Biographical Essay by John Mansell
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.15/No.58, 1996
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and John Mansell
Muir Matheson once said something along the lines of “Films need music, but music does not need films”. Which I suppose is true to a certain degree, but one could argue that if it were not for films, then some of the most popular and finest music ever written would probably not have seen the light of day. As film music enthusiasts we are probably more aware of the need for music in a movie, and if placed correctly, the score for a film can add a whole new dimension to the images that are appearing on the screen.
Horror movies in particular tend to use a great deal of music, and the films as produced by Hammer from the late 1950’s through to the 1970’s relied quite heavily upon the use of dramatic orchestral scores. The Hammer studios used various composers for their Gothic horrors, but one in particular stood out above the others and his scores were and still are highly regarded by collectors of film music throughout the world. James Bernard scored twenty-two movies for Hammer and he worked on two episodes of the company’s television series THE HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR, which was aired by the independent television companies during the 1980’s.
James Bernard is without a doubt the composer who is mostly associated with Hammer, his music for the DRACULA cycle in particular being the most prominent.
Actor Christopher Lee made many an entrance as the Prince of darkness accompanied and heralded by James Bernard’s vibrantly chilling chords. The Dracula theme as it is now widely known is a simple three chord phrase that musically actually says DRA-CU-LA. The three chords conjure up perfectly the atmosphere of dark foreboding, and a tense and urgent sense of impending doom.
The music composed by Bernard is fearful, and the theme is as familiar to collectors of film music and cinema goers as Rosza’s ‘Paranoia’ from SPELLBOUND and almost as famous as Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking and manic strings from PSYCHO. I can recall when first discovering the DRACULA story as retold by Hammer being far more anxious by the music playing on the soundtrack, as opposed to the film itself. The sight of Christopher Lee as the infamous and evil Count standing at the top of a flight of stairs with piercing, blood-shot eyes and bloody lips was frightening on its own, but with the music of James Bernard punctuating and enhancing the scene it reached another level, that literally scared the life out of you. James Bernard was to Hammer what John Barry was to James Bond and what Ennio Morricone was to the movies of Sergio Leone.
Recently Hammer have celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the release of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, and this seems to have sparked off a fresh up surge in the interest about the movies that Hammer produced between 1955 and 1976. London-based recording company Silva Screen have recently recorded a CD. This CD will include music by James Bernard only, and is a sequel album to the highly successful Vol.1, which was originally released in 1989. The orchestra performing on this compilation is The Westminster Philharmonic under the baton of Kenneth Alwyn, the same combination of orchestra and conductor that gave new life to Franz Waxman’s marvellous score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which was also a Silva Screen project.
James Bernard was born in the Himalayas, the son of a British army officer. He spent much of his early life on the northwest frontier. His career as a film music composer began back in 1955, when he scored the QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT for Hammer. The movie (re-titled the CREEPING UNKNOWN in the United States) was a very successful picture for Hammer, and it was this initial encounter with Hammer that would lead Bernard into a career as a composer of film scores, and an association with the house of horror that was to last some nineteen years.
In 1947, Bernard left the Royal Air Force and enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London. Bernard had met Benjamin Britten during his last term at school in 1943, and Britten had advised him that if he wanted to write music as a career he would have to get a proper grass roots musical education. To get this, Bernard would be advised to enrol into one of the better music colleges, so when the time of Bernard’s de-mobilisation was nearing he contacted Britten, who suggested the Royal College of Music, “As an ex-serviceman, I managed to get a grant from the government”, recalls the composer. He attended the college for two years, where studied composition with Herbert Howells, “He was a gentle and very charming man, who was a patient and very kind teacher, not at all severe, and as a composer in my opinion is much underrated and somewhat neglected”, says James. Mr. Bernard studied piano with Kendall Taylor, but soon realised that it was not really his destiny to become a concert pianist. At times Bernard would see Benjamin Britten, who encouraged the young and aspiring composer in his attempts at writing and also in his musical studies. When the time came for James to leave college, he had really made up his mind that he wanted to compose and just that, he recalls: “Before I left college I was asked to go and see the registrar, this was a composer whose name was Hugo Anson. He asked me what I intended to do now that I was leaving the Royal College of Music, so I told him that I was going to make a career out of writing music, hopefully making a living out of doing this. To which Anson laughingly replied, oh, you can’t do that, that is only for people like Vaughn Williams, Benjamin Britten and William Walton, and their like. I decided that it would be better to say nothing to him, so I kept quiet and said my farewells.”
