Supernal Dreams: Bernard Herrmann on Film Music

32 years ago today, on December 24, 1975, we lost an artist  many would agree was the the greatest film composer to ever set music to celluloid images: Bernard Herrmann.  It’s also amazing that such a distinguished composer spent so much of his time working on movies of the fantastique.  Remember, that Herrmann was composing during a time when genre films were looked down upon, and were no where near as popular as they are today.  In fact, until very late in his life, Herrmann’s brilliant output was represented by only two and one-half soundtrack records: THE EGYPTIAN (with Alfred Neuman), VERTIGO and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD!  Thankfully, in the 32 years since his death, nearly every major score Herrmann wrote has come out in near complete form on CD, but there are still a few notable omissions, such as ENDLESS NIGHT and WHITE WITCH DOCTOR.     

However, thanks to dedicated CD producer John Morgan, conductor William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, two of Herrmann’s greatest fantasy films, FAHRENHEIT 451 and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND have just been faithfully re-recorded in their entirety.  Listening to these two beautiful scores again, which are both over 40 years old, it seems truly amazing to realize how modern and up to date they sound.  In fact, with a remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL now in the works at Fox, probably the best thing that could possibly happen with that project, is if they decided to score the film using Bernard Herrmann’s original music, the same way Martin Scorsese did so effectively with his redo of CAPE FEAR.  Herrmann’s work seems to have a unique freshness and timeless quality about it, that will make it last far longer than most of his contempories, who he so often disparaged.   

So here, as a special Christmas treat, is Bernard Herrmann talking brilliantly about his art, taken from a lecture he delivered at the George Eastman House Museum in October, 1973:  


The use of music in film is completely unknown territory. The most sensitive directors can be completely ignorant about the use of music, while an inferior director can have a great instinct for it—largely because film music has a certain mystical quality. The camera can only do so much; the actors and the direction can only do so much.  But the music can tell you what people are thinking and feeling—that is the real function of music.

When speaking of music in the cinema, it is also important to remember that the ear often deludes the eye. It can change time values: what appears very long may only be four seconds and vice versa. There’s no rule, but once again music has this mysterious quality.

A final general comment before considering several films I scored. There is nothing in the nature of a film that requires the use of an orchestra. The “orchestra” was developed over several hundred years—an agreed representation of certain instruments to play a certain repertoire.  If you wish to play Haydn at Esterhazy and then in Paris, you have to have the same kind of instruments.  But music for film is a single unique entity.  You are creating for one performance, for that film, and there is no law that says it has to be related to concert music. Film allows a composer the unique opportunity to shift the complete spectrum of sound within one piece—something hitherto unknown in the history of music. You can’t do that in an opera house! Each film can create its own color.


The next film I would like to consider was made with Francois Truffaut. When he spoke to me about doing the score I said, “Why do you want me to write your Fahrenheit 451? You’re a great friend of Boulez and Stockhausen and this is a film that takes place in the future. They’re all avant-garde composers; why not ask one of them?” He said, “No, no, they’ll give me the music of the 20th century, but you’ll give me the music of the 21st.” Well, it sounds funny, but I had explained to him my belief that the music of the future, of the period of Fahrenheit 451 will achieve serenity and that people’s lives will be so devoid of any feeling that music will serve to restore and retain a very classic concept of serenity and beauty. And Fahrenheit 451 gave me an opportunity to explore that idea.

In Fahrenheit 451 the people have very little feeling about things as we understand them, and the film is constructed to reflect this.  If you were to see this film without music, I don’t know if it would achieve this feeling.  Consider the opening of the film. This film, like Citizen Kane, has an unconventional main title: it’s spoken.  In the opening sequences with the fire engines, the music reflects the complete lack of feeling on the part of the police and the bystanders.  But nothing happens in the music. There’s a kind of grayness about it, and this was purposely done. The first time any feeling of human contact is achieved in this picture is when Montag learns to read and discovers Dickens.  The second time is in the little scene where he interrupts his wife with her television onlookers and he reads Dickens to them. This is the first time the music takes on what I would call a bit of humanity.

