Monday, 29 June 2009

Herrmann's Worlds Beyond

Another fantastic LP cropped up amongst the records donated to the Exeter Oxfam music shop the other day, one particularly close to my heart. The film composer Bernard Herrmann is best known for his scores for some of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Hollywood thrillers, to whose success he contributed more than a little. Hitchcock’s oeuvre never reached the same heights after the two departed on less than friendly terms. But this record features Herrmann’s own re-recordings of scores for fantasy and science fiction films which span the years from 1950 to 1966. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and The Day the Earth Stood Still were films I loved when I was a boy. They had an atmosphere of magic and mystery which absolutely entranced me and I now realised that it was Herrmann’s music as much as the visual spectacle which in large part wove that spell of bewitchment (and no doubt led me towards my lifelong love of the fantastic in film and literature).

Journey to the Centre of the Earth featured the redoubtable James Mason and the somewhat less impressive Pat Boone. The music features Herrmann’s usual innovative blend of instrumental colours. The feeling of romantic sublimity created by the volcanic Icelandic backdrops is summoned by church organ chords of ecclesiastical awe. The eerie beauty of the subterraenean world is evoked by tuned percussion and electronic organs, the reverb of vibraphones and the crystalline sparkle of electronic organs and harps echoing the cavernous spaces and iridescent glitter of jewel-like mineral deposits. The encounter with prehistoric creatures as the adventurers approach the centre of the world desperately needs the heft of a strong musical score, given that the creatures themselves are painfully obviously magnified lizards of a less than terrifying aspect (aaarghh, no, the gums!) Herrmann responds with aplomb, and also with a neat pun, reviving the renaissance instrument called the serpent, which has a perfectly lumbering saurian sound. It even looks like a coiled serpent, as the name would imply (albeit a serpent which resembles an overambitious portion of black pudding).

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad features a stirring theme for the opening titles and market scenes, a whirl of romantic Rimsky-Korsakov orientalism, a Thousand and One Nights dream of a magical onion domed Araby that never was. The yearning strings show what a great composer of romantic music Bernard Herrmann was (most notably in his aching themes for Vertigo and The Ghost and Mrs Muir). For the first of Ray Harryhausen’s immortal fighting skeleton scenes (he’d bring a whole squadron of the bony beggars into play in Jason and the Argonauts) Herrmann charts the action with the dry ossified sound of the xylophone, drawing and expanding on Saint-Saens’ use of the same instrument for similar purposes in Danse Macabre.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is possibly, alongside Forbidden Planet, THE definitive science fiction score. Stuff Star Wars, with its return to post romantic musical forms merely another element in its retreat towards shallow familiarity. The Day the Earth Stood Still saw Herrmann employing electronic instrumentation alongside the standard orchestral colours to evoke the immensity of the cosmos as seen from Earth. The swoop of the theremin over the sparkling arpeggios of multiple harps, capped with the rising chords in the woodwind capture the feeling of immensity which you can feel whenever you look up into a clear night sky (if you are fortunate enough to have access to one). The theremin wasn’t a new instrument at this time (1950) having been around since about 1920, but it had largely been used for classical performances (chiefly by its major exponent Clara Rockmore) of a rather conservative nature. Only Edgard Varese had really explored its potential as a source of new sounds in his piece Ecuatorial (1932-34), although it was often replaced by the ondes martenot, since this was easier to play. After Herrmann’s score, the theremin became the default sound for science fiction films in the 50s, although its use in other films soon came to be a musical shortcut for the ‘creepy’, so much so that it crossed over into the horror genre too (arch showman William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill is a good example). Which just goes to show that it takes a great composer to turn such an instrument to sublime use. The theremin has re-appeared recently in scores by Howard Shore for Tim Burton’s homages to 50s SF and it’s creators, Mars Attacks and Ed Wood. So Herrmann can be said to have created a truly iconic sound to go alongside his oft-imitated (and parodied) Psycho stabbing shower strings.

Fahrenheit 451’s opening theme very much echoes the music for The Day the Earth Stood Still, but this time without the electronic component. The opening scene takes in a roofscape, with a proliferation of tv aerials (giving it an instant retro-futurist feel today) which indicate that the aetheric drift of Herrmann’s characteristic harp arpeggios and celestes (sounding very much like Neptune the Mystic from Holst’s The Planets, which Herrmann conducted) will soon be earthed. The rest of the score seems like a compendium of the composer’s characteristic themes, perhaps appropriately given that it was a work from his ‘mature’ period (1966), and one which came shortly after his break from Hitchcock (which occurred during the making of the latter’s Torn Curtain). There are the scurrying strings which accompanied Marion Crane’s flight in Psycho and which here follow the fire engines towards their inverted task. The circling romantic theme which echoes the yearning chords which surrounded Kim Novak’s enigmatic character in Vertigo. The trilling blare of horns, which reminds of the great cross-cutting dance of the chase from North by Northwest. And the final downward sweep of chords which is another Herrmann trademark.

This is a great selection of Herrmann’s music, which I see has recently been re-issued in a super-duper high-fidelity remaster, currently going for silly money online. This record was released in Decca’s Phase 4 stereo series, and is presumably therefore also of particularly impressive fidelity. Sounded alright to me, anyway. It’s currently up on Oxfam’s e-bay pages, here, until 5th July.

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