Bernard Herrmann: The Early Years

An appreciation by Roger Hall
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.81, 2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Roger Hall

Bernard Herrmann“I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters… It can propel narrative forward or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry” So wrote Bernard Herrmann for a 1972 London recording, Music From Great Film Classics. This album featured music from three of his greatest early scores: CITIZEN KANE, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and JANE EYRE – all of them associated with Orson Welles as director, writer, and actor. Welles was obviously one of his greatest mentors; in fact, Herrmann usually singled him out as the director who best understood the importance of music in a film.

Unfortunately, Herrmann is often remembered for his rude and obnoxious behavior, especially when dealing with film producers. He did lose some film assignments because of his outspoken remarks and violent temper. But in the final analysis that’s not as important as what he composed. Besides his work with Welles, he worked with other major film directors: William Dieterle, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese. Herrmann’s importance is appreciated by several of today’s top film composers, namely Elmer Bernstein and Danny Elfman. Both consider Herrmann to be one of the greatest film composers from the past.

Herrmann and Film Music

The late film historian Tony Thomas agreed with that assessment. In his marvelous book, Film Score: The Art & Craft of Film Music, he wrote: “Bernard Herrmann’s place in the history of film scoring is now quite easy to place. A good case can be made for him as the most important of all American film composers, and it is possible to support that claim with a generous amount of his work on recordings.”

Speaking from a personal perspective, I never met Bernard Herrmann. Yet I’ve admired him through his magnificent music, both in films and on recordings. I can remember watching the monumental classic; CITIZEN KANE, when it was first shown on television back in the mid-1950s. In a sense, it was the early years for both the composer and this young listener. That was long before it was voted the best American film of the century. When selecting the Top 100 Film Scores of the century for Film Music Review – The Web Magazine, I put KANE at the top of the list. He had eight scores on the list, more than any other film composer.

Herrmann’s score is truly operatic in its scope. In fact, his use of specific themes for characters or objects (such as “Rosebud”) is similar to the same technique used by Wagner and other operatic composers. Herrmann wanted to be considered as a classical composer. He composed a symphony, some chamber music, music for radio, a few vocal works, and an opera. Yet he will probably be forever linked to his innovative film music.

Bernard Herrmann composed for films and television for over three decades. His music may be broken down into three time periods:

(1) Early (1941-1954)
(2) Middle (1955-1965)
(3) Late (1966-1976)

You can find a more detailed discussion of Herrmann’s entire career by reading Steven C. Smith’s excellent biography: A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. I’ll only be discussing the first period here.

Early Years

Before he began to work on the Hitchcock films in his middle period, Herrmann composed sixteen film scores. These scores were produced for just two motion picture studios: RKO (4 films) and 20th Century Fox (12 films). This is the list of films which Herrmann worked on, arranged by genre:

Romance: THE GHOST AND MRS. MUlR (1947)
Thriller: FIVE FINGERS (1952)
Western: GARDEN OF EVIL (1954)
Epic: THE EGYPTIAN (co-composed with Alfred Newman; 1954)

Herrmann Speaks

Bernard HerrmannFortunately, during his lifetime, Herrmann gave his thoughts about film music in general and his scores in particular. There is a very intriguing recorded commentary by Herrmann, one of only a few available, included on the final track of the 1993 Milan CD, Bernard Herrmann Film Music (35643-2), where Herrmann spoke about film music in general: “The development of cinema is undoubtedly the most important artistic development of the 20th century… Today a composer who writes for the cinema reaches a worldwide audience… If I may be bold enough, that with very few exceptions, a film cannot come to life without the help of music of some kind.”

Next, he talks of his work with two of the best known Hollywood film directors. He explains that Orson Welles “dealt with characters, with people’s emotions and attitudes. While Hitchcock deals very rarely with character portrayal, or has little or no interest in people’s emotions… his interest in music is only in relationship to how the suspense can be heightened… one has to create a landscape for each film, whether it be the rainy night of PSYCHO or the turbulence of a picture such as VERTIGO, as against in CITIZEN KANE, a picture of people within a specific time and how they felt against external events, I mean of attitudes, of hatred, love, revenge.”

He goes on to describe the function of film scoring: “Film music must apply what an actor cannot say. The music must really convey what the word cannot do. If you’re dealing with an emotional subject this is the complete purpose of a film score. But if you’re dealing with a picture by Hitchcock or anyone film by someone of enormous skill and taste, a film is only made of segments that are put together and artificially linked by dissolves or cuts, or montages, and the many ways that a film can be made. It is the function of music to cement these pieces into one design that the audience feels that their sequence is inevitable. Now, it is one of the paradoxes of cinema music that music correctly used can be of very poor quality and be effective, or be music of magnificent quality and also serve its purpose.”

