Guest Blog: Bernard Herrmann: That Sinking Feeling by Richard C. Walls

Bernard-Herrmann-PianoBernard Herrmann was the first great modernist film scorer . During a period (’40s and ’50s”) when the form was dominated by devisers of late-Romantic pastiches and slight variations on established emotional cues, Herrmann forged his own filmic language, one which depended as much on its internal voicing as it did on its melodic lilt (or pounding). The emotional core of Herrmann’s music isn’t to be found in the ghost of familiar melodies but in its unresolved center; it’s a music forever tottering on the brink, postponing it’s plunge into the horrible void.

It’s significant that Herrmann thought it was crucial that he did his own arrangements rather than hand his music over to studio hands, which was the custom at the time. His insistence on having hands-on involvement through the whole project wasn’t just an extension of his famously prickly personality—by all accounts he was a cranky son-of-a-bitch, querulous without provocation, harshly egotistical–but also his attempt to preserve his music’s singularly. The extend of his success at achieving that is evident in the fact that he’s as recognizable as a jazz musician from the classic pre-Wynton period; a few bars in and you know that it’s him. Because, simply, no one else sounds that way.

Not that he wasn’t versatile. His trade demanded it .But he seemed most in his element when dealing with the fearful withholding which is at the heart of suspense. Although he worked with directors as diverse as Welles, Mankiewicz, DePalma and Scorsese his popular reputation rest on his eight collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock between 1955 and 1963. Both of these gentlemen knew that there were nooks and crannies to be explored in the torture chamber of fear, that the nuances were as important as the shocks. They were thinking along the same line, whether the road led to the discomfort of anxiety or something much more diabolical. In the famous “black & white” score for Psycho we are battered about by the staccato jolts of shock during Marion Crane’s stabbing, then drenched with unease by the grim threnody as her life circles its way down the drain. So much anticipatory music…the car drive in the rain as the windshield wipers count off a nervous rush to oblivion…the rusty, creaking chords as the inspector unknowingly ascends the stairs to his place of execution….Hitchcock’s strategy was to show the most violent act, the shower murder, about 40 minutes into the film and then less and less mayhem as the narrative proceeded. Having betrayed our trust by killing off the movie’s ostensible star, the violence could then be tamped down…that initial shock had made the suspense perpetual and a post-traumatic jumpiness took over as Herrmann continued to expertly prod our psychic soft spots. In Hitch’s Vertigo, Herrmann reworked Wagner’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” while maintaining it’s painful, appropriately vertiginous beauty. North By Northwest has a handful of sighing, edgy cues which belie the movies opening, tumbling adventure theme. Even Hitch’s semi-documentary change-of-pace The Wrong Man trembles with the terrors of captivity.

richard wallsThere’s much more to Herrmann than just the Hitches, of course. For his film debut, Welles’ Kane, he wrote one of the most beautiful musical cues in all of film scoring–lasting just seconds it comes at the beginning of the flashback to Kane’s snowy youth, a gracefully melodic entry into the past and the memory of life before the fall. For John Brahm’s excellent Hangover Square he created an unlikely “concerto” a single movement that encapsulates all the Herrmann-esque tropes–and which Brahm used as a guide for the editing of film’s fiery climax. Herrmann’s score for De Palma’s Obssession is lushly anachronistic, delirious swirls of strings and dissonant assertions of the brass which quickly fade into a wistful aftershock. It’s a perfect compliment to DePalma’s 360 degree pans and his theme of the assertive but enervated attempts to escape memory. I’ve seen the movie half a dozen times but I don’t think I’d bother to see it twice were it not for Herrmann’s score. Scorsese’ Taxi Driver, on the other hand, is endlessly re-watchable and Herrmann’s minimalist score adds an extra layer of noir fever.

Only a few of Herrmann’s scores could be seen, in the context of his career, as guilty pleasures…when confronted with adventure he could be brashly blunt though there’s usually a poisoned pill or two lurking even in the most unpromising projects (e.g., Beneath The 12-Mile Reef, White Witch Doctor). This is what separates the mere appreciators from the wild-eyed devotees. Like me, the latter could listen to him score the phone-book…over and over again. His music speaks to us, addresses our sense of the fragility of life, the vagaries of mood, the treachery of emotion….it is, forever, rich and strange.

Bio: Richard C. Walls was a freelance writer for 36 years, specializing in music, movies and book reviews, before going into semi-retirement in 2005. He contributed to Creem, Rolling Stone, Spin, The Boston Phoenix and a slew of other forgotten periodicals. He lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

Pic of Richard by Tiina Komulainen.

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