The Nature of Bernard Herrmann’s Music
By Bill Wrobel

Bernard Herrmann was perhaps the preeminent film composer of the 20th century. Holding a significant fan base throughout the years, he is one of the most talked about film composers, the subject of many discussions and scholarly papers. He worked with legendary filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen, and composed historic films such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Psycho. His unique music certainly commanded attention, whether or not you are a serious fan of the music. It certainly was interesting and imaginative music that held substantial dramatic impact. Also it was good music, well formulated, well constructed, intelligent, and deceptively simple (musical simplexity), as Fred Steiner alluded to in his Psycho analysis. In analogy, like Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), his art and craft permeated a deep and lasting imprint on the collective film music psyche. Herrmann’s oeuvre order of magnitude became far more influential than many of his colleagues. In a sense, his music was noticeably "something different" compared to most of his contemporaries at the time, especially the so-called "Hollywood sound" of Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

This short, informal and spontaneously written essay is meant as an explorative one, and not, idiomatically speaking, as a definitive Rosetta Stone of Herrmann’s music. Indeed I may even revise and add to this paper in the coming months as new insights present themselves. It’s an attempt to have some fun trying to determine what makes Herrmann’s music tick. What is Herrmann’s musical profile? What formula of composition did he characteristically engage in? What is the recipe of Herrmann’s musical pie? I’ve already discussed this in several of my writings, including the online paper, Half-Diminished Seventh: The Bernard Herrmann Chord (PDF), Blog # 29 (PDF), and others. A close study of the music itself will tell you all you really need to know if you simply apply Sherlock Holmes observation. Although I have studied almost all of Herrmann’s written scores available to researchers since the early Eighties, any reader who is an avid fan of Herrmann is as much an authority in terms of deep music appreciation, whether or not you can put it into words. My hope is that I can put it into words clearly enough so that the reader can also appreciate a mental understanding of Herrmann’s musical art that already resonates emotionally and strongly within him or her.

Now: Essentially Herrmann regarded himself as a Romantic composer, stylistically speaking. His music was indeed emotional, moody, with great depth of feeling. As given on page 8 of the 1977 publication, Bernard Herrmann: Hollywood’s Music-Dramatist by Edward Johnson, Herrmann stated, "As a composer I might class myself as a Neo-Romantic, inasmuch as I have always regarded music as a highly personal and emotional form of expression. I like to write music which takes its inspiration from poetry, art and nature. I do not care for purely decorative music. Although I am in sympathy with modern idioms, I abhor music which attempts nothing more than the illustration of a stylistic fad. And in using modern techniques, I have tried at all times to subjugate them to a larger idea or a grander human feeling."

The Romantic period of music came to full fruition in the 19th century, and it is interesting to note what Herrmann wrote to his wife on November 1947: "My feelings and yearnings are those of a composer of the 19th century. I am completely out of step with the present." (see page 137 of Steven C. Smith's A Heart At Fire’s Center).

With Lucille Fletcher, ca. 1945
While Herrmann’s music — his entire oeuvre — cannot be easily pigeonholed, almost all of his works showed a natural Dramatist (a terrific aptitude for drama, whether musically or in his personal life!) that flowed along a romantic channel of expression. One suggestion is to say that he was a 20th Century American Modernist Romantic. He tended to excel in music written not so much in a co-called abstract construct (concert works, say, or symphony) but in response to an external stimulus or medium such as the Big Screen (feature film), the Small Screen (television), radio plays, and the opera (Wuthering Heights). His dramatic instincts really shined in these Show Business mediums.

Read the entire text of Bill Wrobel’s “The Nature of Bernard Herrmann’s Music” at The Bernard Herrmann Society website,

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