Death Notes: The Pairing Of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Lee breaks down the historical musical pairing of Hitchcock and Herrmann.

"Never let them
see you sweat!"
Bernard Herrmann is arguably one of most influential film composers of the 20th century. Movies such as Citizen Cane, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Fahrenheit 451, and Taxi Driver were all masterfully scored by the New York born musician. Herrmann had an acute sense when it came to musically enhancing a scene, resulting in some of cinema’s most classic moments. Among his 50+ films, Herrmann is best remembered for his collaborative relationship with Alfred Hitchcock.

The composer wrote the score for seven of the famed director’s films, with Psycho easily being the most memorable. The unforgettable fast sweeping violin notes from the film’s famous shower scene is one of the most recognizable scores in cinematic history. Interestingly enough, Hitchcock originally didn't want music for the scene, thinking it would create a more cold and gruesome setting. Herrmann went ahead and scored the scene anyway. When Hitch heard the piece, he couldn't deny its impact. The limited budget of Psycho created a unique challenge for the composer. Unusual for the time, Psycho is an all string score. The scaled down approach worked well for the film, complementing Hitchcock's equally reserved production.

 From the opening note, Hermmann's score creates a fluttering of nervous suspense, giving the film a lingering tense feel. It’s a slow yet constant musical burn that builds until the film’s climatic end. The score was played con sordini (muted strings) for all but the shower scene. The effect helped enhance the shocking moment, creating the trademark sound of screeching violins which have been duplicated in countless horror films since. Hitchcock was so pleased with the score he doubled Herrmann's salary and placed the composer''s name in the opening credits just before his for directing. Hitch would later say that "33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music".

As impactful as Psycho is musically, Vertigo is Herrmann's paramount score. The composer's use of complex layers enchants viewers/ listeners with fluid paranoia. The score often banters between a series of high and low string notes, stimulating the dizzying sensation of falling. The blast of brass horns add brief crescendos of intensity before abruptly fading into the soft pitter patter of quiet chimed xylophones. It is a masterful piece that sets up the film's famed dream sequences. The experimental use of Spanish cha cha percussion works well while Jimmy Stewart's frightened face floats in a nightmare of psychedelic imagery. The track D'Amour is a beautiful piece, and arguably the best of Herrmann's career. While it’s effect is opposite to Vertigo's main theme, it still incorporates the same sensation of falling, only using love as it influence. It's a graceful piece that perfectly fits the enchanted flutters of the suppressed heart.

"But Hitch, pop music
is soooooo boring!"
Hitchcock often invited Herrmann to the set to watch, and based on the conductor's feedback of what he could do musically, Hitch would shorten or lengthen the scene to comply with Herrmann's input. It's an impressive show of trust coming from a director notoriously known as a control freak.

The decade long relationship came to a sad and abrupt end with the spy thriller Torn Curtain (1966). It was Hitchcock's fiftieth film, and at the urging of Universal Studios, Hitch asked Herrmann for a more modern score. Despite being the biggest director in Hollywood, Hitchcock (who was 67 at the time) was trying to adapt to the times. Universal hoped Herrmann would even write a song for Torn Curtain star Julie Andrews to sing. Herrmann reluctantly agreed. When he sat down to write the score, he struggled to see how he could honor the request. In the end, he wrote a piece that he seemed fit. When Hitchcock heard the demo he demanded Herrmann rewrite the score. Herrmann reminded Hitchcock he wasn't a pop musician. When Hitchcock persisted with his argument, Herrmann replied "Hitch, what's the use of my doing more with you? I had a career before you, and I will afterwards". The two never worked together again, and rarely spoke to each other afterwards. The score was eventually written by British composer John Addison.

The Hitchcock/ Herrmann relationship produced a collection of works that is still admirable today, and many of Herrmann's scores are considered standards to the craft. With Hitchcock's unique perspective, and Herrmann's talent for musically bringing a scene to life, the two peaked creativity in their careers during their decade long friendship. The premature end closed the the door one of of the greatest director/ composer collaborations in cinematic history. Herrmann was never critical of Hitchcock's approach to filmmaking. Hitchcock did what he did best, and Herrmann only offered input for the music's sake. Unfortunately for the composer, Hitchcock failed to share the same courtesy and respect when it mattered most.

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  -Lee L. Lind