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A Case Study of the Bernard Herrmann Style

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Although Bernard Herrmann is one of Hollywood's best known composers, very little of substance has been written
about his film scores, probably because film music is the most overlooked aspect of film criticism. There are,
however, a few articles that discuss his work.1 Existing references tend to discuss Psycho (Universal, 1960) and
Vertigo (Universal, 1958) primarily.2 One important Herrmann/Hitchcock collaboration that has been overlooked is
North by Northwest (MGM, 1959), which is rich with musical and structural examples of the Herrmann style and
its use in a Hitchcock film. Perhaps the score has been overlooked because Vertigo and Psycho are both tragedies of
a darker, heavier and more serious tone, whereas North by Northwest is a lighter romantic comedy with a strong
love element and a completely resolved ending. Also, some reviewers are of the impression that it is an inferior
score, particularly Roy M. Prendergast. He writes of the overture, "The principal motif is repeated ad infinitum and
the listener is saved from acute boredom only by ever-changing orchestral colors" and that it is "one of Herrmann's
lesser efforts in his motivic approach to film scoring."3 Contrary to Prendergast's view, North by Northwest is a
very complex score filled with rich motivic development, original orchestration, and fascinating rhythms.4 In their
film collaborations, Herrmann and Hitchcock established a particular sound quality in the music that is immediately
identifiable. In many ways, North by Northwest is typical of the Herrmann/Hitchcock "sound,"5 and can therefore
be used as a case study for their work together.
Herrmann had a long and noteworthy career,6 working with some of the most respected directors in cinema. The
list includes Welles, Truffaut, De Palma, and Scorsese, but his most memorable and best scores were written for a
series of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann scored nine films for Hitchcock,7 and composed for the
Alfred Hitchcock Hour television series.8 Herrmann is also well known for his work on The Twilight Zone 9
television series, which established its own particular "sound." The last Herrmann/Hitchcock collaboration was
Torn Curtain (Universal, 1966), for which Hitchcock requested a "popular" score at the pressure of the studio.
Herrmann countered by creating a highly dissonant score for a unique orchestration that avoided the traditional
"Romantic" sound.10 Hitchcock rejected the score and Herrmann's association with him was terminated.
The most noticeable structural difference between Herrmann's scores and that of his contemporaries is his
placement of music. This is particularly evident in his scores for Hitchcock. Herrmann often avoids scoring scenes
that are heavily emotional, full of dialogue, or even full of action if he feels that the scene works well on its own. In
the "classical" Hollywood scores, the most emotional scenes would be those most likely to be scored, even if they
were intense dialogue scenes. This is done to underscore the emotional content of the scenes. Herrmann felt that if
the sensibility of a scene was apparent, music would only reproduce what was already apparent, or worse, it would
inhibit the narrative flow. The most memorable scene in North by Northwest is the cropduster sequence. Most film
composers would have looked at this scene as an opportunity to demonstrate compositional skills. Herrmann,
however, rejected any request for music. (Herrmann did write a cue titled "The Highway"11 that was not used in
the film and which would have covered only the section where Roger awaits the arrival of "George Kaplan" before
the actual chase begins.) Music in the cropduster scene is brought in only at he end, under the "Crash of the
Cropduster" when the overture theme is restated. Hitchcock had already established in the film that Roger is most
comfortable in the cramped surroundings of the city (with the title sequence and the opening in the streets) and is
most in danger when he is alone (trapped in the library of Van Damm/Townsend's house or appearing like an ant
outside the UN after the murder). In the cropduster sequence, Hitchcock starts with a high angle shot of the open
farmland, symbolizing his complete isolation. Having silence rather than music on the soundtrack reinforces his
loneliness very effectively. Several other scenes that one would normally expect to be accompanied by music are
unscored. The first underscoring in the film occurs when Van Damm's henchmen pull a gun on Roger, long after
they have been introduced with the obvious dolly shot revealing them. A shot that is so self-reflexive would usually
be accompanied by music, especially since this is the first hint in the film that there is anything wrong with Roger's
world. Instead, Herrmann waits until it is obvious that they are villains and brings in music under the gun (drawing
attention to what would otherwise be almost invisible, since the camera angle hides the gun).
When Roger and Van Damm first meet, they watch and inspect each other carefully. This is unscored, even though
this is the introduction to the chief villain in the film. The silence in the scene creates an uncomfortable tension that
music might have covered ineffectively. The intensity of the actors' performances and the visual design (cutting
back and forth between swirling dolly shots) creates enough tension. Herrmann carefully avoids a film clich here,
the introduction of a "villain" theme to convey that Van Damm is the chief antagonist.
When Roger attends the auction later in the film, music is used as a transition into the scene, but the major
confrontation is left unscored. His conversation with Eve, Van Damm and Leonard, as well as the fistfight, is
unscored, yet there is "journey music"12 for his attempted exit (which has no strong confrontation, only suspense)
and his true exit after the fight is over. Herrmann scores the empty spaces between the tensest moments and leaves
the important interactions unscored so that the audience can concentrate on the dialogue or the action.
Sometimes Herrmann's plans are not carried out. Originally, he intended that there be no music in the car chase (the
"drunk driving" scene). Apparently, Hitchcock felt that this was a problem scene 13 and that music would help it,
so the overture is placed intact over the scene. This is ironic, since the overture that covers the credits is an edited
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A Case Study of the Bernard Herrmann Style

