Book Review: A Heart At Fire’s Center – The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann

Writing about music is difficult. How to put aural sounds into language is a subjective, and often frustrating, if not futile, exercise. These blog posts are a testament to that fact. It’s something I struggle with every day. Some days are better than others, and most barely scratch the surface of the layers of thought and emotion that emerged from a composer’s pen or computer program.

And yet, for something I feel so passionately about, I haven’t read many books on film music. Wait, let me rephrase that: I haven’t finished many books on film music. Even with all my musical training, a lot of film music books read dry and pedantic with all the excitement of a doctoral dissertation or conference paper. A few of the autobiographies are entertaining, if for no other reason than you get the juicy details direct from the composer’s mouth (or ghostwriter), but they often don’t give proper weight to the music. It’s rare to find film music books that don’t reek of what I call “writer masturbation,” a condition in which writers draw attention to themselves by showing off their erudite education and their well-thumbed thesaurus.

A Heart At Fire's Center - The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann

I picked up Steven C. Smith‘s A HEART AT FIRE’S CENTER: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BERNARD HERRMANN to raid the index for any useful information on Herrmann’s opera, Wuthering Heights, for my Film Score Monthly Online article and then store it on my already overcrowded bookshelves (or in a box) of unread and partially read film music tomes.

Prior to researching the opera, my interest in Herrmann was minimal. I appreciated much of his music but his scores were never my first choice when I wanted something to listen to. As I immersed myself in Herrmann-mania over the last month, I gained more appreciation for his music. And yet, the only reason I started to read Smith’s biography was to further delay picking up Ulysses which was taunting me from the bookshelf.

Not to take anything away from James Joyce’s doorstop, but what a fascinating read Smith’s detailed biography provides.

Herrmann is a character of Shakespearean proportions and Smith doesn’t sugarcoat the composer’s legendary personality. Volatile and vituperative, Herrmann didn’t suffer fools gladly. Jealous and petty, he made and severed friendships with a repeated lack of tact and social graces and his explosive temper alienated nearly everyone in Hollywood.¬†Through Herrmann’s own words and letters, Smith shows us the good, the bad, and the ugly–at turns childish and insecure, while loving and pitiable at others.

All the major career installments are discussed–Herrmann’s early days in radio, his unsuccessful quest for a conducting career, his unsung compositions for the concert hall. His preponderance for all things English–from the music of Delius, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams to the novels of the Bronte sisters and his friendship with conductor Sir John Barbirolli–dictated much of his career and his music.

And then there are the films–CITIZEN KANE, PSYCHO, VERTIGO, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, to name a few. His relationships with Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, and Alfred Hitchcock. Smith’s vivid discussions of the film scores and other music steers clear of over-adulation, presenting a frank, honest overview of Herrmann’s career and his groundbreaking style of film music.

Smith’s endlessly readable biography (first published in 1991) accomplishes what all film music biographies should do. It paints a fascinating warts-and-all portrait of the artist with an eye for detail that makes you want to immerse yourself in Herrmann’s music. Granted, not all biographies have a subject with the emotional highs and lows of Bernard Herrmann. So it is all the more commendable that Smith doesn’t stoop to exploiting the composer’s tirades and tantrums.

A Heart At Fire’s Center belongs on the shelf of every Herrmann fan. And anyone who is interested in the career of one of the giants of film music would do well to add this fascinating biography to their library.

Film Score Click Track [rating:5/5]

4 comments

  1. Forgive me. I thought it was dry. But I’m still grateful that someone cared enough to write a composer bio.

  2. Well, I for one found the book unputdownable. But that could be because my interest in Herrmann was high at the time. I’ve read many composer biographies, and this is one of the best.

    1. I found it unputdownable as well. And perhaps because my interest in Herrmann was also high at the time I read it. Whatever the reason(s), I found it a fascinating read.

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