Composer of the Week: Bernard Herrmann

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b. June 29, 1911 in New York, NY
d. December 24, 1975 in Los Angeles, CA

Bernard Herrmann began studying composition and conducting at NYU while still in high school. He went on to Juilliard where he remained for two years, however, he found the school to be too conservative. In 1933, Herrmann formed the New Chamber Orchestra, which was comprised of unemployed musicians. He used this group to practice his conducting abilities as well as test his compositions. In 1934, Herrmann was hired as an assistant to Johnny Green, a conductor and composer with CBS. From 1936-40 he composed incidental music for episodes of “The Columbia Workshop” radio show, “The Mercury Theater on the Air” (directed by Orson Welles), and “The Campbell Playhouse” (also directed by Welles).

This work led to Wells commissioning Bernard Herrmann to write the score for Citizen Kane. Herrmann went on to compose for Fox studios for 12 years, and upon beginning to work with Alfred Hitchcock and MGM, his career became quite successful. He composed the score for Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and also TV’s Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, and The Alfred Hitchcock Half Hour.

Herrmann was one of the few Hollywood composers of his time who orchestrated his own works. He saw this aspect of music as the composer’s musical thumbprint. That said, his orchestration was often unusual. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) he used two theremins, an electric violin, bass, guitar, 4 harps, 4 pianos, percussion and brass. In Journey to the Center of the Earth he used 5 organs. Herrmann’s concert and operatic works did not receive nearly as much attention as his film compositions.

Socially, he was known to be egotistical and difficult to get along with. Herrmann would only compose for films in which he was at liberty to write what he wished. As such, when Hitchcock once asked him to write a score with more “pop” sound and did not like Herrmann’s result, Herrmann refused to change the composition and never worked with him again. He won the 1941 Academy Award for The Devil and Daniel Webster. He received a GRAMMY and Oscar nomination for his score to Martin Scorsese’s film, Taxi Driver.

And now for some listening! A couple of Bernard Herrmann’s best known works are below.

The theme from Psycho:

The theme from Vertigo:

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