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version, placing the only true statement of the overture in a scene where no music was intended. The car chase is
one of the weakest scenes in the film: the rear-screen projection is poor, the lighting and exposure are dim, the
sound effects are unconvincing, and the scene has no logical build or climax. Had the scene been photographed and
edited better, it might have worked well without music, but as it stands, music was necessary for the scene to be
effective emotionally. The music alone is tense enough with its countering rhythms and dissonant harmonies that it
adds suspense to a scene that otherwise has very little.
Another important scene left unscored is the first meeting between Roger and Eve when she helps him evade police
on the train. Normally, when the romantic interest is introduced, a love theme would immediately be stated,
indicating the future status of their relationship. Herrmann avoids this for several reasons. In this film, the character
of Eve is constantly changing. Although she first appears kind, Roger then thinks that she is working for Van
Damm and was simply using him, changing our perception of her. Finally he discovers that she is a government
agent, and our allegiance shifts back to her. Had Herrmann introduced her with a love theme, the audience would
have been led to believe that she was on Roger's side and that all would be well in the end. By not using music
under this scene, Herrmann has allowed an ambivalence regarding her character, which allows us to change our
impression of her in the same way Roger does.
The manner in which Herrmann introduces the love theme is interesting. When Roger enters the dining car, source
music plays a romantic swing tune with violins. Royal S. Brown identifies this as "Fashion Show," a song by Andre
Previn.14 Now that Roger and Eve are getting to know each other, they are allowed romantic music, but still not
their "theme." Halfway through the scene, the dialogue moves toward their spending the night together ("I don't
particularly like the book I've started... you know what I mean?") and the song ends. Herrmann follows this
dialogue with the first statement of his love theme, a cue entitled "Interlude," the flavor of which is more accurately
described by the tempo marking "Allegretto con molto delicato" ("moderately quickly, with much delicacy"). Still,
it sounds like source music rather than underscoring. Apparently, Hitchcock and Herrmann felt it would be too
much of a clich to score the scene with a straightforward love theme.15
Also interestingly, this is the most tonal, consonant and straightforward theme in the film. The harmony is a basic IV-I progression with only a few related excursions from D major. By introducing the love theme as source music, it
helps cover the transition from the dissonant and tonally confusing suspense music Herrmann had written for the
first section of the film. Composers normally try to keep a score as coherent as possible, using the same harmonic
style throughout. Had the love theme entered as underscoring at this point, it would have sounded as if the score
from another film had suddenly interrupted, since the love theme is such a different style from the rest of the
underscore.
Hitchcock places a strong visual emphasis on the actor's hands in the love scenes. In the "Interlude," when Roger
lights a cigarette for Eve, they touch hands romantically and Roger reacts appropriately. This happens musically as
the theme is passed from oboe to clarinet. Later, in "Farewell," Eve leaves Roger at the train station and sets him up
for his encounter with the cropduster. Here, Hitchcock cuts to an insert of Roger's hand reaching for Eve's
appropriately gloved hand while the music plays a minor-key version of the love theme. In the hotel room after the
cropduster scene, the actors use their hands conspicuously as part of their performances, accompanied by three
musical cues. "The Reunion" and "Good-bye" use the love theme, and "The Question" ("Ever killed anyone?") uses
a suspense theme. This attention to the characters' hands foreshadows the importance of the end of the film. In the
climax to the Mount Rushmore sequence, Roger pulls Eve across space and time from the ledge to the berth on the
train. Fittingly, when this cut is made, Herrmann accompanies it with the love theme.16
It is interesting to note that there is well under an hour of music in the film as a whole, while the film lasts over two
hours.17 This is a remarkably small percentage of music for a film that could be considered an action or suspense
film, which shows Herrmann's restraint as well as his belief that music should not get in the way of the action. It is
also interesting that most of the cues are short, and that many of them are under one minute long.18 Again, this
shows Herrmann's aversion to unnecessary music.
Structurally, Herrmann also avoided the traditional Hollywood use of "Mickey-Mousing," the matching of onscreen action rhythmically with music, and "stingers," using a specific note or chord that is used to emphasize a
dramatic action. The "classical" Hollywood film score used these techniques as the basis for placement of music.
This was done in an attempt to reinforce the action and narrative flow in films. Virtually none of the action in North
by Northwest is Mickey-Moused, and stingers are used only occasionally and as part of full cue playing. There are
never any stingers alone, which is a technique many composers would use in a suspense film. In the library scene
where Roger first meets Van Damm, Roger attempts to leave the room only to find one of Van Damm's henchmen
outside the door. One would expect a "stinger" of some sort, but Herrmann carefully avoids clich;eacute&. Only a
few stingers are used in the climactic Mount Rushmore scene, but that is difficult to evaluate since the music in the
film does not correspond to what Herrmann wrote. Apparently, Hitchcock did have trouble editing the Mount
Rushmore scene.19 Herrmann's spotting notes do not even cover the sequence,20 apparently since the editors were
still working on it. The scene is accompanied by six shorter cues that together cover the full sequence. The longest
cue, wittily titled "On the Rocks" by Herrmann, starts midway through the chase and ends when Roger is jumped
by Van Damm's henchman. The original score for this cue is lost, but the three-stave reduction from the MGM
vault shows that the cue was written for a scene lasting 2:58. As used in the film, the scene is only 1:25, indicating
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A Case Study of the Bernard Herrmann Style

