Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hitchcock and Herrmann

Music Matters, BBC Radio 3’s magazine programme, started with a 15 minute item on film composer Bernard Herrmann last weekend. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Herrmann’s birth, so it’s an appropriate time to celebrate his major contribution to the development of music in the cinema, as well as to reassess the value of his small number of concert works, none of which made much impact in his lifetime despite receiving praise from some influential figures in the classical world. Herrmann was also the recent subject of the Composer of the Week slot on Radio 3, with plenty of biographical background material interpolated between the pieces played. You can hear a podcast of the spoken matter here, with short bursts of music giving a flavour of the variety of contexts and styles within which he worked. The Music Matters profile begins with the graduated build up of the opening theme from North by North West, immediately drawing our attention to the partnership which came to define Herrmann’s musical character more than any other: that with Alfred Hitchcock. It’s one of the most compelling pieces of title music ever composed, preparing the viewer from the outset for the tumultuous momentum of the story which is about to unfold.

Herrmann had originally been recommended to Hitchcock by David Selznick early on in his film composing career to provide the music for Spellbound, but he was unavailable at the time and the score was produced by Miklos Rosza. Rosza made use of the theremin as an indicator of psychotic interludes, presaging Herrmann’s use of it in a science fiction context in The Day the Earth Stood Still. A further link between the two would be forged later in their careers when Rosza scored the Ray Harryhausen film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, following on from Herrmann’s earlier score for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, along with several other Harryhausen movies. It would be almost a decade before Hitchcock and Herrmann finally got to collaborate, on the black comedy The Trouble With Harry in 1955, but they were to prove perfect partners, and enjoy an extremely fruitful artistic relationship for the next decade. It was probably propitious that there was a period of preparation before these two stubborn and unyielding men came together. Herrmann was by then well established in the film world and his standing enabled him to hold his own against Hitch and put forward his own ideas as to how music could enhance the mood of particular scenes.

Herrmann conducts
The two men got on well, and Herrmann was a regular visitor to Hitchcock and his wife Alma’s home in Santa Cruz, partaking of the gourmet food which was served up (possibly including Alma’s legendary home made pate) and probably sampling the contents of the extensive wine cellar. Both men had a brooding, romantic nature which they hid beneath a surface projection of character which seemed purposefully designed to keep people at bay. Hitch had his studied sardonicism, and Herrmann was possessed of a tetchy irascibility which readily flared into violent rages, and a pathological inability to suffer fools (into which category he seemed to place anyone who disagreed with him) gladly. Their guarded romantic natures came out in their work, however. They shared a taste for tales which focussed on romantic obsession, and Herrmann’s resultant comprehension of the deeper nature of Hitch’s work allowed him to provide music which fully conveyed the inner world of his characters. Hitchcock’s respected Herrmann’s musical instincts and his understanding of the emotional undercurrents and psychological complexities which needed to be expressed and brought to the surface. For a while, this was a real partnership of equals, creating a real marriage of sight and sound which became an indivisible part of the work as a whole. Coen Brothers composer Carter Burwell notes in the Music Matters programme that Herrmann’s scores had a real sense of unity, creating a particular set of moods for a film, something which also made them work in isolation, as the various suites which Herrmann subsequently created make clear. It’s no coincidence that this period of collaboration produced what were arguably the finest films of Hitch’s career, and certainly the most psychologically complex, formally daring and perhaps even personally revealing.

Resolving harmonies - Scottie and Madeleine in Vertigo
The peak of their work together was attained with Vertigo, for which Herrmann’s music is an ingrained and essential component. The obsessive nature of the film, with its spirals and vortices presented literally and in terms of the irresolute circularity of the plot are echoed in the rising and falling whole tone arpeggios of the theme, bursting forth and then fading away again like some promised revelation which never quite manages to fully surface. Herrmann’s music has affinities with the passionate swell of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, whose rising and expanding harmonies never find resolution until the final moment of violent consummation. In Vertigo, this moment comes with the crashing of the waves behind Scotty and Madeleine, which Herrmann expresses with the full orchestral force of late romantic passion. Martin Scorsese, in the special film music of Sight and Sound from September 2004, chose Herrmann’s Vertigo score as his favourite soundtrack, and talked of its thematic congruity with the picture. ‘Hitchcock’s film is about obsession’, he writes, ‘which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again. Which is why there are so many spirals and circles in the imagery…and the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for – he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession’.

