9 Favorite Scores of Bernard Herrmann

I have been diving deep into the works of Bernard Herrmann the last few weeks while researching his opera, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, for my upcoming “Gold Rush” column at Film Score Monthly Online. So who better to feature in this month’s “9 on the 9th” post?

Nobody sounds like Herrmann and no one ever will. A true original, he changed the sound of film music, and less than a decade after Max Steiner’s KING KONG brought modern film music to the fore in 1933. While his behavioral quirks made him a prickly pear, you can’t deny the overwhelming talent and originality in his music. Herrmann is one of the few composers to have a strong online presence and an active fan base with the Bernard Herrmann Society, and one of the few composers who crosses party lines, with equally great work in Hollywood’s Golden Age and beyond.

Like all the other composers in the series, this list is ultimately an exercise in futility. But with Herrmann, more than any other composer, you could maneuver any of the nine selections below–or nearly any other score he wrote–in the top slot and there would be no debating the quality of the music. It all comes down to a case of personal preference.

Bernard Herrmann Stamp

9. ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)

An underappreciated film starring Robert Ryan as a hard-boiled cop who falls in love with blind Ida Lupino, the sister of the murderer and rapist he is sent to capture. Though nothing matches Lupino’s sensitive theme on the viola d’amore, the highlights in the score come from the exciting chase music. The climactic “Death Hunt,” with its steel plate in the percussion and eight virtuoso French horns, is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. (In this YouTube video from a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, tell me that timpani player is not Herrmann himself back from the beyond!)

8. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

Herrmann prematurely swore off Hollywood for good in 1948 to focus on his concert works. But he returned in 1951 with this sci-fi classic and set the musical tone for the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. The churning sixteenth notes in the main theme signal a world flirting with the brink of disaster. But it’s Herrmann’s use of the other-worldly theremin that gives this great score its eerie glow.

7. ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (1941)

Stephen Vincent Benet’s Faustian tale is better known today under its current title, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. Walter Huston gives a devilish performance as Mr. Scratch accompanied by Herrmann’s warped Americana. Inspired by the compositions of Charles Ives, Herrmann weaves American folk melodies with experimental electronic effects. For Scratch’s first appearance in the barn, sound editor James G. Stewart went to San Fernando in the middle of the night to record humming telephone wires. At the harvest dance, Herrmann “had to have a fiddle reel that no one else could play. So I had an idea. I simply imposed a series of tracks on top of each other. We had a violinist who played a version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ then he played another version, another one, another one, and another one. Then these were all combined to make one violin playing the most impossible things that no one violinist could play.” Herrmann turned his Oscar-winning score into a delightful five-movement suite. This is one score that demands a re-recording.

6. CITIZEN KANE (1941)

Orson Welles brought Herrmann with him from CBS to Hollywood and changed the way films were made forever. I appreciate the film and its place in film history, but I don’t agree that it’s the finest film ever made. Still, Welles, like Hitchcock, brought out the best in Herrmann. From the short melodic and rhythmic cells to the brief cues that went against the Hollywood tradition of film scoring, Herrmann’s music works seamlessly into the fabric of Welles’s artistic vision. Because of the nature of the story, the score is a bit more disjointed than other Herrmann scores. But that does not detract from the craft and the numerous classic musical moments, including my favorite Herrmann cue: “Salaambo’s Aria.” Herrmann combined cues from this score with cues from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for his orchestral suite Welles Raises Kane. No matter the craft on ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY, this should have been Herrmann’s Oscar.

5. FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)

Francois Truffaut’s film butchered Ray Bradbury’s classic book-burning novel to the point I wanted to set myself aflame. But underneath the smoking rubble of celluloid detritus is a truly haunting score, particularly in Herrmann’s use of the harps. Much of the music sounds like it is borne on the windswept smoke of man’s fear of knowledge and the written word. I’d never read the book, seen the movie, or heard this score before Tribute Film Classic’s released their re-recording last year. What a discovery that purchase turned out to be! Bradbury later approached Herrmann to discuss adapting his play LEVIATHAN 99: MOBY DICK IN SPACE into an opera, but Herrman never got back to him. “It’s a great shame,” said Bradbury. “I think we could have done something quite wonderful.” Indeed.

