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Bernard Herrmann and the role of the composer/orchestrator

by Filippo Faustini

This essay will attempt to briefly analyse the role of film music composers who orchestrate their own scores
opposed to those who adopt a more collaborative approach, working side by side with orchestrators,
arrangers, copyists and so on. As a starting point, I will take as an example the work of composer Bernard
Herrmann, a famous upholder of the first approach. In the second half of this essay, I will consider the
situations which lean toward the latter case, more frequently used today: the composer plus orchestrator
approach. Through a back and forth in the history of film music, I will draw some parallelisms between
today's common practice and the situation in which Herrmann worked, back in the first half of the 20

century. After giving an overview of those two opposed compositional methods, I aim to demonstrate how
orchestration is such a crucial stage during the process of film music scoring and how deeply it intervenes in
building the concept of a musical composition.
Bernard Herrmann and the Composer/Orchestrator approach
Bernard Herrmann (born Max, New York 1911 - Los Angeles 1975) was an American composer and
conductor, mainly known for his collaboration with film director Alfred Hitchcock. During the period spent
side by side with the director, he scored the music for Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959) and Psycho
(1960), just to name a few successes. He also collaborated with other famous directors such as Orson Welles,
Robert Wise, Martin Scorsese and Franois Truffaut. Herrmann was mainly an outsider to many Hollywood
executives (SMITH, 2002:96) and that happened in two different periods of his life: when in the 40s he
moved to Los Angeles to score the soundtrack for Citizen Kane and at the beginning of the 60s when scores
like Breakfast At Tiffanys by Henry Mancini set up the new fashion for soundtrack tunes, which ruled out the
composers more traditional conception. Herrmanns personal use of timbre, as for example the non-vibrato
string playing for Psycho (1960), the use of theremin and tracks played backwards in The Day The Earth
Stood Still (1951), were both pioneering and against the tide, considering the famous Hollywood trademark
of lush, romantic, huge string section sounds during that age of film music (DAVIS, 1999:44). Not only this
made Herrmann a Hollywood outsider, but also the fact that he used to orchestrate his compositions entirely
by himself - with some minor exceptions such as The Egyptian (1954) and Taxi Driver (1976) - while on the
contrary, many film composers adopted the opposite approach. In an interview Herrmann argues: Color is
very important, [] To orchestrate is like a thumbprint. I cant understand someone else do it. It would be
like someone putting color to your paintings (SMITH, 2002:107).
The question whether to orchestrate or not to orchestrate is a main point in the role of the composer today,
with very little time afforded to compose a soundtrack: back in the 30s, major composers like Korngold had
the right to take all the time they needed to compose a score (DAVIS, 1999:51) while others may have a
shorter period of time, as in the case of Raksin for Forever Amber (DAVIS, 1999, p.325) 8 weeks for
100 minutes of orchestral music; nowadays the time available to composers may vary from the 10 weeks for
The Magnificent Seven (1960), to the 3 weeks of Interview With a Vampire (1994), to the 6 days for Lara
Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) (KARLIN, WRIGHT, 2004:60). Many composers now give more or less
complete sketches to orchestrators who are asked either to provide instrumentation or to interpret the
composers main intentions for a particular score or passage. The sketches are mainly employed to give the
orchestrator a clue on which colours to use for a certain passage, a practice that is far from unambiguous,
even in the format: for example, composer Marvin Hamlisch used 5-lines sketches, while Alex North used 8
and Henry Mancini up to 10; as for the completeness of those sketches, Jerry Goldsmiths and Henry
Mancinis were complete and exhaustive (KARLIN, WRIGHT, 2004:324).
Hollywood film music departments in the first half of the 20
century were self-sufficient: there was a team
of composers, orchestrators, proof-readers, copyists, songwriters, orchestral musicians and conductors
alongside with the directors, choreographers, producers and so on (DAVIS, 1999:34) and the process of
music production was organised as in an assembly line. Herrmann disapproved of this: Most film music is
created by assembly line: one fellow sketches it, another fellow completes it, another one orchestrates it, and
yet another adopts it. Consequently the music is dissipated; it has no direction. (SMITH, 2002:427). In a
score like Psycho (1960), it is hardly imaginable that the composer could have made use of an orchestrator,
or have imagined the music separately from its orchestration, since the choice of colour and timbre is the
main focus in this score. The same was true about Hitchcocks choice to shoot the film in black and white:
Herrmann recalls Psycho was not made in color; [] The whole picture was [] purposely shot in black
and white. Thats one of the reasons why I use a string orchestra; I wanted to get a black and white musical
color. (COOKE, 2010:221). The whole work makes an extensive use of all the possible nuances that the
string orchestra has to offer. In the following transcription from the cue Temptation, it can be noticed how
the composer uses alternatively arco and pizzicato techniques - carefully balanced in dynamics - alongside
with trills, different articulations and tenutos, to create a colourful texture:

