Music – Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann was an American composer who trained as a classical musician, winning a composition prize at 13 and founding his own chamber orchestra at 20, but soon he began to mix his traditional compositions. His first work with Alfred Hitchcock was 1955 The Trouble with Harry, and he signed on as a composer on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

The two perfectionists’ clash over innumerable details -Hitchcock wanted a jazz score for Psycho, with no music at all for the shower scene- did not prevent their collaboration from yielding some of the greatest film music ever written.

A question immediately arises:  Would had been as famous the Psycho or Vertigo as they are without Bernard Herrmann’s music?

Everybody knows that if we watch a horror movie, to protect ourselves the best tactic is to cover our ears. The music as an element in films is indispensable. As Bernard Herrmann himself said:

When Hitchcock finishes a film, it’s only 60% complete. I supply the other 40%.”


The music score for Vertigo was composed by Bernard Herrmann between 3 January and 19 February 1958. The recordings were made in London and Vienna, with orchestra conducted by Muir Mathieson. (A musicians’ strike had prevented the score from being recorded in Los Angeles with Herrmann conducting).

Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann contributed immensely to Vertigo’s emotional impact. His hypnotic, intensely romantic score is one of the most memorable in movie history.

Hitchcock’s favorite composer was the instrument  of his innermost feelings.

Vertigo DVD

In a 2004 special issue by Sight & Sound devoted to Film Music, Martin Scorsese described the qualities of Herrmann’s famous score:

Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again … And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.”


In 1958 Alfred Hitchcock created his masterpiece, Vertigo. Based upon the novel D’Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Vertigo was, itself, a modern variation of the Tristan myth upon which Richard Wagner based his opera, Tristan and Isolde. A story of love, obsession and enduring passion for a woman obscuring the fragile boundaries separating life and death, Vertigo became the perfect culmination not only of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmic fears and vulnerability, but of Bernard Herrmann’s, as well. (…)

(…)Misunderstood and under appreciated by American audiences at the time of its initial release, Vertigo is considered by most critics today not only Hitchcock’s greatest work, but one of the greatest motion pictures ever filmed. The picture and its musical scoring by Bernard Herrmann are exquisite jewels. As in his earlier examination of love transcending the vaporous curtain of mortal passage,The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Herrmann’s music for Vertigo is nearly exultant in its expression of mortal anguish and the redemption of love. Herrmann’s own deeply felt longing for love and acceptance is excruciatingly evident in the hauntingly lovely, poignant and exquisitely painful music rapturously caressing the film. Wagnerian it its intensity, Vertigo is at once stunning and torturous. Its searing sensitivity is startling, stripping naked the composer and his own anguished vulnerability. Vertigo is a deeply felt canvas, a sad and beautiful portrait, painted by two of the cinema’s most gifted artists.

Bernard Herrmann believed that music for the cinema carried the same significance as music written for the concert hall.

Music was music, he said, and he gave unsparingly of his talent to films, television, radio, opera and the concert stage. He abhorred the term “Film Composer”… as if there could ever be a difference in the quality separating films and the concert stage. Herrmann felt that music snobbery on the part of critics was absurd. There were only two kinds of music, good and bad. All of Herrmann’s music was of the former variety. A year before Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann formed the third of his three major film associations, first with Orson Welles, then with Alfred Hitchcock and, finally, with Ray Harryhausen, the legendary Stop Motion/Special Effects technician. Beginning in 1957 with Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad and on through The Three Worlds Of Gulliver, Mysterious Island and Jason And The Argonauts, Herrmann seemed to find another kindred spirit in the imaginative Harryhausen, and an outlet for his own soaring spirit, a spirit unwilling and unable to be contained by earthly or mortal constraints. The gentle, sensitive Harryhausen opened up a whole new dimension to the hungry composer, a world in which his musical boundaries were lovingly ripped asunder, a wondrous fantasy world in which his own imagination joyously took flight from the mythological shoulders of skeletons, cyclopian monsters and fire breathing dragons.

Herrmann stated that Hitchcock would invite him on to the production of a film and depending on his decision of the length of the music, would either expand or contract the scene. It was Hitchcock who asked Herrmann for the “recognition scene” near the end of Vertigo (the scene where Jimmy Stewart’s character suddenly realizes Kim Novak’s identity) to be played with music.

Herrmann’s collaboration with Hitchcock

hitchcock and bernard herrmann

Hitchcock listened to only the prelude of the score before turning off a recording of the music and angrily confronting Herrmann about the pop score he had promised. Herrmann, equally frustrated, bellowed;

“Look, Hitch, you can’t outjump your own shadow. And you don’t make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don’t write pop music.” Hitchcock unrelentingly insisted that Herrmann change the score, violating Herrmann’s general claim for creative control that he had always been maintained in their previous films. Herrmann then said, “Hitch, what’s the use of my doing more with you? I had a career before you, and I will afterwards.”

According to McGilligan, Herrmann later tried to patch up and repair the damage with Hitchcock, but Hitchcock refused to see him. Herrmann’s unused score was later commercially recorded, initially by Elmer Bernstein  for his Film Music Collection subscription record label (reissued by Warner Bros. Records), and later, in a concert suite adapted by Christopher Palmer, by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for Sony. Some of Herrmann’s cues for Torn Curtain were later post-synched to the final cut, where they showed how remarkably attuned the composer was to the action, and how, arguably, more effective his score could have been.


Hours after finishing recording sessions for his last film, Taxi Driver (1976), he collapsed and died, and director Martin Scorsese responded by dedicating the film film to him.


1.Would had been as famous the Psycho or Vertigo as they are without Bernard Hermann’s music?

2. Who is ‘the new Bernard Herrmann’?

3. Who is/was Ray Harryhausen?


Vertigo DVD


One Response to “Music – Bernard Herrmann”

  1. villabourani Says:

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