The Bastard Child of Puccini
“Once the opera is done,” Bernard Herrmann wrote to his ex-wife, writer Lucille Fletcher, “I shall never write another note again.” Herrmann’s opera, Wuthering Heights, based on Emily Brontë’s classic novel, was to be his “chef d’oeuvre, his fame as a serious composer,” said Fletcher, who also served as the librettist. Herrmann was no stranger to writing “serious” music, including a symphony, several suites for orchestra, a cantata based on Moby Dick, several small choral works, and chamber music. But tackling an opera was another beast altogether. Friend Ray Bradbury was so “stunned and moved” when he first heard the piece that he later dubbed Herrmann “the bastard child of Puccini.” But Herrmann’s insistence on total artistic control of the finished product and unwillingness to trim a single note of the 3-1/2 hour score ruined any chance of the opera being produced during his lifetime. While the opera thankfully was not the end of his composition career (imagine a world without the Hitchcock scores!), Wuthering Heights consumed eight years of Herrmann’s life, and his marriage in the process.
“Wuthering Heights has all the emotional background and atmosphere needed in opera, but you might find the construction of the libretto difficult.”
Though Wuthering Heights was her first and only libretto, Fletcher was an accomplished writer. Her 1943 radio script, Sorry, Wrong Number, starring Agnes Moorehead, was a big hit and later earned Barbara Stanwyck an Oscar nomination for the 1948 film. She also had written the lyrics for “Salaambo’s Aria” for Herrmann’s score to CITIZEN KANE.
Herrmann and Fletcher had “plenty of discussions of what he wanted” before the libretto was written. “He chose scenes from the book that appealed to him and highlighted them, leaving out many other aspects of the novel.” Like the celebrated 1939 film starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon (featuring a classic score by Alfred Newman), composer and librettist agreed to end the story of the opera with Cathy’s death, which occurs halfway through the novel at the end of Chapter 16.
Fletcher also turned to C.W. Hatfield’s Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë, which had been published in 1941, “because Bernard felt we needed formal arias here and there—lyric outpourings of feeling in contrast to the dramatic and narrative recitatives.” Long scenes were taken wholly from the book and entire arias from the poems (such as Edgar’s “Now art thou dear” and Isabel’s “How I love them” ), but the libretto often features a combination of interweaving lines from the novel and poems. The libretto was written in its entirety before Herrmann added a note to it. From the time Fletcher sent in the finished libretto in 1947 (100 years after the novel’s publication), “Mr. Herrmann never asked me to change a single line. He set the libretto as I wrote it.”
Differing accounts place the origin of the opera anywhere between 1943 and 1948. Herrmann wrote the date of 1943 on the title page of the manuscript. But a letter to Fletcher postmarked January 13, 1948, reads, “Tomorrow morning at nine I begin working on the opera.”
According to Fletcher, the opera was conceived in 1946, inspired by a visit she and Herrmann made to Manchester. Herrmann had been asked to conduct the Halleé Orchestra, which was led by his friend Sir John Barbirolli. Ernest Bean, the Halle’s manager-secretary, took Herrmann and Fletcher on a tour through Brontë country. “[Herrmann] had already composed much of the [opera’s] music…before he had ever set sight on the scene,” said Bean. “His purpose in making the visit was not, therefore, to ‘acquire atmosphere’ but to assure himself (if such assurance was needed) that the atmosphere already imagined was true to the spirit of the author. As he sang snatches from the opera, the wind playing mocking tricks with his preposterously unmusical voice, we had our first preview of the work.” They stopped at the village of Haworth, visiting the Brontë homestead and an old farmhouse known as High Withens, believed by some to be the original Wuthering Heights. “It was uninhabited, in ruins, and standing all alone in a desolate part of the moors,” said Fletcher. “That gray November day Benny was moved by the place, most particularly by three dead trees standing sentinel at the farmyard gate. Benny said they reminded him of the Brontë sisters, with their ‘sad and withered lives.’”
“I will never do a movie again. It is completely wasted and expended music energy that should go into my own work. I feel that conducting and musical composition are enough for me. I sincerely hope that I will never see Hollywood again.”
Herrmann began to work on the opera in earnest in 1948. At the time, his days of composing and conducting with CBS Radio were at an end and his relationship with Hollywood was rocky at best. With his marriage on the rocks as well, he went to Minneapolis where he could work on the opera fulltime with the future Mrs. Herrmann #2—Lucy Anderson—close by. Even with encouragement about the opera from friends like Leopold Stokowski and Barbirolli, letters to Fletcher in early 1948 poignantly detail Herrmann’s disturbed mental state. Herrmann describes himself as “a drowning man” who must first “finish the opera. I must—it is an obbsession [sic] of mine. It will be enough to be remember [sic] by one work—even if only in the history books.” Holed up in a studio provided by Minneapolis Symphony conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, Herrmann devoted 11 hours a day to the opera: “I plan to work from 9–1, 2–5, 7–11. This is the only way I can achieve this opera, and so finally have it behind me.”