Bernard Herrmann Then he closes with his honest assessment of film music: “But the strange thing about cinema, and this would also go for television films, is that nobody really knows why music is needed. I would say that after a lifetime in it I could not tell you why. But it is not complete without it… I feel that it is a responsibility of any gifted composer of our time to do a certain of creative work in the media. I believe that all composers had to do music of their time that was needed. After all, Mozart and Haydn were not above writing dinner music, while their patrons ate… On the other hand, Bach thought nothing of writing his weekly cantata for church service. It’s only a question of the time in which one lives. The present time we live in it’s cinema that’s the great vehicle for contemporary music. And by contemporary music, I mean that you can have the most avant-garde musical techniques and an audience will accept it, providing it is compatible with the dramatic situation of the film.”

Returning to the opening remarks made by Herrmann on the London LP, he wrote: “I have been fortunate enough in having the opportunity of composing music for several films that have attained the unique status of being film classics, that is, films that have continued to be shown since they were first created and received public attention and demand through the media of the television networks and small cinema theatres… I feel that music is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.”

And who better to accomplish the task of “reaching out” than Herrmann? This was especially true in his early years, when he began with the greatest American film and ended with the first CinemaScope films at 20th Century Fox.

To put it more directly, Miklos Rozsa, reportedly said: “Herrmann was a Gulliver among the film music Lilliputians.”

Early Herrmann on Disc

The first Herrmann film score I heard was in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. I saw it in 1952, while on vacation in Washington, DC, where the story takes place. Being only a youngster, I had not heard of Herrmann. Yet the unusual sound of the orchestra in that film has stayed with me ever since I first heard it. What made it so unusual? Herrmann explained it on a 1974 London LP of his music: “With this earlier score, I attempted to balance a conventional orchestra consisting of piano, harps, brass and a large timpani section with a sizeable electronic group including two theremins, electronic violin, electronic bass and electronic guitar. There were no woodwinds. My goal here was to characterize a man from another world, and the music had to reflect an unearthly feeling of outer space without relying on gimmicks. The result seems to have been successful and most certainly predicted the shape of things to come for electronic scoring.”

The original soundtrack for THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was released, more than 40 years after the film’s debut, on a 20th Century Fox CD in 1993. Herrmann’s pioneering use of electronics would be followed by other composers. Elmer Bernstein used similar electronic instruments in his early score, ROBOT MONSTER, released in 1953. Even though that film is considered one of the worst of all time, Bernstein’s score is highly inventive and made a powerful statement.

Fortunately, many of Herrmann’s film scores have been released on CD, some just in suites, and others nearly complete. Among the best soundtracks available today are THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, GARDEN OF EVIL, and THE EGYPTIAN, newly recorded from the team of John Morgan and William Stromberg on Marco Polo. Varese Sarabande also released the original LP version of THE EGYPTIAN, and last year FSM came out with a fairly complete original soundtrack recording of the same score. Other Herrmann scores have received more than one CD release, such as CITIZEN KANE, JANE EYRE, and THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Among other notable Herrmann CDs are BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF from FSM; and several volumes of “Bernard Herrmann at Fox” on Varese Sarabande, collecting original soundtrack material from films such as ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, GARDEN OF EVIL, and KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES at the same time they were releasing new recordings of music from Herrmann’s middle period.

[CITIZEN KANE] Perhaps Herrmann’s most laudable score has also been his most frequently recorded, being included on numerous collections and a trio of recent complete CDs. How to choose from among those three CITIZEN KANE releases? Should you choose the 60th anniversary original soundtrack (Disconforme CD)? I wouldn’t recommend it. It has poor sound and consists of just the dialogue scenes; obviously dubbed from a video and produced as an Original Soundtrack. Should you choose instead the re-recording by the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Tony Bremner (43:26; Laserlight)? Or how about the one by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely (53:01/Varese Sarabande)? The McNeely version clearly has more music, but I prefer the Bremner CD for its brighter sound and more energetic pacing, plus more robust singing by Rosalind IIling in ‘Salaambo’s Aria.’ However, for me, the best version of the aria is Kiri Te Kanawa’s glorious singing with Charles Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra (RCA Victor/BMG – originally recorded in 1974). The rest of the KANE suite on this CD is equally outstanding. Herrmann sat in on these recording sessions when they were made in London. This CD also includes suites from BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF and WHITE WITCH DOCTOR, and contains one of the best performances of the ‘Concerto Macabre’ – performed by pianist Joaquin Achucarro. The opening track has ‘The Death Hunt’ from ON DANGEROUS GROUND. I would put this compilation of Herrmann film suites at the top of the list of must have collections.

