Bernard Herrmann remains one of cinema’s most celebrated composers. On his 100th birthday, we take a look at his life and some of his greatest film scores.
Born in New York City to an immigrant family of Russian Jewish origin, Herrmann was encouraged from a young age to pursue music. His optometrist father would often take Herrmann and his brother to the opera and the symphony, and he gave Herrmann his first musical instrument – a violin.
At age 13, Herrmann discovered composer Hector Berlioz’s book Treatise on Orchestration, which he credits with inspiring him to create music. That same year, he won a $100 prize in a composition contest. By age 20, he’d started his own orchestra.
Herrmann studied music for a time at NYU and at Julliard, but in 1934 joined CBS Radio as a staff conductor. Soon he was curating his own radio shows like Invitation to Music and Exploring Music, where he introduced American audiences to unusual works and overlooked masterpieces from all eras of classical music. He also composed and conducted incidental music for radio melodramas.
It was at CBS that Herrmann met a young theatre director named Orson Welles, whose Mercury Theatre broadcast radio dramatizations of great works of literature – the most infamous being its War of the Worlds show that had many listeners convinced Earth was being invaded by Martians. Herrmann arranged scores for Welles’ broadcasts, so perhaps it's no surprise that Welles turned to Herrmann when he decided to make his first film.
Citizen Kane would become arguably the most revered film of all time, and its composer was rightly given his share of the credit for crafting an operatic score that earned an Oscar nomination. Herrmann would also work with Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons, an experience that both men would regret. Welles didn’t get final cut and RKO trimmed over 40 minutes from the film and reshot the ending. They also edited Herrmann’s score so heavily he insisted his name be removed from the credits. Parts of the excised music were later repurposed in the score for an opera version of Wuthering Heights.
Like Welles, Herrmann had a reputation for being difficult and would not stand for meddling from the studio or interference from the director. After his experience on Magnificent Ambersons, he would insist on maintaining creative control – a trait that ultimately caused him to lock horns with the director whose films Herrmann remains best known for.
Herrmann first began working with Alfred Hitchcock on 1955’s The Trouble With Harry. The movie was a bomb in the U.S. (though it did well in Europe) but established a fruitful relationship that would over the next decade see Herrmann score film classics including Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.
While he called Orson Welles “a man of great musical culture,” Herrmann’s chief praise of Hitchcock was that he was sensitive enough to leave Herrmann alone when it came to the score. Further comparing the two, he said Welles “dealt with characters, with people’s emotions and attitudes” while Hitchcock’s “interest in music is only in relationship to how the suspense can be heightened.”
The most famous of their collaborations from a musical standpoint was surely Psycho.
Hitchcock had originally requested a jazz score for the film, but due partly to budget constraints, Herrmann instead settled on a string orchestra. The discordant, screeching violins in the second movement of ‘The Murder’ (the song accompanying the infamous shower scene) constitute probably the most recognized musical cue in the history of cinema. Many thought that the stabbing, birdlike sounds must have been produced through electronic instrumentation – a field Herrmann was familiar with, having during his work on Forbidden Planet become one of the first to use a Theremin on a film soundtrack – and were surprised to learn the sounds were made by closely miked violins.
Hitchcock initially wanted the shower scene to be unaccompanied by music but was won over by the intensifying power of Herrmann’s score, later saying, “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.”
But the next time Herrmann defied Hitchcock’s instructions would prove to be the last. When production began on 1966’s Torn Curtain, Hitchcock was coming off a critical and commercial failure, 1964’s Marnie, and he was anxious to prove himself studio friendly and still relevant to mass audiences. He thus insisted that the score to Torn Curtain be more upbeat and pop-oriented. Herrmann resisted, Hitchcock insisted, and Herrmann left the production under acrimonious circumstances.
In the decade that remained him, Herrmann would work with other great directors including Francois Truffaut and Brian DePalma. The last soundtrack he completed before his death proved one of his best, the evocative score for Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Despite being one of the most influential composers who ever worked in film, Herrmann won but a single Oscar, one for his work on 1941’s The Devil & Daniel Webster. Asked late in life what was his favorite film score, he chose another lesser known, opting for his music for 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Bernard Herrmann died on December 24, 1975. He was 64 years old.
“I believe that only music that springs out of genuine personal emotion and inspiration is alive and important,” Herrmann once said. More than 35 years after his death, Herrmann’s work remains alive and important.