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Bernard Hermann


Bernard Herrmann is one of the most important film composers of the 20th century. He was a key figure in creating the genre of film music and developed a musical language that was ideally suited to easily fitting to varying lengths of scene. Earlier film composers such as Korngold and Steiner with European classical music background, often wrote 'big tunes'  in the style of classical stage music. Usually orchestrated with a wash of strings these melodies were often very good - too good! They move into the foreground of the viewer's mind, sometimes distracting from the visual story -telling. Also, when these big tunes came to an end on the tonic, they often gave a finality to a scene that better suited the set pieces of opera, operetta or ballet than the new style of filmic communication that was now developing.

Herrmann, on the other hand, made strong use of short repeated rhythmic phrases and ostinati. These could be readily repeated to fit the length of a scene and provided a feeling of onward motion appropriate to much strong filmic story-telling such as suspense and thriller films. Repeated rhythmic patterns were of course well known to the improvising pianists and organists of the silent film days - the 'vamp 'till ready' technique. They had also became an idiosyncratic element of the highly original classical music of Janacek. We don't know whether Herrmann was ever familiar with Janacek's music, but his rhythmic techniques presaged those used by minimalist composers several decades later.

Herrmann's also developed a use of harmony that was particularly suited to film. It is no accident that he was the composer for some of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films. He made strong use of augmented chords (as in jazz) which provided a certain unease. However, he particular used overlapping harmonies that left a scene feeling unresolved - ideal for building tension in the storytelling of a thriller. The tensions produced by overlapping harmonies and their ability to help build a powerful climax are nowhere better illustrated than in the works of Charles Ives. It comes as no surprise therefore to learn that Herrmann as a teenager was a friend of Ives - then an old man. With Ives as a friend and the wayward genius Percy Grainger as an orchestration teacher at the Julliard School, it was no wonder that Herrmann chose his own path and had little respect for the mainstream.

Grainger, with his own highly original orchestrations, would surely have influenced the young Herrmann. Herrmann realised that film music allowed (even encouraged) orchestrations which were not practical in a formal concert hall situation. His orchestrations are inventive and chosen to underline the atmosphere of the film. At times, he deliberately limits his palette, as in Psycho. At other times, he calls on highly unusual forces as in (his unused music to) Marnie. In The Day The Earth Stood Still he made evocative use of the electronic instrument the Theremin. The film score did not need to tie itself to the forces of the 19th century symphony orchestra. It also did not have to follow the constraints of an acoustic performance. Some instruments could be 'miked up' and others 'miked down'. This added a new tool for the orchestrator. However, it was a tool he used sparingly.

Some forthcoming performances featuring music by Bernard Hermann:

___________________  White Hat  ___________________

Selected Sheet Music by Bernard Hermann