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The Music of Bernard Herrmann

With all things considered, sound is the key element which amplifies the film’s environment for the audience. Bernard Herrmann was one film composer who understood the importance music had on a film’s scene, characters and overall theme. Herrmann gave us a dramatic volume of film scores for a number of the best television shows and films including Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) and a large collection of Alfred Hitchcock’s films including “Psycho” (1960).

Bernard Herrmann’s beginnings started with the prolific Orson Welles, creating music for Welles’ serial radio show, “The Mercury Theater.” When Welles decided to venture into film, he brought thirty-year-old Herrmann along to conduct his first film score ever which would be for “Citizen Kane” (1941). Hermmann’s astonishing score for “Citizen Kane” compliments the complexity of Welles’ masterpiece. The light drifting notes in “Snow Picture,” often referred to as the “Rosebud Melody,” immediately conjure up images of snow and the winter cold which hold a pivotal memory to Kane. Likewise, Herrmann’s darker tones mirror Kane’s iron fist of determination and manipulation as the ruthless newspaper magnate. Herrmann’s music was nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Music, Scoring For A Dramatic Picture” category but he lost to himself for his other scoring nomination for “All That Money Can Buy” (1941). After a difficult
production of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), Herrmann would disassociate himself with Welles.

In 1955, Alfred Hitchcock hired Herrmann to score “The Trouble With Harry” (1955) and began Herrmann’s partnership with Hitchcock. Herrmann scored nine of Hitchcock’s classic films including “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963). Herrmann’s range was demonstrated again in “Psycho” (1960). The mounting tension Herrmann exercises in the scene when “Marion Crane” (Janet Leigh) drives out of the state after she steals a wad of cash from her boss and his client is a sound combination with Hitchcock’s tight camera angle on Janet Leigh’s determined face. The scene creates a suction that pulls the audience members into “Marion”’s devious thoughts and actions. It serves as a perfect counterpart to the later climactic shower scene with its high-pitched, slicing notes as Marion meets her violent end. For “The Birds” (1963), Herrmann was Hitchcock’s sound consultant and used the flapping of the birds’ wings with their screeches as his orchestra to raise the hairs of the audience.

Herrmann provided music for films which spanned throughout the different genres including “The Ghost & Mrs. Muir” (1947), “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951), “Cape Fear” (1962) and “Fahrenheit 451" (1966). Herrmann completed his last film score for the film “Taxi Driver” (1976). His work continues to inspire many contemporary film composers including Danny Elfman who has referred to Herrmann as his role model and inspiration for his own film scores.

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