This week I bring my film composer’s spotlight to a close. I know there are still many more to cover. I plan on revisiting this topic. But I digress. I am wrapping this month’s spotlight with the most prolific of all film composers: Bernard Herrmann.
During week one of this spotlight I discussed the incredible film collaborative team of John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Before them was the dynamic duo of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock.Herrmann and Hitchock worked together on so many masterpieces. But the best for my money is Herrmann’s chilling score for Psycho.
The music for the shower scene is,in my humble opinion,the most terrifying in all of cinema. Every time I hear it I get the chills. But even the prelude music is incredible. It builds the tension right away during the credits. The music is chaotic and thrilling,a perfect way to set-up the movie. Aside from the shower scene and prelude music,pay attention to the way Herrmann reuses the main theme to signal the audience that something bad is about to happen. A great example is the scene of Martin Balsam going up the stairs. There’s this really calm,jaunty music,and then you hear those shrieking violins. Horrifying! Herrmann knows how to make an already scarier moment even scarier. The whole score is a work of genius.
Another of my favorite Herrmann scores is his iconic score for the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.
It has an otherworldly vibe that’s just perfect for the story. If you listen to the score you’ll lots of Theremin. This was one of the first films to feature a largely electronic score. The way Herrmann got the creepy,atmospheric sound was to use two Theremins: one pitched higher and one pitched lower. The effect is music straight out of The Twilight Zone. Random fun fact: this score inspired Danny Elfman to become a composer. Who wouldn’t be inspired by such incredible music?
Changing gears completely,I’d like to bring to your attention Bernard Herrmann’s amazing work on Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver. This one is a favorite of mine largely due to the wonderfully moody saxophone part.
It has a groovy jazz feel. But what makes it all the more effective is when you hear it played as the main character (the taxi driver of the title) drives through the rough,and sometimes lonely,streets of New York. This is especially true at night. It accentuates the beautiful night cinematography just perfectly. The score for Taxi Driver really gives us a feeling of longing and sometimes emptiness. That goes right to the core of the struggles of Travis Bickle,the film’s protagonist. It’s a great blend of smooth jazz and symphonic film music
To wrap this up,I’d like to touch on his haunting,romantic score to one of my favorite classic film discoveries of the past year: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
There’s the beautiful romantic theme for Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) and Captain Daniel (Rex Harrison). The music also does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of a person who is struggling to find her way in the world (the Gene Tierney character,a widow). And of course the sweeping yet simple score really gives you the feeling of living near the vast and beautiful sea. It’s a score that is haunting,romantic,playful and adventurous. I won’t reveal the ending to those who haven’t seen it. But,suffice it to say,Herrmann’s score elevates it to something truly moving. You won’t forget it anytime soon.
Bernard Herrmann’s resume also includes: Citizen Kane,Vertigo,Jason and the Argonauts,North By Northwest,Jane Eyre,etc. His contribution to film cannot be overstated. Many classic films wouldn’t be classics without his musical genius. Imagine Psycho without those piercing violins. It loses a lot of its power. The same can be said of almost all of his scores. Bernard Herrmann is fittingly recognized as a film composing legend today. If you’ve seen a great classic film,chances are his name appeared in the credits.
That wraps things up for film composer month! Join me in April when I highlight the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.