Bernard Herrmann: Colour & Concept


Without the music of composer Bernard Herrmann, some great moments in cinema would lose their greatness. Turn off the sound during the famous kiss from Vertigo (1958), or the rain-soaked driving sequence from Psycho (1960), and what remains are either characters who appear to be fumbling around, or a sequence of images that do not hold the attention. A director of the calibre of Alfred Hitchcock, who was interested in ‘pure cinema’ (Truffaut), must have had absolute trust and understanding in Herrmann to grant the music the responsibility of carrying the bulk of the dramatic weight in such scenes.

Unfortunately, the Hitchcock-Herrmann collaboration came to a prickly end when the director, succumbing to commercial pressure over artistic values, rejected the composer’s score for Torn Curtain (1966). The rejection was made on the basis of the concept and colour of Herrmann’s score. Against the wishes of the film’s producers, its opening cue contained no melody that was easily recognizable. The composer had also assembled a most unorthodox orchestra to record his music: 12 flutes, 16 horns, 9 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of timpani, 8 cellos, and 8 basses. There were no trumpets; violins and violas were conspicuously absent. Far from any idiosyncrasy however, Herrmann was a conceptually-driven thinker who had thoughtfully selected a palette of instrumental colour according to his assessment of the film’s needs. Fortunately for us, we can now enjoy the music that was left behind. A re-recording of Herrmann’s Torn Curtain score is part of a superb series of re-recordings of the composer’s film music by conductor Joel McNeely:

torn curtain

Bernard Herrmann (1911-75) made brilliant and extraordinary conceptual choices in his use of colour to match music with image; whether to complement a particular visual atmosphere, character portrait, or narrative structure. He was a revolutionary in this regard, and stands in contrast to his predecessors: the generation of European emigre film-composers (Steiner, Korngold, Tiomkin, Waxman, Rozsa, Kaper) who used the full symphony orchestra as a matter of course in the 1930s and 40s to create and define the quintessential ‘Hollywood Sound’, albeit sumptuously and with incredible virtuosity. They were in fact distilling their influences of European Romanticism from the late 1900s, such as Strauss and Puccini (Korngold once allegedly remarked that Tosca was ‘the best film score ever written’)*.

As early in his career as 1941, for a radio show entitled Samson (broadcast on August 10th), Herrmann was rejecting his producer’s offer for the resources of a full symphony orchestra, scoring instead for the unusual combination of flute, mandolin, guitar, and four harps. “He was right, and the music was immense”, the producer later wrote**. Ironic (and sad) to consider that in today’s film-music industry a young composer may request an orchestra but be offered a motley crew of instruments instead.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Herrmann assimilated electronic instruments such as the theremin, electric violin, electric bass, and electric guitar very sensitively into the traditional orchestral fabric, creating a unique and appropriately other-worldly sonority. In White Witch Doctor (1953), in a scene involving a Tarantula, Herrmann writes for a Serpent – an obsolete instrument used by the original virtuoso orchestrators Berlioz and Wagner. Hermann also used the same instrument for Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) when a giant lizard was involved (MacDonald). We assume there was some glee to be had here.

For Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958), Herrmann employed another original palette for eerie and mystical effect in the cue The Forest: two bass clarinets, two vibraphones (with fast tremolo), muted brass, hammond organ (with fast tremolo), three english horns, and three double basses.

The sonority of acoustic and electronic colours is also exquisitely balanced in this cue. Herrmann was well aware that the film industry, in recording all of its music in the studio, offered the composer a crucial advantage that live concert-hall performance could not – at the mixing desk, the sounds of individual instruments could be carefully blended, their natural balances manipulated to create any manner of aural illusion:

“The motion picture soundtrack is an exquisitely sensitive medium, and with skillful engineering a simple bass flute solo, the pulsing of a bass drum, or the sound of muted horns, can often be more effective than half a hundred musicians sawing away.” – Herrmann in a NY Times article from 1941 (Cooper)

In the score for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1975, Herrmann’s last), there is a remarkable passage which displays the composer’s ear for balancing disparate and presumedly incompatible sonorities. At 5’45” in the clip below, the delicate sound of a Fender Rhodes ‘floats’, seemingly effortlessly, over a dense choir of brass. Admittedly, this illusion of balance can be appreciated fully in the recorded medium:

This is not to say that Herrmann was averse to using a conventional orchestral forces. If he felt it was appropriate for the film, he would write for it, but evidently his philosophy was to retain the option to custom-make his sonic palette in order to enjoy as much flexibility as possible. In the Scène d’amour music from Vertigo, not to mention in the Rooftop Prelude, Herrmann was well aware of the expressive power of a full-sized symphony orchestra, and knew exactly when to unleash it.