The melodic material used here is very scant, it consists of a rhythmic cell used in the form of an ostinato
and derived from an interval of a minor third embellished with a neighbour tone. That confirms the focus on
colour and orchestration, rather than on the development of extended themes or motives.
In another passage from the cue The Water, it can be seen how carefully the composer marks the
techniques employed to differentiate the timbres of this slim melodic content:

This two examples show how the orchestration process in Bernard Herrmanns music is inevitably entangled
in the compositional development and is inseparable from it. Composer Elliot Goldenthal agrees:
Orchestration is extremely important because its not just the tune, its not just the melody; its who plays it,
whats the concept, whats the orchestral concept (DAVIS, 1999:293,294). In my personal experience I find
this inevitably true, since orchestration offers me glimpses of the final result; moreover it paves the way to
new solutions for the selection of a particular technique or texture, often affecting my compositional choices
as well. For example, should a trill in a string part be assigned to a woodwind instrument (because we aim
for a particular effect), it could result in a poor outcome in terms of sound projection, register or even
playability. This eventually leads to two options: either a change in the gesture or a change in the colour, thus
affecting the composition. If this procedure is applied on a larger scale, the result would be a significant
change in the composition itself and this strengthens Herrmanns point on the necessity for the composer to
orchestrate his own compositions. Italian composer Ennio Morricone, just like Herrmann, has always
orchestrated his own compositions, stating that orchestration is an integral part of the composition process
that cannot be successfully assigned to another person (KARLIN, WRIGHT, 2002:320).
Nowadays new problems arise besides the old ones and new technologies are intended to help composers.
Among these problems, the main setback in ordinary and to a smaller extent mainstream film productions
is budget. This implies that music production fees are also affected and therefore, as already mentioned, the
time available to compose is largely shortened. Other aspects come into play when dealing with cost cutting:
the musicians' fees (salaries, union fees, etc.), the nature of the composition (i.e. avant-garde music,
electronic music, electronic music mixed with orchestral sounds, etc.), the rental of instruments and
appliances, and so on (KARLIN, WRIGHT, 2004:59). As a consequence of some of these factors, choices
like assigning the composition of the soundtrack to a single artist or band are now made, as in the case of The
Social Network (2010) where industrial-rock musician and composer Trent Reznor from the band Nine Inch
Nails wrote an electro-oriented score as a solo artist. Another recent possibility is the use of virtual sound
technologies (VST) to score soundtracks and this is done at various degrees from independent short-films to
mainstream productions. In the latter example, sound design is now becoming more prominent: for instance
the blockbuster Pacific Rim (2013), where the soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi is mainly based on electronic
sound shaping and modeling rather than on orchestral sounds, or British composer Steven Prices soundtrack
for Gravity (2013), based on synthesized sounds and noises and winner of the 2013 Academy Award for this
category (source:
These are some modern answers to the old problem of composing and at the same time orchestrating the
music, since in most cases the main process is carried out by a single person, even if with the help of some
assistants. However, the main reasons for this choice are mainly of an economic nature, as opposed to
Herrmanns artistic reasons.
Another example of the inevitability of orchestrating from scratch is the usage of non-classical musical
languages. This includes using popular music genres. Nowadays it is common practice to use pop, rock, jazz
or world music to evoke a particular "flavour" or to suggest a temporal or geographic localization. For
example, in the Oscar winner The Great Gatsby (1974), arranger Nelson Riddle composed and orchestrated
the score inserting jazz elements all over the soundtrack to recall the era of the storyline. In more recent
years, the same approach has been adopted when dealing with specific musical settings, like in Rock Star
(2001), where composer Trevor Rabin used a rock-oriented compositional style to weave around the many
rock songs here exploited. This approach inevitably leads to orchestrating the score, since in my opinion
popular music is mainly based on timbre, rather than on harmony or rhythm. This implies that the problem of
choosing sounds must be faced at the earliest compositional stage. The same applies to scoring for television
and shows, where composers often cannot resort to orchestrators, mostly as a consequence of the very tight
schedules they are working to. (KARLIN-WRIGHT, 2004:425).