James Bernard During the time between leaving college and actually earning a living from composing music, Mr. Bernard endured a rather sparse period, artistically speaking. This period lasted for about twelve months or so, during which time the composer tried to break into the appropriate musical circles. It was Benjamin Britten who came to the rescue. Britten telephoned James and told him that he was writing an opera called Billy Budd, would he copy out the vocal score as he wrote it? “Ben said would you come and do it, of course I leapt at the chance,” says Bernard. So James went to Suffolk, where he lived on and off whilst working with Britten. During the time that he worked on the opera Billy Budd, James met the tenor Peter Peers, E.M. Foster and also Imogen Holst, who in Bernard’s words was “A remarkable, highly gifted and talented composer, conductor and teacher. She was also quite a plain and unaffected person, she had her hair parted in the middle with a bun at the back, she wore no make up, but her personality absolutely shone. Imogen felt that Britten had continued where her father Gustav had left off.” James spent at least a year working alongside these gifted and very talented people, learning from them and drawing on their considerable expertise and vast experience, all the time being inspired by them.
When the opera was finished, Britten actually told James that he thought it would be better if he left, the composer recounts. “Ben said Jim; he always called me Jim, and if you stay you will be swamped by me, if you want to make a career in music for yourself you must go, of course he was right”. So James moved on, but stayed in contact with Britten, and continued to study composition under the tutorship of Imogen Holst, which Britten had advised him to do. In fact Mr. Bernard was still receiving instruction from her when he began to work for the B.B.C.
He began to write music for radio plays, “At about this time a very good writer friend of mine, Paul Dehn, was doing work for the B.B.C. and it was via Paul that I had managed to meet a lot of people that were associated with radio. My first opportunity to compose music for a play came when I was asked to write the music for THE DEATH OF HECTOR, this was based on an episode of Homer’s Iliad and was directed by Val Gielgud, who was Sir John’s brother.” After this first foray into composing for a play on radio, James received a number of commissions and assignments at the B.B.C. He worked on new and also classical plays; among them Dr. Faustus and The Duchess of Malfi, and it was because of scores such as this that James was to begin a career in film music. “It was through conductor John Hollingsworth that I received my first film scoring assignment, John had conducted a number of my works for radio, he was also at this time musical director and supervisor for Hammer films. The film company had just produced a picture called THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, a composer had already been signed, but unfortunately John Hotchkiss had been taken ill and was unable to provide the score. John Hollingsworth played a tape of my music from The Duchess of Malfi to the director of QUATERMASS, Anthony Hinds, and he agreed to let me write the score. This was my first project for Hammer and more importantly I think my first film score”.
The first three projects that Bernard worked on for Hammer, the composer was only given the use of the percussion and string sections of the orchestra. “I think that John Hollingsworth had decided to see how I got along with just strings and percussion, before letting me loose with a full orchestra,” recalls Bernard. It was not until THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) that the composer actually progressed to using more than just those two sections of orchestra. Hammer scores always gave the impression of being really large scale, and being performed by a huge symphony orchestra, this was in fact not the case. The orchestras assembled for a Hammer film score often numbered a mere 34 musicians, the music budgets on these movies were quite low and did not allow for an orchestra any larger, but the orchestra was often made up of some of the best musicians around at the time, James Bernard said. “I was really rather spoilt, because of the very talented people that the orchestra was made up of – these were highly respected and very distinguished musicians, and some of the most talented at their particular trade, and I was very fortunate to have them perform my music. Hugh Bean was usually leader, and then there was Jack Brymer on first clarinet with Leon Goossens on first oboe. This was the standard of the musicians throughout the orchestra that had been assembled; all of them were first class performers. “The use of these very talented individuals was mainly due to Hammer’s musical director during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, John Hollingsworth; he was also musical director at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, and because of his association with the opera house Hollingsworth often used members of the orchestra to perform on a soundtrack for a Hammer movie.
James Bernard scored some twenty three movies for Hammer and during the composer’s association with the house of horror he collaborated with all three of their musical directors/supervisors. These were John Marcus Dodds and finally Philip Martell. James told me a little bit about each of them. “John was a wonderful conductor, he gave many composers their start in film music, and these included Malcolm Arnold, Malcolm Williamson and Richard Rodney Bennett. He was not the sort of musical director that would be constantly looking over your shoulder or calling you up to see how things were going, in fact he very often did not look at the score until the night before we were due to record it. He trusted the composers to use their own judgement, but of course if something was not right he would very quickly point it out and advice and assist in putting things in order. I could always go to John if I had a problem on anything. He was an extremely busy man, as well as being musical director at Covent Garden he was also assistant to Sir Malcolm Sargeant, which meant that he would often conduct proms etc.”
