I must admit that there was actually a time in my life when I had not known much about Bernard Herrmann or his music. This was when I thought Star Wars was one of the greatest films ever made and that the only soundtracks worth listening to were those of John Williams (as great a composer as he is). Also around this time, embarrassingly enough, I actually considered George Lucas to be one of my favorite directors. I was naïve, ignorant, and inexperienced. I only knew mainstream cinema. It was the time period in which I looked at film as simple entertainment, rather than an art form, or a mirror of reality.
And then I saw Vertigo.
Not only is this a brilliant film, but it is also a remarkable collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. From the beginning of the film, Herrmann’s music grabs you--it's almost trance-inducing just to listen to. As the film progresses, Herrmann offers more emotion-evoking pieces. The score proves to be, overall, quite dreary and haunting. The obsession portrayed on screen by James Stewart is paralleled by Herrmann’s score, while Scottie’s longing for love is also enhanced by the music throughout the motion picture. If I had to choose, “Scene d’ Amour” is my favourite track from the score.
Now Herrmann’s career, of course, did not start and end with Vertigo. Who could forget his enchanting score for White Witch Doctor in 1953? Or his eerie contributions to The Twilight Zone throughout the 60’s? And then there were other Hitchcock classics such as, North by Northwest and Psycho, where Herrmann’s music serves as an underlying driving-force for each film. Hitchcock even admitted that “thirty-three and a third of Psycho’s success was due to Bernard Herrmann’s music.” Just imagine the scene where Detective Arbogast is creeping up the stairs, only to be confronted by Mrs. Bates—er, Norman, without Herrmann’s use of strings. It simply wouldn’t seem right.
Even after the falling-out with Hitchcock, Herrmann appealed to the younger generation of directors at the time, including Francois Truffaut, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese. It could even be argued that some of his finest work stemmed from his collaborations with these directors. Obsession and Taxi Driver, both from 1976, are two examples in Herrmann’s career. With Obsession, Herrmann packed the film with beautiful motifs and haunting melodies. The music for the finale, matched with Brian De Palma’s direction and Vilmos Zsigmond's photography, is capable of making the hairs on your neck stand up.
Herrmann’s work on Taxi Driver has a similar effect, but uses a completely different style; it’s a jazz-themed score filled with prominent percussion, strings and brass, which captures the essence of New York City, while also creating a very bleak and depressing atmosphere. Many would argue that it’s Martin Scorsese’s best film, along with De Niro’s best work (an actor who could do no wrong in the early 70’s). Add to that a score to match and you have three key elements which make the picture work magnificently. Taxi Driver was dedicated to Herrmann, who died shortly after finishing the score to the film. If anything, this proves that Herrmann was dedicated to the art form: despite being quite ill in his later years, he still managed to continue working and producing top-notch music.
On a more personal note, I wanted to write this article to express my appreciation toward Mr. Herrmann and his work and offer my deepest thanks. Without the powerful presence of his music in so many memorable films, cinema would be seriously deprived of its ‘soul’. There is no doubt that Herrmann’s unique contributions to the world of cinema inspired many great film composers that followed--and filmmakers, as well!
June 29th, 2011 would have marked Bernard Herrmann’s 100th birthday, had he lived past 1975. Although he may be gone, his music will continue to sway the emotions of countless film lovers. There’s no doubt that Herrmann’s work has, surely, stood the test of time.
Causes Brandon Brown Supports
American Red Cross