Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 29 June 1911, NYC; d 24 December 1975, Los Angeles) Composer and conductor, becoming famous in the movies. Few composers for Western cinema achieved as much as Herrmann. Born into a Jewish immigrant family, he studied at Juilliard and New York U. At the age of 20 he formed the New Chamber Orchestra, which gave concerts in New York and Washington DC. He joined CBS in 1933, where he scored background music in the golden age of radio, and worked as staff conductor for CBS into the 1940s, championing Delius, Charles Ives and Rubbra, giving the first American performance of Walton's First Symphony.

Herrmann's theatrical sense was exhibited early. For Orson Welles' sensational radio play The War of the Worlds, Herrmann supplied the sound of the hotel orchestra whose broadcast is interrupted by the Martian invasion. He composed the cantata Moby Dick in the late 1930s and began a four-act opera Wuthering Heights in 1940 but didn't finish it until 1952: he suddenly became one of the greatest of film composers, winning an Oscar first time out for All That Money Can Buy/The Devil And Daniel Webster in 1941 (directed by William Dieterle). His second film was Welles' Citizen Kane the same year (including the 'opera'), followed the next year by the The Magnificent Ambersons (in which he indulged his liking for the waltz). He worked on almost 50 films altogether, and his pre-existing work was used on several more films after he died.

He first worked with Alfred HItchcock in The Trouble With Harry in 1955, and the following year played the conductor in The Man Who Knew Too Much (a shooting takes place in the Albert Hall, in a loud moment in the music). Perhaps the most famous sequence in cinematic music was his, when actor Anthony Perkins's cold steel knife is accompanied by violin shrieks in Alfred Hitchcock's shower scene in Psycho '60 (the shrieks were also an aural reference to the stuffed birds in the murderer's parlour). Psycho was a masterpiece, but Herrmann's career was littered with music that underscored dramatic moments in ways that flew in the face of Hollywood orthodoxy, such as the scene in Hitchcock's Vertigo '58 where, like some Wagnerian trompe-loeil, Kim Novak emerges from the bathroom as the spitting image of James Stewart's dead love. As David Thomson put it, 'He knew how to make music that came not just from the action we are seeing or the characters, not just from the heart of a film or the incoherent dream of its director, but from the unique marriage of a particular film and the large medium.' Herrmann's contribution helped the film's success as a work of art.

Other Herrmann scores included Jason And The Argonauts '63, Marnie '64 (Hitchcock again) and Fahrenheit 451 '66. Hermann was an autocrat and a perfectionist (perhaps the reason he got along with Orson Welles in the early years), and he quarrelled with Hitchcock over Torn Curtain '66. Living in London, he scored a succession of mundane films such as Endless Night '72, returning from relative obscurity to score two films written by Paul Shrader: Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Brian De Palma's Obsession. (The closing credits for Taxi Driver gave 'Our gratitude and respect, Bernard Herrmann, June 29, 1911--December 24, 1975.') Both scores were nominated for Oscars.

From Citizen Kane To Taxi Driver '93 on Milan gathered together a selection of film soundtrack output and featured Elmer Bernstein conducting the RPO. Herrmann's original soundtrack recordings themselves are scattered over many labels including Colpix, Columbia, Mercury, Pye, RCA and Virtuoso.

Herrmann had a knack of underpinning a narrative like few others; the shower scene music in Psycho became an iconic part of Hollywood culture. His influence is pervasive, for it inspires a non-conformist spirit and alternative approach to stock situations in movie narratives; for example, Herrmann has also been cited as an influence on Geoff Barrow of Portishead, whose music owes a deep debt to film and television soundtrack music.