The conclusion of the film, where Montag and his wife meet a group of people who are rebelling against the ban on books by memorizing entire works, gave me the unique opportunity (for the first time in the film) to use the orchestra to create a kind of full song of humanity. One of the executives of the studio wanted to have a pop tune sung over this final sequence. Of course, he didn’t get his way. The same executive also said to Truffaut, “I don’t like your picture at all.”  Truffaut said, “I didn’t ask you, did I?” Such rare integrity is very difficult to find.


In film studios and among some filmmakers, there is a convention that the main titles have to have cymbal crashes and be accompanied by a pop song—no matter what! Of course the real function of a main title should be to set off the pulse of what is to follow. I wrote the main title for Psycho before Saul Bass even did the animation. As a matter of fact, they animated to the music. However, the point is, that after the main title nothing much happens for nearly twenty minutes.  But it doesn’t matter because the drama starts immediately with the titles.  The climax of Psycho is revealed by the music at the moment the film starts. After the main titles, you know that something terrible has to happen.  (The only orchestra used, incidentally, is a string orchestra. There are many different ideas about the instrumentation used—one study says that I wrote wonderfully for woodwinds!)

After the film was finished, Hitchcock was very depressed about it—very disappointed. He wanted to cut it down to an hour television show and get rid of it. I said “Why don’t you go away for your Christmas holidays and when you come back we’ll record the score and see what you think.”  “Well,” he said, “do what you like, but the only thing I ask is that you have nothing for the murder in the shower. That must be without music.” 

When he came back we played the score for him. He didn’t come to the recording sessions, only when we were mixing and dubbing. We dubbed the composite without any musical effects behind the murder scene. Then I said, “Well, I do have something for it, and now that you’ve had your way, let me try mine.” We played him my version and he immediately said “Of course, that’s the one we’ll use.”  “But,” I said, “You requested that we not add music.” He replied, “Improper suggestion, improper suggestion!” 

There is something very interesting to mention about sequence. The final shot, which looks like the drain hole of the bathtub, was the most difficult aspect of the entire film. People think it’s a zoom, but every frame was printed separately and enlarged millimeter by millimeter. That effect cost more than anything else in Psycho.


Q: The music in Citizen Kane seems so romantic. Could you have eliminated music entirely and used percussive or rhythmic effects instead?

BERNARD HERRMANN: Yes, of course you could, but not with this subject. This is a romantic picture. It’s about something called Rosebud. A percussive effect wouldn’t work in the opening, and it wouldn’t work later in the film. When Kane meets Susan in the street, he says “I was on my way to the warehouse to look at the things my mother left me.” The reason that he responds to her is that she faintly resembles his mother and the orchestra faintly repeats the Rosebud theme. But nobody’s ever caught it. Nobody’s ever written about it. They don’t have to; it’s there! So sometimes with a subject this romantic you must do romantic things. On the other hand, there is a great picture, Woman in the Dunes (1964), by Hiroshi Teshigahara, with the most marvelous use of electronics. Every picture is unique. I’m not saying there’s only one way, there are many ways, providing imagination is used. But I doubt whether one could eliminate all music from a picture like Citizen Kane, a kaleidoscopic picture. A certain grayness would settle over it.

Q: Despite the almost universal acclaim for Citizen Kane, I have read one recurring criticism—the “waw-waw” effect at the end of the library scene. How do you feel about that now, after all these years?

BERNARD HERRMANN: I would do the same thing again.

Q: Are you aware of any other errors in the Pauline Kael book on Citizen Kane?

