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Master of the Atmosphere: All About Composer Bernard Herrmann

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

By John C. Alsedek:

Even if you’re not a fan of The Twilight Zone, chances are you would instantly recognize its theme music: seven notes on the low E and A strings of an electric guitar. This composition by Marius Constant is a masterpiece of the television genre, an angular, unsettling melody that perfectly fits the show itself. But did you know that wasn’t the original theme music for The Twilight Zone? No, the original was an entirely different animal: a layered, dreamlike, harp-and-woodwinds theme that manages to be just as unnerving in its own way but gets there in a more subtle manner. That original theme was by the late, great Bernard Herrmann, who composed some of the finest film, radio, and television music of the 20th century.

Bernard Herrmann

Born Maximilian Herman on June 29th, 1911, Herrmann was raised in a middle-class Russian/Ukrainian-Jewish family that encouraged his interest in music, taking him to the opera and buying him his first violin. That encouragement soon bore fruit: Herrmann won his first composition competition at age 13, attended the Julliard School, and formed his own orchestra at just 20 years of age. In 1934, he was hired by CBS Radio as a staff conductor, and two years later earned the post of music director of the Columbia Workshop, an experimental dramatic series. There, he wasn’t just conducting other peoples’ work, he had the freedom to create his own. By the early 40s, he was the chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, and in that position played an enormous role in introducing Americans to a wide variety of musical works that were all but unknown to the general public. Those works include Richard Arnell’s 1st Symphony, Nikolai Myaskovsky’s 22nd Symphony, and Charles Ives’ 3rd Symphony, as well as those of many up-and-comers. Conversely, Herrmann’s own concert compositions began to be performed by the likes of former London Philharmonic conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and Philadelphia Orchestra greats Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski.

Orson Welles & Bernard Herrmann

But it was with scripted entertainment that Herrmann truly made his mark. He won an Academy Award for the score to the 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster, then followed that up with memorable scores to such movies as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); the latter included an early use of the theremin, which would soon become a staple of 50s sci-fi films. And then, of course, there were his collaborations with "boy genius" Orson Welles. He garnered an Academy Award nomination for the score of Citizen Kane and also scored Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons; however, RKO Studios edited his music so drastically that Herrmann demanded his name be removed from the credits.

This, however, didn’t affect the relationship between Herrmann and Welles, and the duo continued to do great things together. Having already worked closely on Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air (including the famous War of the Worlds broadcast) and the Campbell Playhouse radio series, they continued their collaborations on The Orson Welles Show; it was on the latter that Lucille Fletcher (Herrmann’s wife) premiered her famous story "The Hitch-Hiker." After The Orson Welles Show ended in 1942, Herrmann and Welles did two more radio series: Ceiling Unlimited (1942) and The Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air (1946) and the 1943 feature film Jane Eyre (1943).

Alfred Hitchcock & Bernard Herrmann

The 1950s and 1960s saw Herrmann working closely with another directorial maestro, Alfred Hitchcock. In total, he scored seven Hitchcock films, starting with 1955’s The Trouble with Harry and finishing with 1964’s Marnie; he also served as sound consultant for The Birds (1963), which had no music. By far the best known of these scores is that for Psycho, which eschews all other orchestral instrumentation in favor of strings—and does so to stunning effect, particularly in the shower stabbing scene. The secret to the working relationship between Herrmann and Hitchcock was simply that Hitchcock respected Herrmann to the extent that he gave him full creative control of the scoring, even to the extent that he would on occasion extend or shorten scenes to fit the music. The two men eventually did have a falling out over the score for Torn Curtain, which Hitchcock wanted to be more "modern"; Herrmann refused to give in, and so Hitchcock fired him. It was widely thought that the two men never spoke again, but after Herrmann’s death, it came out that they had indeed tried to mend fences, with Hitchcock interested in having Herrmann score Topaz and his final film, 1976’s Family Plot. However, nothing came of those overtures, in no small part because Herrmann was very much in demand.

The late sixties and early-to-mid seventies saw Herrmann working with some of the silver screen’s best up-and-coming directors: Francois Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451, Brian DePalma on Sisters and Obsession, and Martin Scorcese on Taxi Driver. He was about to begin work on three additional films (DePalma’s Carrie, Herbert Ross’ The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To) when Herrmann passed away in his sleep of an apparent heart attack at the age of 64. The regard in which Herrmann was held was reflected by the fact that both DePalma and Cohen dedicated their films to Herrmann’s memory. Even today, Bernard Herrmann is considered one of the all-time masters, with his compositions for Psycho and Vertigo both in the top dozen of the American Film Institute’s list of the 25 all-time greatest film scores.

Bernard Herrmann and Lucille Fletcher were one of the most interesting husband-and-wife creative duos in the entertainment business, but there have been plenty of others. We’ll be taking a look at the careers of one of them, that of prolific horror/science fiction writers Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. (C. L.) Moore next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!


SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.

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