“After John died in 1964, Hammer were without a permanent musical supervisor for about a year, and this is when Marcus Dodds became involved with Hammer, he actually conducted only two of my scores THE GORGON (1964) and THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND (1965). He was very good, I always found him to be charming and very skilful Marcus was temporary supervisor of music for Hammer for a period of twelve months, after Marcus came Phil Martell, and he was appointed resident musical director and supervisor. Now Phil did tend to want more involvement on the scores and he did have a far more active role than his predecessors, but never to the point where he would actually alter any of my music. He was really a quite excellent conductor. He knew instinctively where music should be placed on film, and because of his intuitive knowledge and craftsmanship in the placing of music it was able to add a far greater effect, giving the particular scene or sequence far more atmosphere and depth. Phil and I would spot the films together; we would go through them reel by reel, scene by scene, planning what type of music was best suited to the particular scene and if indeed a particular piece of film should be scored at all. This was something that I also did with John Hollingsworth when he was musical supervisor. From time to time directors would sit in on the sessions, which could be helpful at times. One director that never came to any of these sessions was Terence Fisher. He of course was Hammers star director, he always said that he was not musical at all, and was very happy with what I was doing.”
“Joseph Losey, however, was a little different. He wanted to be very much involved on the music for THE DAMNED (1963), and although Joe could be, shall we say, difficult at times, I liked him very much”.
“Phil Martel was the perfect person to be a music director, especially when time was pressing and the tension mounting, as it often does at recording sessions for film scores. He had the iron control that is required of a conductor at times such as these. It was Phil that got together a number of the old Hammer film composers to work on the company’s television series, The Hammer House of Horror. I scored two of the episodes in the first series, THE HOUSE THAT BLED TO DEATH and WITCHING TIME. The latter I thought managed to capture perfectly some of the old Hammer films atmosphere, the other episode was more of a murder thriller type story rather than an actual horror story. On the scores for the television series we used a reduced size orchestra, but it seemed to work very well. Phil Martell also used a number of young composers on this series. Phil did ask me to write some music for the second series, but by this time I had already moved to Jamaica, and it would have been rather awkward for me to work like this. The second series also was a little different from the first, in that it tended to lean more towards the psychological thrillers as opposed to horror, which is something that Hammer seemed to be moving towards at that time.”
Silva Screen records have recorded a number of pieces by James Bernard for inclusion on their Music from Hammer Films, Volume 2. This compilation will have a suite from SHE. I know that Mr. Bernard looks upon his work on this movie with some affection. “I was really quite pleased with my efforts on SHE, it was a departure from all the horror material and I actually got the chance to write something that was romantic-sounding, which was a very rare occurrence when one takes a look at the movies that I worked on. There was a savage-sounding march, which did not really get heard a great deal in the film, there were also the fanfares that I wrote, these were performed on the soundtrack recording by twelve trumpeters from the school of military music. I have arranged music from the score into a suite for the latest Hammer album; this includes an extended version of the march.”
SHE is one of James Bernard’s favourite scores, but it also caused him a fair amount of headaches and sleepless nights. “SHE required a lot of music, a great deal more music than any other Hammer film that I had scored before. I remember having to work through the night, and at one point I got terribly stuck I decided that I would leave the work and go and have a few hours sleep, and after I had done so I returned to the problem and thankfully very quickly solved it.”
Writing music for movies must be a rather arduous and very demanding task at the best of times, and many composers in the 90’s employ an array of technical gadgetry to assist them in their quest for the appropriate music for a picture. Also, in recent years the job of the orchestrator has become more and more prominent; composers often use more than one orchestrator, in fact up to sixteen in some cases. Using an orchestrator leaves the composer sufficient time to complete the actual writing of the score. “I have always done all of my own orchestrations, although there have been a few exceptions. For example THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, do you remember the scene where all the vampires meet at Dr Ravna’s castle for a masked ball, they needed a sequence of waltzes that had to be written in the Viennese style. I did actually write the waltzes in advance of the main score, because they needed them for when they were filming those particular scenes. I then had to move on and start work on the score itself, I did not have the time to orchestrate the waltzes, so I asked John Hollingsworth to get somebody to do it for me, he managed to get Douglas Gamley, who did a really marvellous job. The only other time that I had someone do orchestrations for me was on THE DAMNED and this was for the rock music that was required on the soundtrack.”
“I must admit though, when I do a score I am always very doubtful about what instrument should be playing which particular piece. I do like to sketch out the complete score first, I like to work out timings and make notes on probable orchestration. At this stage the music is written on two or three staves, or maybe more if the music is particularly complex. I then begin to orchestrate, I sit down with the twenty four stave manuscript in front of me and begin to fill it up, but even at this stage of the proceedings I will often have second thoughts and change things, but this is all part of the composing process.”
