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Bernard Herrmann:

Great Film Music


The Great Hitchcock

Movie Thrillers


Bernard Herrmann:

The Film Scores

(Sony Classical)

By Lee Sandlin

Whatever his other accomplishments, Bernard Herrmann was the first composer to make any impression on me. No doubt there are people who found their way into classical music through some polite and decorous route, by way of Swan Lake or Beethoven's Fifth. For me, it was the shower scene in Psycho. Until that moment I didn't know orchestral music had any purpose other than tedium. I figured it was just another one of those inscrutable ordeals adults put themselves through, like standing in line at a bank. Herr-mann's shrieking violins taught me otherwise: an orchestra could make a mainline connection to your most primordial emotions.

I was hooked. Herrmann wrote the scores for a lot of classic Hollywood movies, from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver, and I watched them all--not only the great Hitchcock films and wonderful pre-Spielberg fantasy movies such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but also a few movies that didn't really have any excuse for existing other than the sound track. I remember forcing myself to stay awake one night to watch a graveyard-shift broadcast of Fahrenheit 451--a listless movie, savagely abridged to fit the time slot (and besides, I'd already seen it three times); but I trudged on through the wilderness of used-car commercials because I just had to hear again the yearning adagio Herrmann had composed for the final scene.

I can't say I've listened to Herrmann much in the last couple of decades. I've rarely had good luck revisiting my childhood favorites, and I would have hated Herrmann to have turned out like the Hardy Boys or The Time Tunnel--one more proof of my developmentally delayed taste. But I've now screwed up my courage and sat through three new discs of Herrmann's sound-track music. Two of them are reissues of performances Herrmann himself conducted in the 1960s; the third is a surprise offering from the cutting-edge hotshot conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

I had nothing to worry about. Given what it was supposed to do, Herrmann's music holds up brilliantly. I don't think anyone ever composed for the movies with as much imagination, resourcefulness, and intelligence. The average Hollywood studio hack may have been content to churn out the same lush, sub-Mendelssohnian sludge for movie after movie; Herrmann dreamed up a whole new sound world each time out. For Journey to the Center of the Earth his score is jarring and discordant, full of Mahler-esque cataclysms of brass and organ--a kind of geological tone poem. For Gulliver's Travels it's Restoration elegant: he wrote a whole slew of fanfares and hornpipes and minuets. For The Day the Earth Stood Still he devised edgy and weird nocturnes, like some occultist follower of Bartok. There was no historical or mock-historical style he couldn't mimic: when Orson Welles was stumped for an appropriate grand-opera scene in Citizen Kane, Herr-mann invented the perfect one out of thin air, all the way down to the last overdone Italianate trill.

But his best work was done for Hitchcock. There was never a better match between director and composer--to the point where Herrmann's music sometimes seems more Hitchcockian than the actual movie. The Vertigo score goes way beyond the Hollywood cardboard of the script: its lush and sinister surges seem to be musical objectifications of Hitchcock's neuroses about women and death. The thunderous fandango he worked up for North by Northwest catches perfectly the hysterical undertones of the story, where giddy self-parody tumbles into a kind of apocalyptic melodrama. And then of course there's Psycho. Even without the shower scene the score has a palpable air of gathering madness: the violin lines lengthen into weird legato tendrils, drifting in and out of dissonance like floating cobwebs. Herr-mann, in fact, claimed credit for making Psycho a hit: the rough cut of the movie without his music, he said, was so boring it was unwatchable.

He wasn't known in Hollywood for his tact. Which prompts the riposte, without the movie is his music listenable?

There's no reason to expect it to be. Movie music isn't composed as an organic whole, but in discrete snatches that exist solely to punctuate the action on the screen. There can't be much in the way of development; melodic or harmonic subtlety would be wasted, and real complexity would be distracting. Take away the images, and Herrmann's music is obviously going to come off like a scrap heap: a lot of angels and gargoyles without a cathedral.

But Herrmann did want his music to be judged on its own merits. For his recordings he arranged the scattered pieces of the scores into suites and sometimes drastically reshaped them into something approaching a coherent whole: the Psycho music became "a narrative for orchestra," and the Trouble With Harry music turned into "A Portrait of Hitch." This was a good idea, but it doesn't solve the basic problem of how little is happening moment by moment. The atmosphere is wonderfully evocative, but once you've got the first taste there's nothing more: each piece just repeats itself a couple of times and then stops. Nor does Herrmann always help matters with his conducting style. He's good on his most lurid rhapsodies: his solemn pacing gives them an eerie air of mockery I'm certain is deliberate. But otherwise he's too ponderous and stiff, as though burdened by the need to prove how important his music really is.

