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Bernard Herrmann was perhaps one of the greatest musical all-rounders of the twentieth Century. Although he is best known for his scores to perhaps some of the most iconic films ever made ('Vertigo', 'Citizen Kane', 'Psycho'), he was also a talented composer for the concert hall, with an early career marked out by his skill as a conductor—praised by Stravinsky amongst others, who autographed Hermann's score for his Symphony in 3 Movements with 'To the excellent musician and conductor, Bernard Herrmann. Cordially, I. Stravinsky.'
The Tippett Quartet capture the energy and musical finesse of Herrmann's works in this recording, accompanied for Souvernirs de Voyage by the clarinetist Julian Bliss and featuring a new arrangement of his score for 'Psycho'.
The gruffness concealed a tender heart, as the chamber works on this recording testify: as Aaron Copland would say, ‘If it’s in the music, it’s in the man.’ What could never be concealed was the wide-ranging talent. As a film composer he had no peer. As a composer for the concert hall, his works were performed by the likes of Beecham, Stokowski and Ormandy. As a conductor he was extraordinarily eclectic, championing Charles Ives’s work, for example, long before it became fashionable and having a particular penchant for the music of English composers such as Delius and Richard Arnell, whose piano concerto he commissioned when Head of Music at CBS (A new recording by the Tippett Quartet of Arnell’s String Quartets is to be issued later this year). As evidence of the esteem in which he was held, there is the occasion in 1946 when he asked Stravinsky to autograph his copy of the score of Stravinsky’s Symphony in 3 Movements. The inscription read: ‘To the excellent musician and conductor, Bernard Herrmann. Cordially, I. Stravinsky.’ That must have seemed like a reference from God: I doubt whether Stravinsky would have done that for Herbert von Karajan.
Yet Herrmann’s versatility became the source of much inner conflict, for it complicated his career path. Should he be concentrating on his real love, conducting? (His ambition was always to be chief conductor of a great orchestra: he never quite forgave André Previn for landing that post with the LSO.) Should he be composing for the concert hall? Whilst still comparatively young, he already had completed an ambitious First Symphony (1941) and a cantata Moby Dick (1938), premiered by the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, who became a close friend. Or should he devote himself to the cinema, which was more lucrative but less prestigious? Yet the cinema was the medium which ideally suited his talents and he was to give film music a new stature. Something of this conflict is suggested in the three items on this recording. The suite from Psycho (1960) celebrates what the critic Edward Seckerson has described with some justification as ‘the most imaginative film score ever written’, and the two chamber pieces come from a period later in the decade when Herrmann’s film career seemed to be in decline and he would need to look to alternative modes of composition.
Herrmann was born into a middle-class Jewish family in New York on 29 June, 1911. His family was not particularly musical, though he liked telling the story of his father who, when going to the opera, would always book two seats: one for himself and one for his hat and coat. Herrmann’s musical talent became apparent when he won a $100 dollar prize for symphonic composition whilst still at high school. He attended the Juilliard Graduate School and then New York University, where one of his composition teachers was the indefatigably iconoclastic Percy Grainger. By the age of 20, Herrmann had founded his own chamber orchestra; and in 1934 he landed a job at CBS Radio, rapidly becoming their chief staff conductor. This brought him into contact with the new boy-wonder of radio, Orson Welles. After Welles’s notorious 1938 broadcast War of the Worlds had panicked half of America and made him a celebrity overnight, RKO Studios in Hollywood beckoned with a tempting contract to make his first film. Welles accepted, taking a team of his most trusted collaborators with him, including Herrmann. It was a move that changed Herrmann’s life.
Not only was Citizen Kane (1941) a movie masterpiece, it was also a musical milestone, Herrmann delivering a score as innovative as the film itself. Rejecting the Romanticism of Viennese-born composers like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold that had dominated Hollywood for a decade, Herrmann, among other things, revolutionised the studio orchestra; downplayed melody in favour of small musical cells and motifs; and, in Howard Goodall’s phrase, ‘replaced sentiment with anxiety’. Winning an Oscar for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1942), he found himself much in demand, particularly for subjects of a Gothic or darkly psychoanalytical nature. His music for Hanover Square (1945) prompted a fan letter from a 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim. His score for Jane Eyre (1943) stimulated a love of the Brontes which was to lead to his only opera, Wuthering Heights, completed in 1951. At this stage Herrmann was still torn between his conducting and composing ambitions and writing for the movies, but in the mid 1950s, an unmistakeable profile was looming on the horizon whose films inspired Herrmann to a new level of creativity: Alfred Hitchcock. Their collaboration on nine suspense films between 1955 and 1966 was a composer-director relationship unmatched in film history for imagination and cinematic symbiosis. It touched its peak in three consecutive masterpieces of film direction and scoring: the romantic tragedy, Vertigo (1958), the supreme comedy-thriller North by Northwest (1959) and the horror classic Psycho (1960).