The opera was composed in four acts with a Prologue and Epilogue, with one intermission at the end of Act II. He cast eight solo roles and disregarded the tradition of an operatic chorus, though a small chorus (as well as a child soloist) was added for the Christmas Carol at the end of Act II, one of three scenes that bears Fletcher’s own words instead of Brontë’s.
Wuthering Heights “grew out of a love for England and English folk music,” said Fletcher. A Neo-Romantic style abounds throughout the score, echoing some of Herrmann’s favorite English composers—Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius. “The orchestra may be said to be descriptive of the landscape and weather of each act….Thus, in many ways, each act is a landscape tone poem which envelopes the characters.” In her doctoral dissertation on the opera, Susan St. John (who understudied the role of Cathy in the Portland [Oregon] premiere), identified 10 principal motifs in the score. The motifs are initially introduced by solo instruments or small ensembles within the orchestra, and of the several hundred motivic statements, only 11 are actually sung. The poems and motifs rarely are used simultaneously. The eerie three-note motif that spans the tritone (first heard in the piccolo at the beginning of the score) appears more frequently than any other motif in the opera.
Herrmann also borrows from his 1944 film score for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, using the score’s main theme to underline Cathy’s Act III aria, “Oh, I’m burning.” But it is his 1947 score for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that figures most prominently in the opera. The film’s “Prelude” is reproduced almost note for note in Act I following Cathy and Heathcliff’s duet “On the moors,” and you’ll find more than a hint of the score in the orchestral interlude preceding the second scene of Act I, and in Act II’s closing storm.
Herrmann bristled whenever anyone insinuated that he borrowed music from himself, and in an interview with the Los Angeles Free Press, Herrmann went ballistic when the interviewer brought up the subject of Muir’s inclusion in the opera: “It didn’t come from that picture and I resent that…there might be a couple of phrases that might sound alike, but so what! Who the hell cares!”
While Herrmann displays an expectedly sure hand with his orchestral forces, other problems in the operatic construction show the composer’s lack of experience in the genre. His settings of Fletcher’s text often resulted in awkward accents (e.g., “Heath-CLIFF!”). “Since it [happened] so often,” said Stefan Minde, conductor of the Portland Opera premiere, “I thought there might be some purpose behind it.” There were also problematic cinematic transitions at the end of the Prologue to Act I, where Heathcliff must reverse age from an old man to someone 20 years younger in the span of a few bars, and in Act III where Cathy must change from the staid wife of Edgar to a distraught, disheveled woman within 18 bars of music. Minde said, “[Richard] Strauss would have sensed the timing was wrong.”
“The work was finished rather rapidly,” said Fletcher. “Herrmann was accustomed to working to a deadline, and he worked on Wuthering Heights with the same steady concentration he brought to all his music, whether a symphony or a sequence for Twentieth-Century Fox.” According to a note he wrote on the score, Herrmann completed the opera on June 30, 1951, at 3:45 p.m.
“I know that Wuthering Heights has saved me many times and that to finally finish the opera will leave a tremendous void.”
Reception to the lengthy work, even among friends, was cautiously guarded. Barbirolli had planned to premiere the work until he received the score. The conductor told Herrmann the opera required more forces, orchestral and theatrical, than the Halle could manage. “John didn’t feel the work was entirely good,” said Barbirolli’s widow, Evelyn. “The economic problems he explained to Benny were true, but had John felt that the opera was Moby Dick plus, he would have made every possible effort.” Barbirolli never expressed his true feelings to Herrmann, who hoped for a Halle performance of the opera until Barbirolli’s death in 1970. But Herrmann’s caustic temperament proved to be the opera’s worst enemy.
Herrmann first approached the San Francisco Opera. “It was a very romantic piece,” Kurt Herbert Adler, retired SFO general director, told Opera News. “We liked it, and I thought it would be an excellent project for Leopold Stokowski, who was then on very friendly terms with us. We didn’t go much farther with it, because a short time later we got a call from Stokowski, pleading illness and a desire not to travel to San Francisco. So we decided to drop [it].” But Herrmann’s friend Victor Bay overheard a telephone shouting match between Adler and Herrmann in which the director told the composer, “To hell with you and your opera. We won’t produce it.” Julius Rudel, the director of New York’s City Opera, also liked the piece “and it looked as if he was going to produce it,” said friend Miklós Rózsa, “but Rudel said he wanted some changes. Benny exploded: ‘I’m not gonna change a NOTE!’ So Rudel said forget it.”