That's what makes Esa-Pekka Salonen's disc such an interesting companion piece. It resembles one of those nightmarish "Classical Goes Pop!" recordings orchestras put out for the philistine trade--where musicians with a lot better uses for their time are obliged to slog through the theme from Star Wars--but I don't think it's meant that way. Salonen is known for his adventurous taste--almost all of his recordings are of modern music, including a torrent of obscure Stravinsky--and he conducts most of the pieces on this disc with respect and enthusiasm. I think he's taking Herrmann at his word and treating him as a significant modern composer.

I'll grant Salonen this much: he works hard to make the idea at least halfway plausible. He roars through the North By Northwest theme--indulgently billed as an "overture"--at a much faster clip than Herrmann does, to the point where its giddiness takes on a much more urgent tone, a mood of impending disaster, as though warning signals are frantically going off in all directions. He's terrific with the Psycho "narrative": he lingers with insinuating glee over the odd slow squeaks and bass shivers, as though he were a kid exploring a haunted house. The Vertigo suite draws out a malignant Wagnerian glamour, like Klingsor's enchanted garden in Parsifal. And with the Fahrenheit 451 finale, he's gratifyingly gentle and lilting.

However, Salonen's goodwill can't surmount every problem. It was a mistake to include the Taxi Driver score--not only is Salonen's performance perfunctory, but it's not even one of Herrmann's best pieces. (It's always sounded to me like that faux-jazz Henry Mancini used to write for 60s private-eye flicks.) Its placement at the end gives the disc an unfortunate aftertaste of Greatest Hits triviality. Nor is it smart for the liner notes and promotional copy to throw around big names like Ives and Debussy and Sibelius. That's an awfully fast crowd for a guy like Herrmann to be running with. The last comparison is particularly unfortunate, because next to Sibelius's ceaselessly dynamic, complexly integrated energies, Herrmann's little collages sound second-rate. Most of all there's Salonen himself: he just isn't the sort of dazzling conductor who can make a lesser work sound transcendent--he's more interested in clarity and approachability. Herrmann might be better served by somebody flakier. In the end I still wasn't persuaded that Herrmann can cut it in the pantheon--nor that deep down Salonen really believes he can.

So what's the point of this CD? Why should Salonen bother recording Herrmann when there are so many classics he hasn't even touched yet? My own best guess is that he has a sneaky motive, one that doesn't have as much to do with Herrmann as it does with where classical music is these days.

As everybody knows, the classical scene is in a bad way. The audience has dwindled, and composers and performers have split into countless warring camps. There are any number of reasons for this, cultural and musical--but the reason at the head of them all is the modernist movement's insistence that the only possible way for music to progress was out of the tonal world and into dissonance and serialism. Musicians and listeners have been deadlocked over atonality for most of the century; Salonen is one of a growing number of people openly saying the modernists have lost and it's time to move on.

Modernism's failure isn't total. A lot of great music has been written in the last several decades, and Salonen has been a persuasive advocate for it: he's commissioned a major new work from Witold Lutoslawski and recorded a fine performance of Olivier Messiaen's clangorous and beautiful Turangalila-Symphonie, one of the jewels of this century's art. The issue isn't great music, it's good music. The modernist movement has failed to create a repertoire of good, solid, entertaining pieces that can hold an audience's sympathy as well as provide an enveloping context in which the peaks of great music can be comprehended. As a result, the landscape of classical music has stayed pretty much where it was at the beginning of the century, except for a scattering of modernist monuments too inarguably great to be banished from the concert hall.

The energy that should have gone into creating the new orchestral repertoire instead spread out into other musical forms--jazz, popular songs, musicals, and movie sound tracks. The movies have been virtually the only place you can hear new large-scale orchestral music that has any recognizable relationship to the past--and that retains the emotional power audiences have always thought music should have. It was as though the great tradition of classical music had somehow been diverted down this dingy commercial canal, because the modernists had rejected the values of the musical mainstream as just so much bourgeois tripe.

The real fascination a composer like Herrmann has for a renegade modernist like Salonen may be this: Herrmann regarded the classical tradition as still living and valid, while at the same time he allowed certain avant-garde techniques to find their way into his style. He flirted with dissonance and serialism, but only in ways a mass audience could accept. For an atonal purist, that's the stench of corruption right there. But maybe Herrmann was trying to find a way to get modern music to make sense. The dissonances in the Psycho score sound so disturbing because they're supposed to sound disturbing--they aren't there because an academic theory dictated their inclusion. Herr-mann used them as a tactic, not as an ideology; he was trying to work an audience's emotions, not confront them with their aesthetic cowardice. The music is crazy because it's about craziness; it doesn't proclaim that its craziness is the only acceptable modern way of being sane.

In other words, Herrmann's music behaves just the way good music ought to. It absorbs the advances of great music into an ongoing tradition. This may be exactly what Salonen is looking for. He has said that after the death of serialism, "It may be possible to compose again." His recording of Herrmann's music shows that old-style composition has unobtrusively been going on all along, without the modernist consensus noticing it. Maybe the current is thin and fitful, but it could still prove to be a tributary of a new mainstream.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): .

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