4. PSYCHO (1960)

Who needs winds, brass, and percussion with Herrmann at the helm? Benny’s experimental score, written for strings only, sounds just as fresh and frightening today as it must have in 1960. One of the few scores to crossover into popular culture, the music has been championed, lampooned, and satirized for nearly 50 years. Though the shrieking violins may be the most famous elements of the score, the music contains many beautiful, tender moments. The numerous re-recordings and suites, no matter how well performed, still can’t match the ferocious quality of Herrmann’s original performance.

3. VERTIGO (1958)

Love, loss, and loneliness haunt Hitchcock’s masterpiece and Herrmann’s score. The hypnotic arpeggiated strings and harp perfectly capture the dizzying effect of Saul Bass’s title art. Trills and tremolos convey madness and fear set against the passion of the elongated main theme. I get lost in Herrmann’s score, unsure of where I am or where I’m going. And much like Kim Novak in the film, I’m willing to give myself over completely to a stronger force as the music subtly manipulates me into a state of hypnotic bliss.

2. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

The famous opening fandango dances around Cary Grant’s lithe and effortless performance. The heartbreaking love theme soars without a trace of sentimentality. The film and the score move at breakneck speed. And just when you think you can catch a breath, that fandango reasserts itself to keep you off-balance. My favorite Hitchcock film and probably the most fun you’ll ever have with a Herrmann score.

1. THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is a special film for me. The fantastical story of a widow (Gene Tierney) who falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison) haunting her English cottage enchanted me immediately, thanks in no small part to Herrmann’s passionate score. If Benny ever showed a soft side, here it is, as the score churns with unspoken emotion. Back in my days as a budding musical theater composer, this was the property I wanted to adapt. I still think it would make a damn good musical, but in far more talented compositional hands than mine. This was Herrmann’s favorite score, mine too.

What are your favorite Bernard Herrmann scores?

23 comments

  1. Vertigo has always been my favorite Herrmann score. It is hypnotic, mesmerizing, and downright gorgeous. Obvious tracks are the opening titles, Carlotta’s Portrait, and the finale – but I love the tragic beauty in “The Letter.” What a masterpiece.

    I also love Benny’s role (both musically and onscreen) in The Man Who Knew Too Much. That climactic scene is one of the most fascinating marriages of music and image, creating such a profound tension. Brilliant!

    1. Can you believe I’ve never seen TMWKTM? I can never make it past the first 10 minutes. And I LOVE Doris Day! LOL Sounds like it’s time to add it to the Netflix queue.

      1. Gasp! There is no time to delay! I can’t stand Doris Day, but this is easily in my top three Hitchcock films. As a fan of Herrmann, you HAVE to watch this movie. Now!

        1. Look at that, it’s on the instant play on Netflix. No need to even wait for a disc!

          As for Doris, I’ll forgive you your blasphemous remarks since you’re young and you like RETURN TO OZ. But don’t make me hunt you down. :)

  2. You do realize that putting “Muir” out into the ether means it will happen now. Had you written anything yet? Have you thought of copyrighting it and returning to the idea? I think it’s lovely. Just let me play the George Sanders role, OK?

    1. I wrote a few things. They’re not worth copyrighting. They were crap. But when I was writing it, I had Kelsey Grammar in my head. (I later saw him in the Scottish play on Broadway and rethought that a bit.) And I really hope someone DOES do it. It’s a great story.

  3. Some of these I don’t know: ‘The Ghost and Mrs Muir’, ‘Citizen Kane’ and I’ve only heard the Herrman suite from ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ on Radio 3.
    ‘Vertigo’ was the first Herrmann score to knock me sideways. I have both the Varese Sarabande recordings of that, the original Muir Matheson and the gorgeously recorded John Mauceri.
    One of my absolute favourites in the Herrmann canon is the score to ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’. The ‘Princess’ tune is one to die for, it haunted me for days and days, has a certain Russian sad tinge to it like a Shostakovich melody. But I love the whole score. It’s so gorgeously colourful and dynamic and the way Herrmann transforms the main melodic motifs throughout the score is nothing short of breathtaking.
    By the way, has anyone noticed that the second theme from the Overture is virtually the same as the main theme from ‘Marnie’, but the last 2 notes are turned around.