The Composer plus Orchestrator Approach

One of the main problems which all film music composers faced at various degrees is communicating ideas,
either between them and the director/producer or the opposite, when a director tries to explain his vision
about which music fits his work best. In the first case mockups come into action, in the latter temp tracks do.
In the case of mockups, demonstrative versions prepared to give a sense of the score to the director, Musical
Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) technology helps communication greatly, as nowadays mockups sound
very close to what the final result should be. In the past, things were a bit different: for example, the long
collaborative period and friendship between composer Bernard Herrmann and director Alfred Hitchcock
came to an end during the recording sessions of Torn Curtain (1966). Herrmann was recording the score with
a bizarre ensemble including 12 flutes, 16 french horns, 9 trombones (just to name a few), when the director
entered the room; Herrmann thought that it could have been a good idea to let him hear the result. The
reaction was unpredictable: Hitchcock said that it was exactly what he did not want for his film (SMITH,
2002:323) and after a further refusal by the composer to change the nature of the score, Herrmann was fired.
This inevitably led to a waste of time and money, and to the end of a lifelong collaboration a situation
which in the present days could have been perhaps avoided by the use of a mockup. In my limited
experience, I always found some difficulty in understanding what the author really wants; that is, I believe,
due to two main reasons: one is that the person involved has but little knowledge of the music language,
often not finding the right words to describe what kind of music they really want; the second reason is that
they often have in mind something heard in another soundtrack - a final production - and are often unable to
imagine what the final results would be by only listening to the sketches played on a piano. The same occurs
with poor MIDI simulation coming from a notation program as well. I also noticed the difference in reactions
when listening to the first MIDI rendition and the last one, with the use of more realistic sound libraries and
some editing. In this case, orchestrating while composing can place an excessive burden on the composer,
who will have to create a realistic mockup and then modify the orchestration to properly record the cues with
live musicians.
MIDI mockups have the aforementioned advantages, but can be somehow problematic when they are meant
to be given to real musicians, for a number of reasons which I experienced while working on some
projects. These in my opinion are: the poor quality of score editors in sequencing programs (parts often need
to be adjusted in a musically logic way in order to be given to session musicians), resulting in doubled work
for the composer and, consequently, a waste of time and energy; problems related to the balance of
instruments and dynamics (some instrumental combinations may be unrealistic, for example having some
instruments playing in a barely audible range that in mockups sound big and powerful; or, for instance, a low
flute solo that comes out on an orchestral tutti fortissimo background, which in the real world is acoustically
impossible); MIDI editing problems (with some MIDI controls, like for example a volume control fade in,
the score editor will see a note that in fact is not sounding at that moment and consequently will come out
with a score riddled with mistakes, resulting in a waste of time during rehearsals). These are the limitations
of working with a MIDI mockup, which can be overcome by the collaboration with an orchestrator and/or a
proof reader; in that case, he will make the necessary changes to the final score and will also adapt it for the
ensemble which is going to record it, relieving the pressure on the composer.
Nowadays, several film music composers have experience with digital technologies, but not all of them have
a classical training or some understanding of real orchestras (KARLIN WRIGHT, 2004:326). Considering
that it is not so easy today to get a full orchestra to record the composers ideas, then the role of an
orchestrator in these cases is crucial. This also applies when the composer comes from a popular music
background, for example a rock context, like composer Danny Elfman, who in an interview recalls that at the
beginning of his career he did not have a clue on how to orchestrate a piece (DAVIS, 1999:279). This leads
to problems related to the knowledge of what the sound of a real orchestra is and how it changes depending
on the techniques used. For example the number of virtual string players on a part may not reflect a real
situation: many sound libraries have for instance 11 violins samples playing together and when the parts are
divisi, the number of those virtual violins cannot be reduced, resulting in a huge unrealistic sound.
Another reason to maintain the composer plus orchestrator approach is that the former can keep an eye on
writing all the cues for the film, without having to interrupt the process dealing with instrumentation and
orchestration (DAVIS, 1999:111). In my opinion this is a good point to keep a fluent and homogenous
writing style, as the composer does not have to worry much about anything else. Although in my experience,
I find that the aid of MIDI technology to actually hear a certain instrument to be adopted for a certain
passage can help shaping the form of the piece. This occurs not only by mentally hearing it but by having a
concrete sound as a reference.


