Photo of a Bernard Herrmann score

Bernard Herrmann, Contradictions and Ostinatos...

Posted on Fri 16 Feb 2018

Critic Michael Beek reflects on the qualities underpinning the unique talent of composer Bernard Herrmann, whose scores include Psycho and Vertigo.

As the steely blade of a faceless killer came slashing down in the bathroom of Cabin One of the Bates Motel, Marion Crane’s screams were aided and abetted by the terrifying shriek of violins. Film music would never be the same again. The utter violence, in fact unseen, was augmented in our minds not just by the clever cutting of film, but by the film’s composer Bernard Herrmann, whose ingenious methods created movie history. This was anything but a one off, however; in fact Herrmann’s role in shaping the way films are scored today was begun much further back in Hollywood’s past.

While audiences in 1960 couldn’t fail to remember the name Bernard Herrmann after that shower shocker, the decade actually marked the descent of Herrmann’s career into something akin to miscellany as in just six years his fruitful collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock – one of the greatest in film history – would come to the bitterest of ends, along with his tumultuous career in Hollywood film. But like all great film heroes, Herrmann bounced back and had begun to enjoy a great renaissance in the early 1970s before his untimely death on Christmas Eve, 1975, just hours after completing the recording of his score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Three notes signal the end of that final score, rising and falling, with them a sense of human tragedy and some despair. This musical motif was a favourite of Herrmann’s, it appears in other works (most famously in Psycho as the ‘Mad House’ theme, but realised in earlier non-film compositions) and underscores the composer’s own life, one littered with frustration, misunderstanding and of course success along the way. That success wasn’t easily attained though, as even as a young man Bernard Herrmann carried with him the air of a renegade, a maverick. Always questioning people’s motives, single-minded and impossibly stubborn, the young Herrmann cut a memorable figure in 1920s and 30s New York. The son of a well-to-do Russian Jew, Bernard wanted for nothing – except perhaps love – and his cultural and artistic upbringing allowed him to break into, sometimes literally, New York’s heady music circles. Soon gaining a reputation for encyclopaedic musical knowledge, unusual tastes – indeed he was a champion of new American music, not to mention English music – Herrmann longed to conduct his own orchestra, compose major works and share his favourite music with audiences; he went on to achieve all of these things.

With the emergence of radio as a form of entertainment, Herrmann embraced the medium, seeing it is a fine way of getting not just his music, but the music of those he championed heard. Concerts from New York were regularly broadcast and syndicated across the US and Herrmann, along with other young burgeoning talents such as Johnny Green, David Raksin and Jerome Moross, found a platform for their music. Each would go on to have their own successes in Hollywood, but it was often Herrmann’s music that would stand out from the crowd. This ‘programme’ music was a fine pre-cursor to his original radio music and then film music, given its basis on incident, theme and story. In his early years at CBS Herrmann would create underscore for poetic readings, classic novels and of course live drama and his ability in this regard was recognised immediately; indeed Herrmann went on to create some of the most vital and original dramatic music heard on the radio. Those years at CBS served as a training ground for what followed and work with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air allowed the first major notable collaboration of his career to begin, the one which would take him from the East to the West Coast to dip a toe in the choppy waters of Hollywood film music…

While initially wary of a move to Hollywood, Bernard Herrmann recognised cinema’s potential, later citing it as “undoubtedly the most artistic development of the 20th Century.” The challenges faced by a composer in film were largely down to time, i.e. there wasn’t much of it and turnaround for a full film score was a matter of weeks. Herrmann, being the controlling artist he was, found the idea of passing his compositions to a team of orchestrators to ‘flesh out’ – which was the done thing during the studio era, and still is to a point today – completely abhorrent and against everything he felt a composer, as originator of a piece of ‘art’, stood for. Lucky for him his first forays into movie music allowed him full control of his music, indeed he was given the luxury of working on his first film Citizen Kane before the cameras even began to roll, which was unheard of. That film, directed by Orson Welles, set a new standard for motion pictures, not just with its astounding use of cinematography, lighting and dramatic arc, but also with its use of music.

