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Bernard Herrmann and the art of cinema through music

Created date

November 8th, 2016
Movie posters for Psycho and Citizen Kane.

Bernard Hermann composed the scores for Psycho and Citizen Kane, as well as many other classic films.

You may not know his name, and you probably haven’t seen his face. But if you’ve ever watched a movie or television show, or listened to an early radio program, you’ve almost certainly heard his music.

Bernard Herrmann was arguably the greatest theatrical composer of all time. Having scored everything from Orson Welles’ controversial The War of the Worlds (1938) radio broadcast to the film and television projects of Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, and Martin Scorsese, the Academy Award-winning composer managed to redefine the role of music within the art of cinema.

Middle-class upbringing

Born in 1911, Herrmann grew up in New York City in a middle-class Jewish family that valued education. 

His father encouraged intellectual curiosity with an emphasis on the arts. He went out of his way to expose his son to the world of music, which included violin lessons and frequent trips to the opera. 

His efforts paid off. At age 13, Herrmann won a prize for musical composition, and when it came time for him to go to college, he chose to study music.

At New York University, he worked under the tutelage of composers Percy Grainger and Philip James, augmenting his studies through classes at Juilliard. He excelled as a musician and composer—so much, in fact, that he landed a job as a staff conductor for the Columbia Broadcast System in 1934.

He was just 23. Yet, from this point on, his career was a swift climb to the top. 

For nearly a decade, Herrmann composed the scores for various CBS radio programs, the most famous of which was Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds. In addition to performing concert broadcasts of classical works by Alexander Gretchaninov, Franz Liszt, and Niels Gade, he also wrote original compositions—some played by greats the likes of Leopold Stokowski and Sir Thomas Beecham.

From radio to the screen

While these radio milestones were achievements in their own right, it was in film and television that Herrmann demonstrated his true brilliance.

Thanks in part to his relationship with Orson Welles, he seamlessly made the leap from radio to cinema. In 1941 alone, he scored two classic films: Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster, winning an Oscar for the latter. 

By the 1950s, Herrmann was a known quantity in Hollywood. During this period, he began his collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock, out of which came many of the composer’s landmark works. 

Music and film scholars consider his scores for Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) every bit as masterful as the films themselves. His next composition for Hitchcock was better still.

And then there was Psycho

In September 1960, the director terrified moviegoers with his horror-thriller, Psycho

Shot in black and white, the picture is visually unremarkable and contains few special effects. Herrmann’s music, however, is a different story.

Throughout the film, he provides a deceptively unsettling soundtrack; even his breezy orchestration for the opening credits possesses an undercurrent of tension. Then there’s the shower scene in which Norman Bates murders the unwitting Marion Crane with a large kitchen knife.

Originally, Hitchcock wanted no music for the sequence. After watching it with Herrmann’s score, however, he quickly changed his mind.

The simplicity and the effect of what he heard was sheer genius. With each swing of the knife comes the sharp, grating thrust of violin bows over strings.

Not once does Hitchcock actually show the blade cutting the skin. Because of Herrmann’s stabbing score, most viewers never realize it, and with good reason.

The mastery of his music

His compositions are understated, but nonetheless rich in emotion and psychological depth. 

Herrmann’s music doesn’t compete with its onscreen content. On the contrary, it enhances the cinematography, the characters, and the dialogue. 

With each movie, he helped tell the story, and, in the process, his score became an integral part of it. He stayed true to this approach for the rest of his life.

Up-and-coming filmmakers half his age recognized his worth. Young talents such as Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese eagerly hired the veteran composer to orchestrate their pictures. 

In 1973, he wrote the score for DePalma’s Sisters and, two years later, the Jazz-infused soundtrack to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which was sadly his last.

On December 23, 1975, Herrmann finished the film’s final recording session in Hollywood. He left the studio for dinner, screened a rough-cut of what would have been his next project, and retired to his hotel room.

Early the next morning, he died in his sleep at age 64, leaving a legacy that will live forever.

Selected filmography

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Jane Eyre (1943)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Trouble With Harry (1955)

The Kentuckian (1955)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955)

The Wrong Man (1956)

Vertigo (1958)

North by Northwest (1959)

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

The Twilight Zone (Season 1, 1959–60)

Psycho (1960)

Cape Fear (1962)

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

The Birds (1963)

Marnie (1964)

Torn Curtain (1966)

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Twisted Nerve (1968)

Sisters (1973)

Taxi Driver (1976)