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that a startling 1:33 had to be cut from the music between the recording session and the final mix.21 This is
unfortunate, as it was Herrmann's showpiece from the film. Herrmann apparently had intended the scene to be a
developed restatement of the overture, but it no longer plays that way, since the cue is cut into small segments and
drastically rearranged. In fact, it is difficult to tell from the reduction, but it appears that there is music that is not in
the score that somehow ended up in the scene.22
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of Herrmann's sound is his orchestration. Unlike most Hollywood composers,
Herrmann orchestrated all of his own music, writing out full scores in his own hand. Most composers would write a
short score on two to eight staves and have an orchestrator copy it onto a full score; the thoroughness of indications
listing orchestration would depend on the composer. Herrmann's unique orchestral sound can be demonstrated by
the instrumentation used in North by Northwest,23 which totals approximately sixty-four players (with most of the
percussionists doubling). This is a fairly large orchestra for a film score of that period, especially for Herrmann,
who often used a small orchestra. Nevertheless, a study of this list of instruments demonstrates Herrmann's
signature sound, using non-standard instrumentation compared to the normal Hollywood score. The woodwinds are
grouped by threes, yet the clarinets are fivefold, including two bass clarinets. This creates an imbalance in the
woodwind section, going against traditional orchestration. In his article, Royal S. Brown theorizes that Herrmann
uses his music to show the irrational in the same way that Hitchcock uses narrative and visual style.24 The most
obvious way in which Herrmann accomplishes this is his attention to the "darker" orchestral colors. Throughout all
of his scores, Herrmann relies heavily on clarinets and particularly bass clarinets, which are the darkest-sounding
instruments of the orchestra. Herrmann also uses the darker-sounding bassoon and contrabassoon quite heavily,
particularly in his television scores, although not as much in North by Northwest.
In general, Herrmann went against Hollywood's traditional orchestration, removing emphasis from the string
section and relying most heavily on woodwinds, and brass and percussion when a particular scene called for it.
Herrmann's orchestrational style was more similar to that of such contemporary composers as Stravinsky, Holst or
Bartk, rather than his contemporaries as film composers, such as Steiner, Waxman or Tiomkin. Within the
strings, he avoided the use of violins whenever possible, emphasizing celli, bass and harp.25 The normal orchestra
with a wind section this size would have at least forty and perhaps as many as sixty string players. Herrmann uses
only thirty-two, and the lower strings almost equal the violins (although part of his choice was undoubtedly due to
budgetary concerns). The only time Herrmann emphasized the strings is when he uses a "love" theme, as in North
by Northwest, in which he relies primarily on violins.

