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The Telegraph (10/Aug/2011) - BBC Proms 2011: The man who made Psycho even scarier

(c) Ivan Hewett in The Telegraph (10/Aug/2011)

BBC Proms 2011: The man who made Psycho even scarier

Bernard Herrmann, a film composer born 100 years ago, is the star of the film music Prom says Ivan Hewett.

Of all this year’s anniversary composers, Bernard Herrmann, the film composer born 100 years ago in New York, has been largely overlooked. And yet he has a claim to be better known than any of them. Who isn’t familiar with the stabbing string chords that accompany the murder scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho? Or the music for the chase scene at the climax of North by Northwest, when Cary Grant escapes over the stone faces of Mount Rushmore?

Excerpts from these and two other great Herrmann scores will be heard in the film music Prom tomorrow. It’s the tiniest fraction of Herrmann’s vast output, which also includes dozens of “classical” works, including an opera based on Wuthering Heights. (Herrmann was a fanatical enthusiast for all things English.)

As Herrmann admitted, he needed a dramatic situation, a scene saturated with a certain colour of expectation or humour or menace to stimulate his imagination. He honed his craft at CBS radio in the Thirties, where he provided scores for many radio dramas, including Orson Welles’s notorious War of the Worlds.

That encounter led to his first break in Hollywood. His score for Welles’s Citizen Kane broke every rule of film music. Instead of long, lush melodies, Herrmann created a patchwork of styles, assembled like a jigsaw, and unified by pithy motifs.

Instead of a standard orchestra, he used odd ensembles to create a specific emotional atmosphere. “Colour is very important,” he said. “This whole rubbish of other people orchestrating your music is so wrong. Orchestration is like a personal thumbprint.”

Herrmann was undoubtedly a difficult man. Composer David Raksin described him as being “like a child. He was a virtuoso of unspecific anger; he was always furious at everything.”

But directors respected his plain speaking and his genius for making exactly the right contribution to a scene. Hitchcock was so despondent at the first version of his film Psycho that he almost abandoned the project. Herrmann persuaded him that a “black-and-white” score, for strings only, would not only rescue it but make it into something extraordinary.

Years later, Hitchcock admitted he had been right. As Herrmann said: “Music’s function is to fuse a piece of film so that it has an inevitable beginning and end. When you cut a piece of film you can do it perhaps a dozen ways, but, once you put music to it, that becomes the absolutely final way.”