The split with Hitchcock came at a time when both men’s personal lives were in turmoil. Herrmann’s second marriage was coming to an end, and Hitch’s fixation with his lead actresses was getting out of control as he behaved in an increasingly erratic fashion towards Tippi Hedren on and off the set of The Birds and Marnie. Universal was by this time pressing for more accessible music, preferably with hit theme song attached, having realised the lucrative market for soundtrack LPs. Hitch insisted on retaining Herrmann for Marnie and then Torn Curtain, but it was clear that he was never going to produce material that would sell a million records. His score for Torn Curtain called for a typically eccentric orchestral palette, with 16 French horns, 9 trombones producing low, ominous rumbles and blaring chords, overlaid with the occasional agitated flurries of the 12 flutes which he also called for. It created an appropriate atmosphere of tension and unease, with sudden jarring disruptions, but there were certainly no hummable themes. One particular point on which Herrmann differed with Hitch was in the scoring of the murder scene in which an East German secret policeman must be despatched without making sufficient sound to alert a taxi driver waiting outside. It’s one of the few scenes in the film which approaches the control and formal precision of Hitch’s finest work. Herrmann scored it with loud brass to express the state of panic and terror experienced by the inexperienced would-be killers (and it’s a mark of Hitchcock’s play with moral ambiguity that we are entirely behind them in this scene). It was one of three scenes in Hitchcock’s films for which Herrmann made the choice as to whether or not to use music. In North by North West he decided to leave the scene in which Cary Grant is menaced by a crop spraying plane unscored. He felt that the absence of sound save for the dry desert wind into which the rising crescendo of the plane’s motor approaching from the horizon was introduced, imperceptibly at first and then building to a deafening roar as it passes low overhead, was sufficiently atmospheric unto itself. In Psycho, he went against Hitch’s instructions to leave the shower scene without music, and won him over with the assault of the now signature stabbing strings. Both choices were entirely right for those scenes in those films. It has to be said, though, that the scene in Torn Curtain does work better without music. Its absence emphasises the need for this act of violence to be carried out in silence, and heightens the long drawn-out effortfulness of the killing.

Herrmann didn’t get the chance to argue his case anyway. Hitchcock came to the recording sessions and almost immediately took violent umbrage with the nature of the score. Herrmann naturally responded in kind, and Hitch stormed out, thus abruptly ending what had been one of the greatest collaborations between director and composer in cinema history, one which was mutually beneficial to the creative powers of both. According to Donald Spoto’s biography of Hitchcock, Herrmann did later pay a visit to his office to make some attempt at reconciliation, but Hitch hid behind the door and pretended he wasn’t in. He’d clearly decided that Herrmann was history. It’s noticeable that in Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock, Herrmann gets only one mention, and that in the context of The Birds, a film for which he worked alongside Remi Gassmann and Oskar Sala as advisor for the production of the electronic sounds of the birds which were produced on the Trautonium. ‘I asked Bernard Herrmann to supervise the whole soundtrack’, Hitch recalls. ‘When musicians compose a score, or orchestrate, they make sounds rather than music. We used only sounds for the whole of the picture. There was no music’. This can’t help but sound like a dismissal of Herrmann’s invaluable contribution to his films as a whole. Herrmann himself was later philosophical (with a touch of self-aggrandisement), observing of his work for Torn Curtain ‘it’s a shame – it was a good score…I told him, ‘Hitch, what’s the use of my doing more with you?…I had a career before, and I will afterwards’. Perhaps its best to remember their relationship through Herrmann’s suite which he created from his music for The Trouble With Harry and titled A Portrait of Hitch. It’s opening sounds like it’s going to launch into the theme from the Alfred Hitchcock presents theme tune, but it develops into a composite portrait. Jaunty, dance-like rhythms give way to sinister driving strings, a-la Psycho, suggesting Hitch’s dark, macabre sense of humour. There are also passages of tender romanticism, music box waltzes and an airy pastoral impressionism which reflects Herrmann’s love of twentieth century English music (he claimed that the greatest moment of this life was meeting Vaughan Williams after a performance). It’s a lovely tribute to his former friend, and one which shows that he really did understand his complex nature.

The Music Matters programme drew attention to the Hitchcock and Herrmann ‘Partners in Suspense’ conference which is taking place in the arts faculty of the York St John University between 24th and 26th March, which will include a performance on the 25th by the Tippett Quartet at the Royal York Hotel. They are set to play several Herrmann pieces, including his 1966 string quartet Echoes, a lyrical and rather melancholic work. There’s also a quartet arrangement of the suite from Psycho and what looks like it might be an adaptation by David Lancaster of the Vertigo music. Concert works by Herrmann’s fellow film composers Erich Korngold and Miklos Rosza are also included. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra is also performing Herrmann’s suite from Vertigo in Glasgow and Edinburgh on the 17th and 18th (that’s tomorrow and Friday), so you’ve still got a chance to go along if you’re in either of those fine cities.

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