There are two other collections worth recommending. First is a 2 CD set from Silva Screen: ‘Citizen Kane – The Essential Bernard Herrmann Film Music Collection,’ with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Paul Bateman and Nic Raine. The sound is superb. The two discs contain nearly two hours of Herrmann’s music, spanning his entire career. Of special significance is a ten minute suite from ON DANGEROUS GROUND. Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide states that this “was reportedly Herrmann’s favorite work.” I’ve read his favorite score was THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, which is one of my favorites as well – a gorgeous, darkly hued splash of orchestral colors used to paint the seaside locale. Unfortunately, the film was photographed in black & white instead of beautiful Technicolor. There are two excellent recordings of this seminal score: one from the original soundtrack conducted by Herrmann, the other one conducted by his friend, Elmer Bernstein. Both are available on Varese Sarabande.

The other recommendation is a single disc, ‘Bernard Herrmann Film Scores,’ with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted again by Elmer Bernstein (the Milan CD referred to previously). Like the Silva Screen set, this is a generous sampling of Herrmann’s career, concluding with excerpts from his last film score for TAXI DRIVER. The CD opens with a superb suite from CITIZEN KANE and includes ‘The Devil’s Concerto’ from ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (now known as THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER). As mentioned above, this CD also has a bonus track with nearly five minutes of commentary by Herrmann speaking about film music. That track alone makes the CD worth having.

2008 Addendum

Here are CDs with complete soundtracks and suites from the sixteen films mentioned in my article, included many conducted by Bernard Herrmann:

1941: CITIZEN KANE – Re-recording with The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Joel McNeely, conductor, Varese Sarabande CD 302 065 806 2, 1999; re-recording with Australian Philharmonic Orchestra, Tony Bremner, conductor, Laserlight 21 232, 1998; Suite, including “Salammbo’s Aria” with Kiri Te Kanawa, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Gerhardt, conductor. RCA Victor/BMG CD 0707-2-RG, 1989 (recorded June 11-13, 1974).

1941: THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER – Suite – London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Herrmann, conductor, Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2065, 1994; re-recording with New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Sedares, conductor, Koch International Classics 3-7224-2 H1, 1994.

1942: THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS – Suite (“Welles Raises Kane”) – London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Herrmann, conductor, Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2065, 1994.

1944: JANE EYRE – Soundtrack – studio orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann, The Sound Track Factory/Disconforme, 1999; re-recording with Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), Adriano, conductor, Naxos CD 8.223535, 1994.

1945: HANGOVER SQUARE – “Concerto Macabre” for piano and orchestra – Joaquin Achucarro, pianist, National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Charles Gerhardt, RCA Victor/BMG CD 2707-2-RG, 1989 (recorded in 1974).

1946: ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM – “Bernard Herrmann At Fox, Vol. 3” – Soundtrack – Studio Orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Varese Sarabande CD 302 066 091 2, 2000.

1947: THE GHOST AND MRS. MUlR – Soundtrack – Studio Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Varese Sarabande VSD-5850, 1997; orchestra conducted by Elmer Bernstein, Varese Sarabande VSD-47254, 1985.

1951: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL – Soundtrack – Studio Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Fox Records 07822-11010-2, 1993; re-recording with the orchestra conducted by Joel McNeely, Varese Sarabande302 066 314 2, 2003.

1951: ON DANGEROUS GROUND – Soundtrack – Studio Orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Film Score Monthly Vol. 6, No. 18, 2003.

1952: FIVE FINGERS – Re-recording with Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William Stromberg, conductor, score restoration by John Morgan, Marco Polo 8.225168, 2001.

1953: BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF – Soundtrack – Studio Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Film Score Monthly Vol. 3, No. 10.

1953: KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES – “Bernard Herrmann At Fox, Vol. 2” – Suite with Studio Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Varese Sarabande 302 066 053 2, 1999.

1953: THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO – Re-recording with Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William Stromberg, conductor, score restoration by John Morgan, Marco Polo 8.225168, 2001.

1953: WHITE WITCH DOCTOR – Suite – National Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Gerhardt, conductor Victor/BMG CD 0707-2-RG, 1989 (recorded June 11-13, 1974).

1954: THE EGYPTIAN (co-composed with Alfred Newman) – Soundtrack – Studio orchestra conducted by Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, Film Score Monthly 0405; re-recording with Moscow Symphony Orchestra & Choir, William T. Stromberg, conductor, score restoration and reconstructions by John Morgan, Marco Polo 8.225078, 1999 (reissued on Naxos CD 8.557702).

1954: GARDEN OF EVIL – Soundtrack – Studio orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann, Varese Sarabande 302 066 053 2, 1999; Digital World Premiere Recording – Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William T. Stromberg, conductor, scores restored by John W. Morgan, Marco Polo 8.223841, 1998.


Bernard Herrmann Film Scores – The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Elmer Bernstein, conductor, Milan CD 73138 35643-2, 1993.

CITIZEN KANE: The Essential Bernard Herrmann Film Music Collection – The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Paul Bateman and Nic Raine, Silva Screen Records SSD 1093, 1999.

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