Rózsa next suggested doing it at USC, where he was teaching, but Herrmann was still angry at universities that had not heeded CBS’ plea for written letters of support when his “Invitation to Music” radio program was canceled. After Rózsa convinced Herrmann to meet with USC conductor Walter Decloux, Herrmann arrived 45 minutes late, quarreling with new wife Lucy. He disparaged Decloux’s praise of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (“That’s not music—those are IDIOTS conducting there!”) and attacked the powerful Philharmonic philanthropist Dorothy Chandler (“[She] only invites NAZIS!”). But it was Herrmann’s dismissal of Decloux’s war record (“Aww, who cares about the war? I did music!”) that sealed the fate of the opera at USC. When Herrmann showed him the score, “Decloux said, ‘Yes, fine…,’” Rózsa remembered, “but it could have been Die Meistersinger, and he wouldn’t have done it.” Rózsa approached Georg Solti to look at the score and snagged an invitation for Herrmann to attend a rehearsal of Solti’s, who was visiting California. But upon his arrival, Herrmann immediately began berating Solti’s reading of a Schumann symphony and Solti asked him to leave.
The score was published in 1965, but with no interest from opera companies or record labels, Herrmann finally took matters into his own hands. In 1966 he conducted a recording of the opera, financed primarily out of his own pocket, casting little-known British singers Morag Beaton and Donald Bell in the lead roles of Cathy and Heathcliff. Rehearsals took place at the home of Ursula Vaughan Williams (Ralph’s widow), who called the sessions “ghastly,” full of “storms and tears.” “Benny behaved atrociously,” she said. The recording was released on the Pye label and remains the only full recording of the entire opera. Gramophone magazine gave the album a mixed review, complaining about the opera’s “too measured” pace and its “serviceable music…. It is not a great opera, and I would certainly urge very extensive cuts before it was ever staged, but the enterprise of getting the work on record is something to applaud.”
Reactions to the work among Herrmann’s friends also remained guarded. After Herrmann “conducted” the recording one Sunday afternoon, Alfred Newman publically complimented Herrmann but commented privately to his wife that it was an extremely long work. Arthur Bliss sent back a polite note. The BBC returned its copy of the album still unopened, informing Herrmann it was “not appropriate” for broadcast. It would be another 15 years before the opera was staged live.
“I had many years of torment and anguish to bring this work into being. Somehow now my purpose in life seems to make sense.”
Following Herrmann’s death in 1975, Fletcher and Herrmann’s daughter, Dorothy, put the opera up for public performance. But most opera companies were unwilling to dedicate the time and expense necessary for mounting the premiere of a new American opera, no matter the composer’s fame, and certainly not from a film composer. When the opera was finally given its world premiere on November 6, 1982, by the Portland Opera Company, conductor Stefan Minde cut 40 minutes out of the piece and changed the ending to the upbeat ending Julius Rudel wanted nearly 30 years before.
Malcolm Fraser, the opera’s director, was responsible for the revised ending. The original epilogue is set 20 years following Cathy’s death in the same attic room as the prologue, with a shattered Heathcliff tortured by the ghostly voice of Cathy crying. In the Portland version, Fraser had Cathy frolicking on the moors watching Heathcliff die while their spirits become mimes who walk off into the sunset to find happiness in death. “This hokey solution,” said Opera News, “is bad Brontë and bad Herrmann.”
New American operas rarely fare well with critics (or audiences, for that matter) and the critical reception was expectedly mixed. Newsweek called it “resolutely earthbound,” but part of the problem came from the production itself. “Squinting through projections of vegetation rank and withered (not to mention a 25-five-foot-high drawing of a screaming face—whose?—that filled half the proscenium),” said High Fidelity, “it was not easy to make contact with the performers…. Perhaps brilliantly cast, passionately conducted, simply staged and acted, Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights could make a success, but as a repertoire piece, the work is too weak dramatically to overcome its dearth of melody and monotonous scoring.”
After such a poor reception, it should come as no surprise that the opera still struggles to be heard. Jonathan Sheffer has championed the score, conducting excerpts from it in 2001 and 2008, but only Cathy’s Act II aria, “I have dreamt,” has found any life outside the opera, with recordings by Renée Fleming and recently by newcomer Kate Royal.
To date, the Portland premiere remains the only fully staged production of the opera. But a new production is scheduled for The Minnesota Opera’s 2014–2015 season, over 30 years since its last performance and over 60 years since the opera was completed.
“The only thing I ever did do that was foolhardy was to write an opera,” Herrmann said in 1971. “Franz Liszt said that you have to have the soul of a hero to write an opera and the mentality of a lackey to have it produced.” Was Herrmann “foolhardy” and did he have “the soul of a hero”? In 2015, Herrmann fans can judge for themselves.
Published in Film Score Monthly Online, October 2009
- Cooper, David. Bernard Herrmann’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: A Film Score Guide. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005.
- Kinkaid, Frank. “Scaling the Heights.” Opera News, November 1982, pp. 16–19.
- Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.
- St. John, Susan E. A Study of the Opera Wuthering Heights by Bernard Herrmann. Thesis (D.M.A.)—University of Oregon, 1984.