“Electronics on film scores can sometimes be very effective, especially if they are used as a support for conventional instruments. I have never used a synthesiser as such, but this does not mean that I am opposed to them, if a director asked me to use one or incorporate one into a score I would obviously oblige, and accommodate them as best I could. I did in fact use a type of keyboard which was electronic on my score for THE GORGON, it was played in unison with a soprano voice. This produced an effective and haunting sound that was the voice of the Gorgon, and it was this call that beckoned victims to their fate. Hammer has always preferred to have orchestral scores for their movies, especially the gothic horrors, and I am of the opinion that these types of films do need symphonic scores rather than synthesised ones. Electronics would not be able to create the correct atmosphere for DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN and their like”.
It has been two decades now since Hammer produced a horror movie and their last production, which was a version of Dennis Wheatley’s TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976), was not exactly what stalwart and steadfast Hammer fans were used to.
In 1974 James Bernard scored his last Hammer picture, which was a rather odd movie entitled THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (this was a co-production between Hammer and The Shaw Brothers). The movie was an attempt to cash in on the martial arts craze that was so popular with cinema audiences at this time, unfortunately the blend of gothic horror and Chinese myths and legends did not really work and the movie bombed out, even the presence of the late Peter Cushing could not save the movie. This was James Bernard’s last motion picture; he did score a couple of the Hammer House of Horror episodes but no films since then. Does he ever get offers or scripts sent to him? “I would normally only get scripts sent to me after I have agreed to do a film. However I was sent one a while ago, it was from America, and was really very good, it was an independent production and so far I have heard no more; meanwhile I have been writing the score for the 1922 silent film NOSFERATU. This is also a Silva Screen project, and hopefully if all goes well they will be doing a CD of the score. What I have been doing mainly is preparing material so that Silva Screen can re-record it for another Hammer compilation after all I have been relaxing in the tropical sun of Jamaica for long enough now, and hopefully I have stored up sufficient energy to continue with my music. I have recently moved back to England so it is a lot easier to contact people.”
“The planned CD will hopefully include the love theme from FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, a lengthy suite from THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, the love theme from THE SCARS OF DRACULA, ‘‘A Vampire Rhapsody’ which is based on the score from THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, a suite from SHE and also a suite which is made up of music from THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, X, THE UNKNOWN and QUATER-MASS II. David Stoner and David Wishart of Silva Screen have been particularly encouraging”.
James Bernard has a style that is almost instantly recognisable, in particular the action cues that he writes for movies. I asked him if he put this style down to any specific influences. “I think that the distinctive sound that I achieve is probably down to my own particular quirks of orchestration. This does not only apply to my work of course, but each composer has their own particular ways of getting the correct sounds. I do have a very wide taste in music, I like opera, and if I buy a CD or LP it will invariably be either classical or jazz, but only by my favourite performers such as Nat King Cole or Ella Fitzgerald. I would have to say that I have been influenced by many composers, but the ones that are more obvious to me are Mahler, Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Britten and Verdi but not necessarily in that order. I adore Verdi’s opera’s, he invented such marvellous accompaniments, strong rhythms and dramatic motifs that catch the mood perfectly and builds on them. This is after all what film music is all about. Every composer must at one time or another been influenced by something or somebody, even Beethoven, who I think was an absolute genius.”
“Influences and styles of other composers can sometimes be a little distracting, though. Something to guard against when one is writing is that one does not come up with a tune that has been composed by someone else. This does happen very occasionally, not so much with the horror material, but when you are attempting to write a simple little tune that has instant appeal, it is often very hard to come up with something that is completely original. I remember writing a tune and thinking “Well, I’m rather pleased with that,” and then realising I had written something out of a Puccini opera or something like that, so one always has to be on one’s guard” .
When writing a score for a movie at what stage of the production did Mr. Bernard like to become involved? “As early as possible. I like to see a script if one is available, and then I know exactly what the film is all about. I can then start to think of possible thematic material. I am always pleased if there is a chance for me to write something that is romantic, it comes as a pleasant break from all the horror stuff. Although I can remember being asked to take a softer approach on one of the Hammer Dracula movies. TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA was directed by Aida Young and she told Phil Martell that she felt that the score that I had composed was far too discordant. She thought that a more romantic approach was required. At first I was very cross indeed. I thought how dare she, but one carries on. So I wrote a love theme called ‘The Young Lovers’, and I must admit it worked very well indeed, and it is one of my personal favourites, along with SHE and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT”.