BERNARD HERRMANN: I happen to disagree with the premise of the whole book, because she tries to pretend that Welles is nothing and that a mediocre writer by the name of Mankiewicz was a hidden Voltaire. I’m not saying that Mankiewicz made no contribution. The titles clearly credit him. Orson says that he did make a valuable contribution. But really, without Orson, all of Mankiewicz’s other pictures were nothing, before and after. With Orson, however, something happened to this wonderful man, but he could not have created Citizen Kane.

Q: Usually a composer does not have the final say on a film, the director does…

BERNARD HERRMANN: I have the final say, or I don’t do the music. The reason for insisting on this is simply, compared to Orson Welles, a man of great musical culture, most other directors are just babes in the woods. If you were to follow their taste, the music would be awful. There are exceptions. I once did a film The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) with a wonderful director William Dieterle. He was also a man of great musical culture. And Hitchcock, you know, is very sensitive; he leaves me alone. It depends on the person. But if I have to take what a director says, I’d rather not do the film. I find it’s impossible to work that way.

Q: You have on occasion with Hitchcock and Welles replaced whole passages of dialogue with music. Could you explain how those decisions happened? 

BERNARD HERRMANN: Well, Hitchcock is very sensitive about that. He’d sometimes say, “I’m shooting this scene tomorrow, can you come down to the set?” And he’ll ask, “Are you planning to have music here?” If I say I think we should, he might say, “Good, then I’ll make it longer. Because, if you weren’t, then I would have to contract the scene.” Some directors are very considerate about things like that. Hitchcock likes people to work with him during the shooting. Welles does, Truffaut does; but there are many directors I never even meet until the picture is finished. They’re not even interested enough.

Q: Can you give an example of where Hitchcock did that?

BERNARD HERRMANN: Vertigo is, of course, the famous instance. The whole recognition scene is eight minutes of cinema without dialogue or sound effects, just music and film. He simply said to me, “Music will do better than words there.”

Q: There are rumors that Hitchcock originally made Psycho in color and then decided to release it in black and white.

BERNARD HERRMANN: That certainly is a rumor, because Psycho was not made in color; it was made as cheaply as possible. The whole picture was shot by a television crew in a little under three weeks. It was purposely shot in black and white—and that’s one of the reasons I use a string orchestra—I wanted a black and white musical color.

Q: Is there some advice you could give young musicians who might want to write film music?

BERNARD HERRMANN: No, I can’t give advice. I think you have to have it in your bones. Your imagination has to be triggered by working on a film. I can only repeat what Mozart once said—whenever he saw a piece of music paper and thought of the word ‘aria’ he got excited! By an empty piece of music paper! That’s how you have to feel about (writing music for the) cinema.

Q: How can you begin to understand the function of film music unless you study it?

BERNARD HERRMANN: Well, I don’t know. You can study counterpoint all you like and then you can write a piece, because you know the rules of composition. But essentially I would say that there have been hundreds of films that have died in the cinema cemetery because they lack a sensitive musical score. Jean Cocteau once remarked that a fine film score should create the sensation that one has no idea whether “the music is propelling the film, or the film is propelling the music.” But basically I think that the use of music in film is so mysterious that I can actually say, after surviving 60-odd films, that I don’t know much about it myself. I only know about it instinctively. I don’t know intellectually—leave that to my superiors!

Q: In your opinion, who was right in the Fantasia controversy over The Rite of Spring? Disney or Stravinsky? Disney claimed that the original score was unfilmable, while Stravinsky felt that Disney should not have interfered. 

BERNARD HERRMANN: This question gets into the realm of authors and authorship. There’s nothing that says a film should be like the novel, or that a visualization of a piece of music has to be like the music. And I think people who think that are wrong. If you think that the picture they are making is distorting your novel, then don’t let them make the film. There is a great story about Stravinsky. David O. Selznick wanted Stravinsky to do the score for a film, and Stravinsky agreed. Selznick asked, “What’s your price?” Stravinsky answered, “$100,000.” Selznick retorted, “We don’t spend that kind of money for music.” “Ah,” Stravinsky replied, “It’s not for the music—that’s cheap. It’s for my name!”

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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