Bernard Hermann is perhaps one of the finest movie scorers and composers ever to have walked this earth. His collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock is seen as being extremely important and in films such as Vertigo and Psycho he achieved a certain amount of notoriety for using advanced techniques in his musical scores which made it hard for the audience to accept at first but which also demonstrated that he could wield his influence greatly without any qualms or restrictions.
Herrmann was born in New York in 1911 and studied at the Juilliard School. In 1934 he joined CBS radio and soon graduated to conducting the CBS Symphony Orchestra; it was at this time that he started to compose and conduct music for radio dramas. Within a short time he had moved on to film scores, travelling to Hollywood on the wake of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941. From the beginning, Herrmann was determined to create something new and different from the swoony, Romantic music practised throughout the 1930s by European emigré composers.
Herrmann felt that the very nature of cinema itself required music, but what marked him out from older film composers was his choice of what to illustrate musically. Rather than
portraying or commenting on what was on screen with snatches of melody and little
thematic reverences (like a flurry of sea-shanties for a shot of a sailing-ships), he concentrated on the psychological state of the characters, almost to the exclusion of everything else. A Herrmann film score can be dominated not only by one character’s neuroses, but also by a single sound world, such as the monochrome string orchestra
Long stretches of the Hitchcock-Herrmann films have no dialogue, and we find ourselves anxiously watching a single character while the music winds up the tension to an unbearable degree: in Psycho, Janet Leigh drives for hours along the freeway, away from the scene of her theft towards the scene of her abrupt murder, accompanied all the way by the relentless sound of racing
The score for Vertigo opens with a staccato reference to the height theme which recurs quite often in the movie. The themes are more often than not interlinked and also contain an amount of reflection as the strings are also used quite often especially in the manner with which they describe the main characters of the film which are Scottie, the private detective and Madeline, the doomed woman.
The music that opens Vertigo is classic Herrmann: gently spinning in space, it draws the viewer into James Stewart’s dream-like state. But Herrmann also knew when to break out of these repetitions and deliver the winning punch when the film demanded it: at the point in Vertigo when Stewart’s dream seems to have come true, the music blossoms out into an ecstatic expression of love. Another famous example is the sudden outburst of shrieking violins that accompanies the murders in Psycho: so horrific are the events that normal music is forced to give way to inhuman sound.
Probably Hitchcock’s greatest achievement, Vertigo tells the tale of a troubled detective who becomes obsessed with the woman he intends to shadow. Once again James Stewart is a magnificent actor who plays about with the audience especially where it concerns the fear of heights and which is the film’s major strongpoint. The music used by Hermann observes several actions from the film and is almost continuous in certain parts it is also crucial and very important to the whole storyline.
Smith, Steven C. (1991). A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. US: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07123-9.
Cooper, David (2001). Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook. US: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31490-X.
Cooper, David (2005). Bernard Herrmann's The Ghost and Mrs Muir: A Film Score Guide. US: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-5679-4.
Johnson, Edward (1977). Bernard Herrmann - Hollywood's Music-Dramatist - Foreword by Miklos Rozsa. Rickmansworth, UK: Triad Press - Bibliographical Series No. 6.