“Anyway, the next part of the scoring process is to see the fine or rough cut of the film, it is then that one can begin to work out the precise timings and make a start on the detailed score. Things are seldom as easy as one might think. When one has planned a section with all the timings just so. the editor will more often than not ring you up and say that he has cut out something like twenty feet of film out of a particular scene. so all the timings and calculations go out of the window. It is at times such as this that I normally go and pour myself a stiff drink. As for composing in any particular order. I like to start at the beginning and work through to the end. I find that by working this way I can develop the score symphonically or at least attempt to do so. Of course music is sometimes required whilst filming is taking place, like on THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE with the waltzes or on SHE when I had to compose some music for the scene at the beginning of the film that took place in a Cairo night club. These are usually separate pieces that do not disrupt the build-up of the main musical score”.
The first of Hammer’s Dracula movies was produced in 1958, and directed by Terence Fisher. James Bernard’s music was a very important factor in the overall impact of the movie, but when Hammer returned to Dracula in 1960 with THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, Bernard was not chosen to write the score; instead, Malcolm Williamson provided the soundtrack. The musical reins also changed on the sequel to Hammer’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN for Leonard Salzedo composed the score for THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958).
Was there any reason why he did not get to work on these two pictures, seeing as his music for both of the originals had been so well received? “I don’t think that there was anything sinister behind me not doing the two films that you mentioned, I was simply not asked. By the time that they came along I had done quite a few pictures for Hammer, and I suppose that they wanted to tryout other composers. After all, one cannot work on every film that is released.”
Did he think that it was surprising that a record company had waited some thirty years to release his music for DRACULA? “No, not at all. At the time of the film’s release, not many people were aware that there was such a thing as film music. Even some of the producers and directors were not that interested, the sight of a soundtrack album was very rare. The only soundtracks that one did see were of the Hollywood musicals, and also big films such as BEN-HUR. Back in the fifties I doubt very much if anyone in England thought about soundtrack albums.”
James Bernard’s name has always been linked with that of Hammer films and also horror movies made by other film companies, and this is hardly surprising considering the amount of music that the composer contributed to the horror genre. He has however been involved on other film scores that are of the non-horror variety. “I did a few films for Rank, there was one in particular that I thought was rather good, and when say this I am talking of the film itself; it starred Rod Steiger, and was called ACROSS THE BRIDGE, it had a very strong and extremely powerful storyline, it was a very exciting movie that was directed by Ken Annakin. Steiger played the part of a gangster on the run. In the score there was a guitar piece that was performed by Julian Bream, and we turned this into a title song of sorts, it was recorded by Vera Lynn. This would have been during the second half of the fifties. I also did a picture called WINDOM’S WAY; this starred Peter Finch and was directed by Ronald Neame. The film was set in the rubber plantations in Malaysia at the time of the terrorist uprising”.
Apart from the film scores and the dramatic music for radio plays, James Bernard has written other types of music, as the composer explains. “I did some incidental music for a production of Twelfth Night which was staged at the Old Vic, this was before the days of the National Theatre. The cast for this was rather good. Tom Courtenay, before he was really well known, Joss Ackland and Eileen Atkins. I also did Samson and Agastis, which was for Michael Redgrave, and through this I was asked to do the music for The Aspern Papers which had a very distinguished cast of actors and actresses, Flora Robson. Michael Redgrave. Beatrix Langham and Pauline Jameson among them. I also did some concert music, but I never really felt that confident about writing or the concert hall. I also did a few musicals, Virtue in Danger and Battersea Calypso.”
There is another side to James Bernard that maybe film music collectors are not aware of. He actually won the prestigious Oscar for the best original film story, this was for a thriller entitled SEVEN DAYS TO NOON. The film was released in 1951, and garnered the young Bernard and his friend Paul Dehn an Oscar each. “Basically Paul and I concocted this story and Paul wrote it down,” recalls the composer, “We then sold it to Boulting Brothers, and to our surprise got Oscars for our trouble. The ceremony that we had was very different from all the glittering razzmatazz that we see nowadays, in fact it was not a ceremony at all. We did not get to go and receive our awards in America; we actually found out that we had won via an article in one of the London evening papers. A few weeks later a representative from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences arrived at our home in Chelsea, with him he had a cardboard box, which contained our Oscars. It was a case of one quick drink, a handshake and, well, that was it really, no fanfares and certainly no lengthy acceptance speeches.”
Cinema audiences will always welcome movies that scare the pants off of them, and there will always be plenty of films for James Bernard to work his musical skills on; the cinema-going public seem to have an unquenchable thirst for horror films that deal with the Prince of chaos Dracula.