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The Wall Street Journal (29/Jun/2011) - 'Psycho' Maestro at 100



'Psycho' Maestro at 100

Bernard Herrmann may be best known for his memorable contributions to classic films, including his rousing overture to "North by Northwest," the shower scene in "Psycho," the romantic themes of "Vertigo," the eerie electronic music in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and the desolate blues of "Taxi Driver." He might have preferred to be celebrated for his opera "Wuthering Heights," symphonies and cantatas such as "Moby Dick," and other concert works. According to the film composer John Williams, Herrmann's greatest ambition was to be recognized as a conductor.

Nonetheless, Herrmann's lasting legacy remains his work in the entertainment industry: the music for 48 feature films; for television shows such as "The Twilight Zone" (his music for the episode "Walking Distance" is one of his most poignant works); and for countless radio dramas, including Orson Welles's "The Mercury Theater on the Air."

Thus Herrmann became America's greatest film composer not on the basis of a few extraordinary pieces, but for an unsurpassed and complex body of work in the service of story. No other composer so consistently enriched the audience's understanding of a character's emotional and psychological state.

"That was his great skill--his understanding of the psychology of character," the film composer Howard Shore said.

Wednesday marks Herrmann's centenary, an occasion for countless celebrations of his music and legacy. (See .) Born in New York to Russian immigrants in 1911, he proved a musical prodigy, playing violin and piano at DeWitt Clinton High School and demonstrating a facility for composition. Later, he embraced the music of Claude Debussy and the English composers Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. He also admired the U.S. experimentalist Charles Ives.

"He was really a traditionalist," Mr. Williams said. "He was suspicious of modernity. But he was also an advocate for neglected composers."

As a composer for hire, Herrmann's unflagging belief in his own opinions about music served him as well as his supreme skill at composition and orchestration. He once told William S. Paley, the president of CBS for whom he worked for 15 years starting in 1933: "You're assuming the public is as ignorant about music as you."

"He was not a collegial guy," said Mr. Williams, who worked with Herrmann in Universal Studios' TV department. "He was contemptuous of a certain kind of populism. He had his strong points of vision and had no truck for people he felt didn't have integrity in their work. But with me he was very kind."

In 1939, at Welles's insistence, RKO Studios hired Herrmann, who then composed the score for "Citizen Kane." In it, Herrmann used two devices that would become his signatures--employing leitmotifs to signal the reappearance of a narrative thread and writing brief cues to bridge scenes. Herrmann also introduced audiences to his affection for ostinato--short, repeated phrases of a few notes--a device he would use repeatedly throughout his career.

Herrmann was nominated for an Academy Award for "Kane" and "The Devil and Daniel Webster," winning the award for the latter--his sole Oscar. With those two works, he established himself as a visionary film composer--with a formidable and prickly personality. In 1942, he demanded his name be removed from the credits to Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons" after RKO famously re-edited and butchered the film.

In 1955, Herrmann began his relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, scoring "The Trouble with Harry," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (in which he has a cameo as a conductor in the climactic scene) and "The Wrong Man." "Vertigo," released in 1958, contains more than an hour of Herrmann's orchestral music, which consistently evokes yearning, tension and moral disarray. With "North by Northwest" and "Psycho," his next Hitchcock films, Herrmann crafted two of his most iconic scores, the former an orchestral delight that balances comedy and suspense, the latter a sparse, macabre work written exclusively for a string ensemble. In "Psycho," Hitchcock wanted no music for the memorable shower scene, but Herrmann persisted; after hearing the screeching violins as Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) is slashed and hacked to death, the director acquiesced.

In the mid-'60s, Hollywood's conception of what film music should be changed. Producers wanted pop hits in the score: A hit soundtrack album could serve as a promotional tool. When Hitchcock's "Marnie" disappointed at the box office, Universal Studios executives told the director that one reason was Herrmann's traditional score.

The shift in taste left Herrmann deeply embittered. "You couldn't spend an evening with Benny without his spending half of it in a terrible diatribe against one of the young musicians who'd gotten a job," actor-producer John Houseman told Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith in 1984.

Hitchcock hired Herrmann for 1966's "Torn Curtain," but stipulated that the composer needed "to break away from the old-fashioned cued-in type of music we have been using for so long." The composer agreed to Hitchcock's demands, then wrote a score very much in the Herrmann tradition, precipitating a bitter quarrel between the two men. Hitchcock dismissed Herrmann, ending a 12-year collaboration.

To show what might have been, the "Torn Curtain" DVD includes among its bonus materials several scenes with the Herrmann score in place. His opening theme suggests a more robust cinematic experience will unfold and his underscoring gives the film a gravitas it lacks with John Addison's lighter, more contemporary touch.

Though Herrmann wrote a mischievous score for François Truffaut's futuristic "Fahrenheit 451" that same year, he was no longer in demand. "Benny was so unappreciated here," Mr. Williams said from Hollywood. "He couldn't find work."

But in the early '70s, Herrmann enjoyed a rebirth. A new generation of filmmakers understood how Herrmann had enriched the films he scored. Brian DePalma hired Herrmann to write the music for his "Sisters," released in 1973. In one crucial murder scene, Herrmann uses shrieking horns, strings and synthesizers and reintroduces a glockenspiel he'd deployed earlier in the film as a symbol of childhood innocence.

Though ill with a heart ailment, Herrmann agreed to score Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," using muted trumpets and snare drums to reinforce the sense of a dangerous mind careening toward violence. When asked to compose a jazz love theme for a scene between a pimp and an underage prostitute, Herrmann turned to composer and orchestrator Christopher Palmer for help. Mr. Palmer quoted Herrmann's own 1968 musical "The King of Schnorrers" for the haunting piece for saxophone and jazz trio.

On Dec. 24, 1975, Herrmann died in his sleep at the Sheraton Universal, which is perched above the studio's back lot where the Bates's home in "Psycho" stands. He was 64 years old.

With the release of "Taxi Driver," which Mr. Scorsese dedicated to Herrmann, the composer's reputation was fully restored. He was nominated for an Oscar for both "Taxi Driver" and "Obsession"--Mr. De Palma's "Vertigo"-like film--but he didn't win.

"Benny was what you'd expect him to be," Mr. Williams said. "Powerful and willful. He put his idiosyncratic spin on everything he did. His lasting contribution is not only his film music, but as a single-minded artist who kept his seriousness intact. His music, yes. Everybody knows the Alfred Hitchcock scores. What's behind that is a strong character that is unyielding. He was a unique man."