the lost innocence of the man’s childhood. Herrmann even wrote a Strauss-like opera for the film. The Kane score was nominated for an Oscar that year but was beat out by another Herrmann score, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Welles would continue to recommend Herrmann for projects he was involved in, including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Jane Eyre (1944).

For Hangover Square (1945), in which a tortured musician creates a piano piece through the course of the film, Herrmann composed an entire concerto, which he later recorded himself. His diversity also garnered praise for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). Already present in his work was the trademark use of horns, styled in a variety of ways to match the need of a film, but nevertheless an unmistakable Herrmann signature. His scores were an eclectic mix of traditional orchestral sounds and hip urban riffs, combining the incongruent booms, eerie strums, high harmonics, hysterical strings and sudden shrieks of a variety of instruments. Though he preferred to compose on the piano, and used it extensively, he incorporated instruments as diverse as castanets, timpani, harps, woodwinds, organs and guitars. In fact, Herrmann was the first Hollywood composer to give the bluesy style of an electric guitar a prominent place in a feature film score.

The creepy whine of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) features more of the early electronic sounds that defined the fifties science fiction/fantasy genre. His strange ensemble of electronic instruments was accompanied by the ever-present brassy sound. Herrmann also lent his suspenseful sounds to other sci-fi films, including the stop-motion skeleton swordplay in Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and the thrills of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966).


Working closely with Hollywood’s top directors, Herrmann built a reputation as a stubborn perfectionist who insisted on developing a film’s score in tandem with the director’s shooting schedule. During his association with Alfred Hitchcock, which lasted over eight films including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), he drew inspiration from watching the Master of Suspense prepare. These films demonstrated the effective use of short melodic pieces of music. The soundtrack for North by Northwest includes more than fifty tracks that heighten the story for just minutes at a time. As Herrmann put it, “Hitchcock only finishes a picture 60 percent; I have to finish the rest for him.”

The two talents would clash frequently on the set. Herrmann resisted Hitchcock’s suggestion that jazz music be played over the title sequence in Psycho (1960) and instead developed the slashing strings that became immortalized as the shrilling accompaniment to the violent attack of the film’s famous shower scene. More violins, synchronized with the windshield wipers of Janet Leigh’s car, were used as a simple rhythmic pattern to underscore the tension of the getaway scene at the film’s beginning. Herrmann’s skillful work is apparent throughout Vertigo and Psycho, and these themes have been used repeatedly in such films as High Anxiety (1977), Twelve Monkeys (1996) and Reality Bites (1994). On the set of Torn Curtain (1966), the artistic relationship between Herrmann and Hitchcock ended abruptly. When Herrmann completely ignored the director’s demands, Hitchcock replaced the famous film composer and threw out the entire soundtrack for the film.

Retreating to London to write more classical compositions, Herrmann remained an expatriate until the 1970s, when student filmmakers revived interest in his work. Herrmann was “rediscovered” by the likes of François Truffaut, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, who commissioned new scores that contributed to many of their finest films. A fitting end to Herrmann’s career is captured in the haunting saxophone solos of Taxi Driver (1976), his fiftieth score. He died three days after finishing it. Scorsese paid homage to the musical genius by reusing Herrmann’s original score of Cape Fear (1962) in the 1991 remake of the same name.

Today’s film scores use an increasingly large proportion of original popular music from hit songs, but these rock ‘n’ roll clips are cut together into sophisticated soundtracks that use the kind of specially created sound effects and short set pieces Herrmann instituted. The longer themes of 1940s Hollywood are rarely heard in contemporary films, largely due to the dramatic power Herrmann demonstrated in his unique approach, which has inspired nearly every film composer working today. His soundtracks continue to be sought by collectors and film buffs.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

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