Wednesday marks a milestone few will celebrate: the centenary of the composer Bernard Herrmann, born in New York City on June 29, 1911. He is revered by aficionados of classic film scores, and anyone who has seen“Citizen Kane,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” “Taxi Driver” or almost any Alfred Hitchcock film has heard his music.
“What a track record!” says Jon Burlingame, who teaches the history of film music at the University of Southern California. “Herrmann’s music has a place in our collective memory.”
Herrmann scored films across the spectrum of genres — from thrillers, serious dramas and romances to sci-fi and fantasy. And his music had a great impact on later generations of film composers.
“Danny Elfman’s scores for ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Batman’ have their roots in Herrmann’s colorful and exotic scores for Ray Harryhausen’s films from the late 1950s and 1960s,” Burlingame says. “And Jerry Goldsmith” — who scored “Planet of the Apes” (1968) and “Chinatown” (1974) — “also walked in those footsteps, admiring Herrmann’s ability to create an emotional response with the simplest musical means.”
Herrmann, who died at age 64 on Christmas Eve 1975, is probably best remembered for the sharp, stabbing motifs he composed for Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960). Written for strings alone, the score still sends shivers down viewers’ spines.
An ability to convey mood with uncommon economy was Herrmann’s calling card — be it in the exotic spasms of “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), the anxious rhythms of “North by Northwest” (1959), or the haunting brass and percussion licks of “Taxi Driver” (1976), his final completed score.
“When I became a composer, it was to strive for his versatility,” Elfman says. “I consider him the most original composer of the golden age, even though he came toward the end. The most iconic scores I can think of are his.”
Herrmann got his start in pictures at the top, scoring Orson Welles’s first feature, the now-revered “Citizen Kane” (1941). He had worked with Welles in radio, then followed him to Hollywood. At the time, most famous film composers were European expatriates, many driven into exile by the Nazis. Herrmann could hold his head high among them. His musical education included training at the Juilliard School and at New York University. While in his teens, he began long-term friendships with the great American composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.
“Herrmann brought a new dramatic language rooted in America to film music,” Burlingame says. “He used much smaller forms than Europeans like Erich Wolfgang Korngold did. He tended to write cells, brief motifs rather than long lines. It took awhile for people to catch on. ‘Citizen Kane’ is really a bunch of miniature themes. But they worked dramatically, just as they did in radio.”
An affection for unusual instrumentation also helped define Herrmann’s work. In Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) — an Elfman favorite — he used two electronic musical devices called theremins, an electric violin and an electric bass to create an alien vibe. And for Nicholas Ray’s film noir “On Dangerous Ground” (1952), Herrmann added the warm, sweet sound of the viola d’amore to an otherwise hard-edged score.
“You can hear a strong classical influence in a lot of excellent composers for movies,” Elfman says. “Herrmann is almost an exception. It’s as if he was making his own palette, off the classical music chart.”
Herrmann’s volatile temper created problems in his career. And as Hollywood moved away from traditional scoring for full orchestra, he seemed unwilling (or perhaps unable) to adjust. It was the primary cause of his permanent break with Hitchcock in 1966. He also abhorred title songs for movies and refused to write them.
But some members of a new generation of filmmakers that was rising by the mid-1970s, such as Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, revered Herrmann. De Palma enlisted the composer to score “Sisters” (1973) and “Obsession” (1976), and Scorsese had him channel his talent toward jazz for “Taxi Driver.”
Because of Herrmann’s death, we’ll never know whether this reversal of fortune would have continued. But Elfman is skeptical that a composer of Herrmann’s ilk could succeed in today’s environment. “He was too much of an iconoclast,” Elfman says. “Plus, directors are much more involved in the musical process now.”
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to be gleaned from Herrmann’s work. “The uniqueness of what made cinema great came from artists like him,” Elfman says. “To not learn from that cuts us off from being great.”