‘I wanted the sound of pure ice-water,’ Herrmann said later of his use of an all-string orchestra for Psycho. Who would have thought the sound of violins could be so terrifying? Hitchcock had originally not wanted music for the shower murder scene but had to concede Herrmann’s music added a stunning extra dimension. The shrieking strings intensify the victim’s screams, whilst the stabbing rhythms accentuate the ferocity of the knife attack. Earlier the frenzied string sounds accompanying Janet Leigh’s journey to the Bates motel have transformed a rainswept car-drive into a scene of paranoid pursuit, a character in flight from inner demons. ‘The music is telling us that something terrible is going to happen to her,’ Herrmann said, ‘it’s got to.’ Interestingly, the three-note ‘Madness’ motif at the end, as Bates sits in insane isolation in his cell, derives from one of Herrmann’s earliest orchestral compositions, Sinfonietta for Strings (1935), influenced by the serialism of Schoenberg. It will return at the conclusion of his last film score, Taxi Driver (1976) as a musical clue to the hero’s continuing psychosis. For this studio recording, a suite from Psycho has been transcribed and arranged by Richard Birchall and double tracked.
Hitchcock and Herrmann were to have a dramatic falling out over the music for Torn Curtain (1966), an abrasive unorthodox score when Hitchcock had insisted on something popular and appealing. (Feeling his score improved the film, Herrmann had grumbled: ‘You want a doctor to make you well—you don’t also expect him to make you rich.’) Trends in film scoring were moving away from his individualistic style to a preference for melodies that were commercially exploitable. Perhaps in reaction to this trend, he wrote his first concert work for 14 years, the String Quartet Echoes, which he described as ‘a series of nostalgic emotional remembrances.’ A beautiful, brooding opening theme establishes a melancholy tone (it might not be coincidental that Herrmann was going through a second painful divorce during the work’s composition) and it will recur as an interlude before each part of the score, binding together the flickering changes of mood and style. It is a deeply personal work: there are echoes of his own music and personality that could have come from no-one else. A sad waltz echoes the ‘Memory Waltz’ from Snows of Kilimanjaro (1953); a habanera rhythm fleetingly recalls the music for James Stewart’s obsessed spying on Kim Novak in the art gallery scene in Vertigo; a macabre scherzo is like those ‘rides in hell’ at which Herrmann excelled in numerous films, just as the Allegro momentarily has something of the violence of Psycho. The work was premiered in December 1966 and also accompanied a 1971 Royal Ballet performance for two dancers called ‘Ante-Room’. There are few more haunting and accessible works in the modern string quartet repertory.
The Clarinet Quintet, Souvenirs de voyage was written in January 1967. As with a number of Herrmann’s concert works, it had literary connections. The first movement was inspired by A E Housman’s poem ‘On Wenlock Edge’ and the second by J M Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’—both works that had previously inspired music from one of Herrmann’s great composer heroes, Ralph Vaughan Williams. The music of the opening movement reflects Housman’s descriptions of pastoral tranquillity alternating with fierce winds. In the second movement, to quote Steven C Smith in his fine biography of Herrmann, A Heart at Fire’s Centre, ‘one can envision an autumnal sunset off the Irish west coast, Herrmann’s swaying dream-like rhythm for strings and sighing clarinet appoggiaturas rising like wave crests against their foundation.’ The finale was suggested by Turner’s Venetian water-colours. It features a love theme for violins and clarinet calls representing nature’s enticements before a serene twilit coda. The happier air of this mellifluous piece was no doubt influenced by Herrmann’s meeting of a young BBC researcher, Norma Shepherd who became his third wife in November 1967.
Herrmann died in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, 1975 after completing the final recording session for Taxi Driver. In his last years, he had settled in England and was seeing his stock dramatically rising again through new recordings and the eager attention of a younger generation of Hollywood directors such as Brian De Palma (for whom he scored Sisters and Obsession) and Martin Scorsese, who dedicated Taxi Driver to his memory. The distinguished musicologist Christopher Palmer said of his friend: 'I never once knew him to lecture or talk at me nor to discuss music in technical terms … For him, life and music were entirely a matter of emotional response.' Music and movie lovers unite in their gratitude and respect for a musician of uncompromising integrity and a composer with that rare gift of being able to touch the heart and get under your skin.
Neil Sinyard © 2011