Bernard Herrmann: A Lesser Known Legend

Bernard Herrmann: A Lesser Known Legend

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bernard hermann 220x150 Bernard Herrmann: A Lesser Known LegendAlmost every aspect of Citizen Kane has been lauded, analysed and replicated to the point that it’s almost become a cliché of a film. At the same time the infamous War of The Worlds radio broadcast, and the (no doubt overstated) ensuing widespread panic at impending alien invasion, have become a leading urban legend.

While Orson Welles has rightly taken the glory for these projects, there seems to be little trickle down effect to the man who stood beside him during both – Bernard Herrmann; a motion picture composer who is only really rivalled by John Williams. Despite this though, he hasn’t made the leap from being known in film circles into being known more widely.

Probably the most famous homage paid to him in recent times was when Quentin Tarnatino used his piece “Twisted Nerve” in Kill Bill.

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So what’s his story? He showed himself to have prodigious talent early on, winning composition prizes from the age of 13 onwards and after forming his own orchestra he took a fairly corporate role, working up to become the head of the CBS orchestra. He did good work here, but it was his meeting with Welles, and his shadowing him into the movies that would lead him to become legendary.

He only worked with Welles once on a film after Citizen Kane -but by then he had already struck out on his own, winning an Oscar for the score to “The Devil and Daniel Webster”.

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This happened to be the only Academy Award he would get;  the piece is good, but his later work is fantastic. Unlike many actors who give a good performance, miss the Oscar, then get it years later for a less deserving role out of an “it’s now or never” Academy mentality, Bernard won before he had peaked.

His peak in fact came by teaming up with another great director – Alfred Hitchcock – with whom he worked on almost every notable film in the 50s and 60s, the most iconic of course being Psycho:

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For the legendary shower scene we owe just as much to Hermmann as Hitchcock, the latter of whom had wanted to have no music. Hermann was robust to the point of being pig headed though and forced through the decision to have it accompanied. It’s hard to imagine its impact being so well preserved without the classic stabbing violins that mirror the unseen action.

However, this incident hints at the real reason Herrmann is so important to remember. There is a real danger of less importance being put on to the soundtracks of films. While there’s no empirical way to prove this, and egregious examples like There Will Be Blood stand out against the theory, my general feeling is this is happening. Even the endearing mid-90s phenomenon of rap music at the end of kids’ films which seemed to set a playful tone have been replaced all too often with a bland disposable pop offering.

In the parallel universe of television, long opening credits have become eschewed in favour a quick flash of the logo (“Lost” being probably the most obvious example). There has never been as much need for this in film. Movie audiences are fish in a barrel, so you don’t have to worry about them changing channel during the opening. You can build up suspense without them changing to another film. The problem is though that scores cost money – and if TV audiences seem happy without them, it’s only time before execs look at that as a licence to slash costs.

Herrmann is the strongest example against this. He worked on Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, Jason and the Argonauts and a whole host more (his IMDB page will have you going “ooo really, that was him?”). It was no coincidence these films all became iconic. With a composer like Herrmann setting the tone just right, so much becomes implied that you can get away with subtleties in acting you never thought possible.

Herrmann was to pass away in 1975, at the age of just 64 – an age too young, but not young enough for it to be considered a tragedy and bestow on him the sort of “musical genius” status that often goes hand in hand with a premature death. For Hermann instead his legacy seems to be binary. Those who know him love him, everyone else seems not really to have heard of him.  Next month will mark 100 years since his birth – perhaps on reflection of his work the BBC might stretch to more than a quick profile on Radio Three. What is more likely though is that Bernard Herrmann will remain a lesser known legend.

Post By Nick Barber, Editor over at TMM.