I believe Alex Ross said it best when he remarked that Vertigo is ‘a symphony for film and orchestra’. This immediately brings to mind the moment where Hitchcock captures, or rather engineers, the most searing of all screen kisses: Scottie and Madeleine (James Stewart and Kim Novak) stand locked in a long and ecstatic embrace, bathed in a ghostly mixture of light, while they are slowly encircled by the camera. It is cinematographically perfect (Roger Ebert calls it the ‘single greatest shot in all of Hitchcock’) but there is equal power in Bernard Herrmann’s music which seems to engulf the whole experience, translating best the the lovers’ innermost feelings.

The Scène d’amour music is inspired by (but not derivative of) Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and can stand confidently next to its model. It can also stand alone, as a lot of film music cannot when divorced from context. In fact, it would be encouraging to hear Scène d’amour featured by orchestras in ‘serious’ programs of American music. It is a part of the culture after all. And surely film-music that has reached the status of ‘art’ deserves to enter the concert repertoire?

psycho cd

We may ask this of some other well-known Bernard Herrmann film cues. The ‘Prelude’ of his strings-only score for Hitchcock’s Psycho is a case in point. In a mere two minutes, Herrmann is able to stitch together seamlessly several musical fragments, each imbued with a distinct feeling or subtext. They all coexist in a coherent whole, in the way that only music allows. He also sets up the story, overture-style. The harsh stabbing chords are able to foretell just as much as the anxiety-ridden ostinato, or the short-lived melodic line which speaks of more lyrical and tender things. I find this lyricism to be frustratingly ephemeral, but no doubt this was calculated for effect. It is not only a propos for the nature of the story (a tragedy after all, in which no one profits), but also works on a purely musical level. In the brief context of the Prelude, fleeting lyricism is just enough to keep the listener wanting, and on the edge.

‘Prelude’ (from the McNeely/RSNO recording)

Pieces like the Psycho Prelude, which are complex both independently as well as in accompaniment, reveal not only Herrmann’s great technical skill as a composer but also the shrewdness of his conceptual thinking. Why just a string orchestra? The composer himself spoke of its uniqueness of instrumental colour:

“Once Hitchcock made his decision to shoot Psycho in black-and-white I knew that musically I had to counter-reinforce his decision, and I decided to use only string instruments throughout the entire movie….to complement the black-and-white photography of the film with a black-and-white score.” (from two separate interviews: Wardell, 1976; Zador, 1971)*

Within its homogeneous sound, an orchestra comprising only string instruments – skillfully handled as it is throughout Psycho – is nonetheless able to provide a wide-ranging and expressive palette of tonal shading to match the many subtle nuances of black-and-white cinematography. Herrmann’s savvy choice most likely placed positive constraints on himself to create more understated musical effects for horror film scoring, given that audiences might have expected heavy brass or percussion. The decision was also logistically welcome, as Psycho was a low-budget production that Hitchcock was bankrolling himself.

There are more ingenious conceptual choices of colour that are highly instructive for all composers. From the very first note of the Prelude until the very last note of the score, Hermann instructs his strings to play con sordini, ‘with mutes’. String mutes serve to dampen vibrations and create a softer sound, and so of course the sonority is incredibly intimate for those cues marked at soft dynamic levels – The Bedroom and The Toys are but two of several examples. However, the string mutes are even more effective in loud passages, where the ‘suppressed’ quality of the sound is a perfect complement for, say, a character’s unrequited ambitions.

‘The Bedroom’ (from the McNeely/RSNO recording)

There is one notable exception to the use of mutes in the Psycho score: the infamous shower-scene cue The Murder contains the only music for which Herrmann asks that the mutes be removed. This is another well-imagined conceptual decision on his part, and as a result the most violent music of the film – ‘the most imitated music effect ever’ according to a Channel 4 documentary on Herrmann – is up-front and free to resonate at full volume.

While Psycho and Vertigo are mid-career masterpieces for Herrmann, we may ask: “How many film composers have begun and have ended their careers contributing to such classics as Citizen Kane (1941) and Taxi Driver?”. The quality of Herrmann’s music is consistent and striking throughout. A score as early as Kane reveals a soon-to-be revolutionary film composer creatively challenging the Hollywood aesthetic entirely on his own terms; making informed judgements about the meaning of the image before stand scoring each cue with its own particular combination of orchestral instruments – its own palette of colour. And thanks to releases of original soundtracks, as well as wonderful digital re-recordings of some classic Bernard Herrmann film scores, we can enjoy this very diverse music – in all its glorious colour and concept.



*Graham Bruce – Bernard Herrmann: Film Music & Narrative (UMI Research Press, 1985)

**Steven C. Smith – Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press, 1991)

David Cooper – Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: A Film Score Guide (Scarecrow Press, 2005)

François Truffaut – Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster, 1984)

Laurence E. MacDonald – The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History (Ardsley House, 1998)

“Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise.” ‘Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise’ Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <>.

“Vertigo Movie Review & Film Summary (1958) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <>.

Channel 4 Documentary – Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century Greats: Bernard Herrmann