    1. Neil, you MUST give THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR a spin. And don’t forget the film as well. It’s a wonderful experience on every level. CITIZEN KANE probably works better in the film but there’s so much great music in it.

      John Morgan and William Stromberg are recording the entire DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER score (as well as the suite) next February for Tribute Film Classics. Now THAT will be a great recording!

      I honestly only know SINBAD from the recording and it doesn’t do much for me as a whole. I need to hear in context of the film to get the full flavor of it. I’ll have to check out the comparison to MARNIE. And it wouldn’t surprise me if they were the same. Herrmann always bristled when it was suggested that certain scores matched each other here or there. But I don’t doubt your word. :)

  4. I have a soft spot for Journey to the Center of the Earth, lost of deep rumbling and awful Pat Boone songs (not Herrmann). But the Concerto Macabre from Hangover Square is genius.

    1. Hi Simon. I’ve never seen JOURNEY, but I’ll agree about the awful Pat Boone songs. :) And I need to see HANGOVER SQUARE to see how the concerto fits in.

      1. It is the climax to the film. I have it on good authority that a young Stephen Sondheim went multiple times to the film and frantically tired to transcribe the concerto in the brief moments the sheet music appears on film. It is a big influence on his music for SWEENEY TODD.

        JOURNEY is lots of fun for the seriously dated sfx.

        1. Transcribing from the film, eh? Talk about a difficult task! Only someone like Sondheim would come up with something like that. I wonder how close he ever got to a full transcription.

  5. I was 11 years old when I saw Vertigo and fell in love with its music. I would die happily if I could compose a 2 minute piece as half as haunting as Herrmann’s. There isn’t one like him, never will!

    1. Hi Laura. Thanks for commenting. There is definitely something very special about VERTIGO. As for dying happy, think of all the 2- and 3-note Herrmann-esque motifs you can cram into 2 minutes! :)

  6. Ah yes! The Ghost & Mrs. Muir is a fantastic score! So dramatic when the camera cuts to the crashing waves! Definitely one of my favourite Herrmann scores. A wonderful movie too :)
    .-= Wendell´s last blog ..M.E.T. =-.

  7. 1. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver
    2. Fahrenheit 451
    3. North by Northwest
    4. Marnie
    5. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
    6. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
    7. Anna and the King of Siam
    8. The Trouble with Harry
    9. Citizen Kane

  8. Classic Herrmann so many great scores. Try his last two scores Brian DePalma’s “Obsession” with it’s touch of “Vertigo” plotting and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. That movie he just finished recording in the studio went home and passed away the next day.

  9. I’m having trouble enjoying Herrmann, but I try really hard ;) Here’s my top 9:

    1. The Egyptian
    2. On Dangerous Ground
    3. The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad
    4. The Day The Earth Stood Still
    5. 5 Fingers
    6. Williamsburg: The Story Of A Patriot
    7. Vertigo
    8. Sisters
    9. The Snows Of Kilimanjaro

  10. Herrmann was a genius. His scores blended organically with the visuals, profoundly enhancing the mood and pacing of each film. Just two comments: (1) I’m surprised “Taxi Driver” did not make your list and (2) although Truffaut obviously was not comfortable with the “Fahrenheit 451” material, I think the movie does include two or three wonderful segments – among them, the close-ups of the burning book covers and the concluding scenes in the snowy woods where the colony of “criminal” readers memorizing their chosen books is located.

  11. As I clicked onto this link I was saying “Ghost and Mrs Muir”…”Ghost and Mrs Muir.” And for a split second, as I scrolled down, I thought you might say “Psycho.” Then…YES!!! “The Ghost and Mrs Muir”. My absolute favourite Bernard Herrman film score! The perfect juxtaposition of music themes: romance & longing vs the relentless sea and its ghostly captain. I believe it was Mr Herrman’s favourite score as well — and I heartily agree!

    Now, where is your list of fave Jerry Goldsmith scores….?

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