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Past Impressions

1 Bernard Herrmann

The Hitchcock film season at the Barbican in London during March brings to my mind the half-Russian American composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann, whose partnership with Hitchcock gave impetus to his special brand of film making. I enjoyed the friendship of Benny during the late 60s to his death in 1974.

His personality was complex and triggered emotional upheavals that could be either heartbreaking or explosive. There were many such that ruined dinner parties, friendships, recording sessions, and almost anything that threw him into deep sorrow or anger. The occasion which finally terminated the friendship of Hitchcock and Herrmann must have given onlookers tremors of earthquake proportions.

Yet this remarkable man had an acute musical sensitivity that I have not encountered before or since. His knowledge of the orchestral repertoire was enormous, going back to the 17th century, although his ideas of early music performance would outrage many musicians today.

Herrmann knew Charles Ives, for whom he spoke with admiration and understanding. His deep affection for 20th century British music enabled him to give many American premieres during the 30s as conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra. Having written the music for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, regarded by many afficianados as a classic, his friendship with Welles brought further collaboration, notoriously of the realistic broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds in the 30s, causing widespread panic throughout the country and pandemonium in the CBS offices. Herrmann was thrilled and when the police arrived hoped for arrest. Sadly, he was allowed to go home.

Bernard Herrmann with Basil Ramsey at
Novellos in the late 1970s

Bernard Herrmann with Basil Ramsey at Novellos in the late 1970s

This was the same man whose affection for animals was legendary. When he leased a flat overlooking Regent's Park in London, he walked his gentle mongrel Alpy through the park early every day. London was a magnet for Benny. An anglophile, he adored all aspects of England, which also gave him an encyclopaedic knowledge of British arts in general. He possessed a Rowlandson print, and many rare books.

When it came to writing music for a film, Herrmann was in an element that is inhabited by very few composers with such dramatic gifts of adding a gripping sound dimension to mirror the visual dimension. Psycho is a film that proves a point: Herrmann's use of high glissandi for the upper strings gives the murder in the shower scene shattering reality. And yet the entire score is for strings alone. Similarly, he used the almost extinct serpent in his music for Verne's 20,000 leagues under the sea. 'Why use a normal orchestra for a film when you can choose an instrumental ensemble to match your conception?' There's no answer.

I unwittingly got caught up in one of those bizarre moments when Benny had an idea. He was recording music for a rather spooky film by Larry Cohen at St Giles, Cripplegate. 'Basil, go up to the organ and play me a chord cluster on the pedals'. At the console, with Benny wheezing down my ear from the exertion, I was instructed to play five notes, which I hastily explained is not that easy with just two feet. Somehow we struck a balance between what could be done and what he wanted. This strange, eerie rumbly soft 16ft tone was duly recorded. When I saw the film several years later I was astounded at the effect and its suitability for what was on the screen. The master at his craft.

That Benny was awarded a posthumous Oscar for his score to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was ironic, and a belated recognition of this extraordinary man who wrote such powerful and disturbing music only a short while before his death on Christmas Eve 1974.

Bernard Herrmann was a lover of wit in all its manifestations. I recall only one story in his repertory that showed himself losing out to a colleague. At a Hollywood function he met an acquaintance - Stravinsky no less - who asked him how many bars of music he'd written that day (he was busy on a film score). 'Oh', said Benny, 'I guess about 50 or so'. 'Ah' said Stravinsky. 'I've written just one, but it is good!'

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, 24 January 1999