In conclusion, there are many reasons to choose a way of scoring or another: choosing to orchestrate while
composing, as in the case of Herrmann and Morricone, can be vital to have control over the texture and the
concept of the score, to clearly decide the instrumentation to be adopted thus resulting in a more
homogenous and fluent outcome, in a non-dissipated music. On the contrary, the choice of working with
an orchestrator, as in the case of Goldsmith, Mancini or Elfman - can be crucial in speeding up the
production process, filling the gaps in the modern composers knowledge or experience about orchestras or
making a MIDI mockup playable by real musicians.
If we take as a starting point the way composition for films was approached in Bernard Herrmann's days and
what the role of composers is today, we can see that the whole process has gone through radical changes. In
my experience I think that an oblique approach is needed here. The composer has to take into account the
following factors, in order to decide whether or not he is going to orchestrate his own pieces. The first is the
nature of the score, i.e. if it is a psychological movie as in the case of Herrmanns music in which the
choice of textures and instrumentation are closely linked to the overall effect on the audience. In this case the
process of conceptualization of the score is intimate and personal, therefore calling for an individual
orchestration that could hardly be assigned to another person. On the contrary, if the music is meant to be
rather descriptive, as in the case of certain action films or those which contain a wide number of songs,
where I find themes to be more important than gestures, I think that the orchestration can be successfully
assigned to another person, provided the sketches using MIDI or not are precise enough to leave but few
alternatives to the orchestrators decisions. Another important factor, as I already mentioned, is budget and -
as a result - time and resources. This is in my opinion the ultimate point to consider when taking such a
decision in a world like the one we are living in, where blockbusters rule the main income in film production
economy: in this country, according to 2013 statistics, figures say that only the 8% of total box office income
was generated by films outside the top 100, the lowest since 2004, while action movies are the most popular
film genre standing at 27.7 % and mainly being produced in the USA 30.6% against 22.9% being produced
in the UK (source: BFI Statistical Yearbook 2013). The assembly line approach then seems to be the
dominant trend in film music production and shows the composer signing the score, but in fact being
surrounded by a production team, with orchestrators, copyists, proofreaders, etc. It is my opinion that, as
opposite to this major trend, the Herrmann approach can be maintained in the case of more intimate,
psychological and more artistically rewarding scores.


Richard Davis, Complete Guide to Film Scoring, Berklee Press, 1999
Fred Karlin & Reyburn Wright, On The Track, Routledge, 2004
Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fires Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, University of
California Press, 2002
Marvin Cooke, The Hollywood Film Music Reader, Oxford University Press, 2010


Bibl iography

Paul Tonks, The Pocket Essential Film Music, Pocket Essentials Ed., 2003
Roy M. Pendergast, Film Music: A Neglected Art, W. W. Norton & Company, 1992
Andrea Pejrolo & Richard De Rosa, Acoustic and MIDI Orchestration for the Contemporary Composer,
Focal Press, 2007
Walter Piston, Orchestration, W. W. Norton & Company, 1955
Alfredo Casella & Virgilio Mortari, The Technique of Contemporary Orchestration, Ricordi, 2004
Bernard Herrmann, Psycho complete score (manuscript), 1960
Nelson Riddle, Arranged by Nelson Riddle, Alfred Music, 1985