In 1941 the big players in Hollywood film music were largely all European composers who had fled the Nazi occupation. The likes of Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner, each brought with them the sounds and style of romantic opera music. From the lush orchestrations and large Viennese style orchestras, to the use of thematic musical identifiers for characters, places and moods (known as ‘Leitmotif’), not to mention the use of melody, the Hollywood sound was born of these men. While that key style forms the basis of many a film score today, it was the emergence of Bernard Herrmann, and in particular his music for Citizen Kane, that added an extra and much needed dimension to all that would follow.

Aside from injecting some of the first strains of ‘Americana’ into film music, Bernard Herrmann was, quite simply, able to get under the skin of the film he was scoring, his music relaying to the audience the psychology of the characters and situations. Where Korngold and Steiner were embellishing with fanfares and flourishes, Herrmann was perhaps understating with furtive instrumentation, shorter passages and a distinct absence of melody – he was a fan of the ‘Ostinato’, a short repeated motif of a few notes. For Herrmann it was all about light and shade, creating the perfect accompaniment and tone for the picture, and that meant using whatever worked best. Gone was the standard symphony orchestra proper, and in its place an orchestra suited to the score itself. Herrmann felt that as the ensemble would be gathered for what was essentially a one-time-only performance, it could be an ensemble of his design, serving only his music and the needs of the film. While this notion can be traced back to his days in radio music, its use in film was more than revolutionary and his ‘unconventional’ ensembles would regularly serve him well. Aside from his earlier experiments in Kane and beyond, the 1950s were particularly fertile and creative. A wealth of electric instruments were employed for The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), five organs were added into the mix for Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), while nine harps created a heady underwater cacophony for Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953). The score for Psycho was of course famous for its string-only orchestra… ‘black and white music for a black and white film’, he insisted.

Herrmann’s influence, not just on those around him, but on those who followed in his footsteps extends to the present day as composers set to work on film scores in the Herrmann mould and with varying degrees of success. Psycho alone is perhaps the most mimicked score of all time, whether as homage or just plain theft. Danny Elfman, one of Hollywood’s most recognisable names, re-recorded the original score for Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake in 1998 and pins his love of the art form and in turn his own ambitions down to Herrmann:

“It was during a screening of The Day The Earth Stood Still that I first became aware of film music and of an artist who created the film music. At that moment I realised that the music moved me, and that it was a human, personal artistic effort, not some music machine that turned it out. From that point on, if I saw Bernard Herrmann’s name in the beginning of a movie, I knew there was something special, something extra, and I think that’s where my love of film music began.”

That personal effort Elfman speaks of would have pleased Herrmann, as it’s fair to say he put his heart and soul into everything he wrote, however it was received. The music is so much a part of the man that each work, each score, appears to be another window into a seemingly unknowable mind. Wherever he went, whoever he encountered, Herrmann’s abrasive manner and curmudgeonly rancour went with him, sometimes preceding him. Looking back on his colourful life and career though, there are obviously moments of happiness, joy and personal satisfaction. His heart was open to beauty and what little he did give of himself in real life, is certainly outweighed by what he gave in his music. The music is at times frantic, furious, understated, melancholic and oozing drama; it’s a little over the top at times, always meticulously considered and longing to be noticed… but more than anything it’s beautiful - a strangely tragic, ironic and ultimately contradictory beauty. Much like the man himself… Happy 100th Mr. Herrmann.


For the definitive Psycho listening experience seek out Varèse Sarabande Records’ wonderful digital re-recording of the complete score, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely (VSD-5765, ).

Also Silva Screen Records’ ‘Bernard Herrmann, The Essential Film Music Collection’ is exactly that, if you need an all-encompassing account of the composer’s work in film from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver, via Psycho, Cape Fear, Jason and the Argonauts and Obsession. (SILCD1208, available from

Michael Beek, May 2011

Related Links:
Michael Beek
The Bernard Herrmann Society
The Bernard Herrmann Estate