Who is Bernard Herrmann?


Arts & Culture

The name Bernard Herrmann may not be as familiar as Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber, but you’d know his music instantly. Some of it—the shrieking strings from Psycho’s shower scene, for instance—is as famous as anything written in a classical idiom this century.

Herrmann wrote film scores—most notably, nine for Alfred Hitchcock, including VertigoNorth by Northwest, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. But despite his music’s indirect fame, Herrmann (whose centenary is June 29) has yet to get his due as a serious composer. And he was one. His life had the dramatic arc of a great twentieth-century maestro: expulsion from Juilliard, works commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, major awards, an underappreciated symphony, friendship with Charles Ives, a feud with Leonard Bernstein.

The word centenary usually implies fanfare—live performances, retrospective essays, new biographies competing for the cover of the New York Times Book Review. But scrolling through the News and Events section of is underwhelming. There’s a smattering of concerts, mostly abroad (Edinburgh, Bristol, Frankfurt) and nothing from the New York Philharmonic that once performed his music. Herrmann’s estate is once again trying to sell the original score to Psycho (in 2009, it was sheepishly withdrawn from auction when it failed to garner a minimum bid). The Minnesota Opera is staging Herrmann’s forgotten opera based on Wuthering Heights. Perhaps a headline in the Twin Cities Daily best sums up the state of affairs three decades after the composer’s death: Who in the world is Bernard Herrmann?

I recently bought a few Herrmann sound tracks but, after listening to them, found them disappointing. Something was conspicuously absent. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was listening to the sound track of a missing movie.

Is there a way to free film scores—especially those as artistically rich as Herrmann’s—of their film-cue obligations without deflating them? Can casual listeners appreciate Herrmann without the aid of Jimmy Stewart following Kim Novak around 1950s San Francisco? Maybe scores could thrive in a different context. In honor of Herrmann, I conducted an experiment. I loaded two scores, Psycho and Vertigo, onto my iPod and tried them out as personal sound tracks for wandering around New York.

A mismatched location seemed important, so I took Psycho with me to the Museum of Natural History. The image in my head of fifth-grade field trips and giant dinosaurs seemed about as far as I could get from the Bates Motel. I made my suggested donation, and as the other museumgoers were donning audio-tour headsets, I pressed play on Psycho.

The effect was immediate: suddenly I was in a Hall of African Mammals gone horribly, horribly wrong. The dread in Herrmann’s score takes no time asserting itself, and as the overture’s propulsive Stravinsky-esque chords took hold, the enormous elephants in the middle of the room began to look alarmed. In fact, all of the hall’s residents—the gorillas, lions, even the okapis—seemed attuned to some sort of impending menace I hadn’t expected. The only thing more troubling was the obliviousness of the other people to whatever terrible thing was about to happen.

Hearing the score’s recurrent, queasy melody of rising and falling strings—you may also know it from Busta Rhymes’s “Gimme Some More”—I soon realized that I had not come as far from the Bates Motel as I had thought. The museum was full of stuffed birds (“more than a hobby!”), human remains, dramatic lighting, tombs. Whole orangutans froze in lifelike poses next to their own skeletons. And then there was the Hall of Human Origins (I saved this for the discovery of mother in the fruit cellar). It was macabre. Realizing I’d stumbled into a perfect trap, I stopped resisting the Psycho parallels and spent the rest of the day exploring the hidden sinister side of the museum. The score never became more than a sound track, but as one, it was superb. It went hand in hand with the exhibits, which, as I wandered, increasingly resembled dramatic tableaux.

Something altogether different happened with next score. I brought Vertigo’s sublimely eerie soundtrack to—where else—the High Line. Aside from some vague echoes of Rear Window (you can see straight into the rooms of the Standard Hotel), there was very little Hitchcock to be seen here—labeled plants, kids running around, tourists snapping pictures. I put on my headphones.

Sure enough, Hitchcock emerged. About a third of the way through, I happened by a deserted alcove of table and chairs with an abandoned baby bottle, half full of milk. It was getting dark; the low woodwinds pulsed nervously. A lush but decidedly ominous five-note melody shimmered overhead in the strings. I looked over my shoulder, and a priest nodded gravely at two companions as they walked past me. Beneath Herrmann’s score, these images were troubling. The High Line was getting creepier.

So again, the music was doing its atmospheric job. Like Psycho, it wasn’t blocking out the world. It was framing it.

On the High Line, Vertigo was finally out in the open, and in this unique space—several stories above the street, with low buildings in the foreground, skyscrapers in the background, the Chelsea Piers rising up in front of New Jersey in the distance, birds overhead and cars passing underneath—the music was more than ever about heights. On stereo headphones, each orchestral part had it’s own spatial home, it’s own elevation. This was a score of climbs, plunges, and cautious journeys along the edge of steep drops.

The film’s iconic theme of four descending notes (associated with Madeleine) felt like more than a descent; it felt like falling. And I realized for the first time that while this theme doesn’t even fully appear until late in the film, the first half of Vertigo is full of false starts. Over and over in the movie’s first half, we think we hear the iconic theme—only to have it slip away and become something else at the last second. In stereo headphones, these false starts were like near-falls.

Madeleine’s first jump puts an end to the teasing. From then on those four iconic notes fall again and again through the film’s second half, as Scottie tumbles farther into the rabbit hole. This falling itself finally resolves, albeit uneasily, in the firm tonic chord that ends the disturbing Scene de L’Amour. It was prolonged tension and eventual release stretched out over an entire work. Wagner would have been proud. By that time, I had the feeling I’d been listening more to a tone poem or a symphony than a film score.

When I took my headphones off, the world rushed back into place. I hadn’t realized how far out of it I’d been pulled. The score had transcended Vertigo, right there on the High Line. I wanted to salute Bernard Herrmann and every other twentieth-century composer whose name had been lost in the shuffle of Hollywood. Instead, I bought some more of Herrmann’s scores.

To do list:

Citizen Kane at Jamaica Bay

Fahrenheit 451 in Chinatown

Taxi Driver at the Cloisters

Brian Gittis works at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.