1 The most noteworthy references are composer Fred Steiner's analysis of the Psycho score and Royal S. Brown's article linking
Herrmann's music to Hitchcock's thematic use of the "irrational." Also of interest is the manuscript by Graham Bruce addressing
Herrmann's work as a whole.
2 With most of the Psycho material derived from Steiner's paper.
3 Prendergast, pp. 138-139.
4 Part of Prendergast's view concerning the overture is undoubtedly due the fact that it was edited significantly for use in the film.
According to the score, Herrmann wrote 2:46 of music for the credits, but the title sequence actually lasts only 2:10. Apparently,
the opening titles had not been completed before the recording session. This meant that the overture had to be cut by thirty-six
seconds, resulting in the main thematic statement occurring twice in a row without the bridging theme, making it redundant.
5 As Graham Bruce describes it.
6 Herrmann was born in America and studied composition at the Juilliard School. He went on to become a composer and
conductor in New York and emerged as a well-known champion of contemporary music. He became the conductor of the CBS
Radio Orchestra, holding a similar position to Arturo Toscanini at NBC. In addition, Herrmann also scored hundreds (perhaps
thousands) of CBS radio shows, where his music went into the library and was used repeatedly, even decades later on television.
Through his radio work, Herrmann became involved with Orson Welles, and when Welles moved to Hollywood to begin work on
his first feature, he took Herrmann as part of his troupe, beginning Herrmann's career as a film composer. Some of Herrmann's
best-known work is his earliest. Citizen Kane (RKO, 1941) was released the same year as All That Money Can Buy (RKO, 1941),
which won him his only Academy Award and beat out the established Hollywood crowd of Alfred Newman, Mikls Rzsa,
Max Steiner and Franz Waxman. Kane was followed up by The Magnificent Ambersons (RKO, 1942). Ambersons was eventually
re-edited by the studio, which cut his music significantly and completely replaced some of it.
7 Beginning with The Trouble with Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much (both Universal, 1956), and continuing with The
Wrong Man (Warner, 1957), Vertigo (Universal, 1958), North by Northwest (MGM, 1959), and Psycho (Universal, 1960).
Herrmann's last scores for Hitchcock were The Birds (Universal, 1963) (although not really a musical score, Herrmann is credited
with overseeing the sound design, which is based on electronic bird sounds), Marnie (Universal, 1964), and finally Torn Curtain
(Universal, 1966).
8 Herrmann worked from 1963-1965 on only the hour-long series. He orchestrated the theme music, "The Funeral March of a
Marionette," (composed by Gounod) and scored seventeen episodes, although none that Hitchcock directed.
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A Case Study of the Bernard Herrmann Style

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9 1959-1963.
10 Twelve flutes, sixteen horns, nine trombones, two tubas, three trumpets, celli, basses, and an artillery of percussion including
pitched anvils.
11 A complete list of cues, along with in and out points, appears in the appendix of this essay.
12 As Graham Bruce refers to it, p. 120.
13 Principal photography on North by Northwest ended December 18, 1958 and the first cut was completed January 21, 1959.
Reshoots on both the "drunk driving" scene and the Mount Rushmore climax were being done as late as March 3, 1959.
14 Brown, p. 35
15 Hitchcock mentions in his dubbing notes that he felt it sounded too much like underscore.
16 In his article, Royal S. Brown claims that in two instances the love theme quotes the love theme from the film Vertigo.
Although this is far from obvious, the love theme is so simple and stepwise in its melodic motion that a melodic ornamentation is
heard that resembles the love theme from Vertigo. This quote actually occurs several times in three different cues, "Farewell," "The
Reunion," and "Goodbye." In all cases, the quote refers to the similar circumstance in the earlier film in which a blond woman has
been setting up a man and has instead fallen in love with him.
17 There are approximately fifty-two minutes of music including source; the underscore totalling only forty-seven minutes of
music. The film is two hours and sixteen minutes, meaning only about one-third of the film is underscored.
18 Of the underscore, twenty-one cues are under one minute, eleven cues are under two minutes, and only six cues are over two
minutes.
19 The film was screened for a preview audience in Santa Barbara on June 6, 1959. The preview cards indicate that the audience
did not like the sequence. Only four people mentioned the music. Two did not like it ("I thought the background music was quite
irritating" and "Music volume too high," both male respondents) and two approved ("The photography was excellent, as was the
music" and "the music was outstanding," both female respondents).
20 The spotting notes dated January 12, 22, 30, and February 12, 1959 end before the sequence begins. The last notes are for "The
Message" and mention that there will be more music.
21 The score was recorded April 20-22, 1959 and the final mix began April 27. Hitchcock's cutting notes indicate changes ordered
on April 17 and May 6.
22 At least one other cue appears to have been rewritten, "The Station," which accompanies Roger and Eve as they leave the train.
(Initially, Herrmann scored it with a suspense mood, but the scene was rescored with a much longer cue that begins with the love
theme and then shifts to the "journey" motif as the police search for Roger among the redcaps.) Although the scores for both
versions of "The Station" still exist, it is possible that sections of "On the Rocks" were rescored and the original parts were lost.
23

Piccolo
2 Flutes
2 Oboes
English Horn
3 Clarinets
2 Bass Clarinets
2 Bassoons
Contra Bassoon

4 Horns
3 Trumpets
2 Trombones
Bass Trombone
Tuba

Timpani (tpat)
Cymbal (bsac)
Castanets
Tambourine
Snare Drum
Xylophone (dv)
Bass Drum
Tam-tam (Gong)

2 Harps
8 First Violins
8 Second Violins
6 Violas
6 Celli
3 Basses

tpat = two players at times


bsac = both suspended and crash
dv = doubling vibraphone
24 Brown, p. 14.
25Note that there are two harps in this score instead of the usual one or none.

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