Great Moments In Film Orchestration History: Bernard Herrmann

By • May 20, 2010

Recently, on a whim, I Googled the terms “unusual orchestration” and “film” together in a search for new and exotic “highs.” (Remember my recent “Orchestrational Aptitude Test?” Here’s where some of us get our jollies…) I found that, to the outside world, the term is so mis- and over-used as to be almost meaningless. Most of the links led to rather conventional film and concert scores, making me wonder if the use of live players at all is now considered “unusual.” Or perhaps the word has become such a relative term that it could even be applied to potato chips by one dining on a steady diet of chicken broth (ask any digestive track surgery patient…)

No, when I use the term “unusual orchestration,” I mean the truly inspired and unfamiliar use of orchestral color, not merely as an end in of itself, but (in tandem with the notes) to coax the listener to feel ever more precisely a desired emotion or experience. As an apotheosis of this ideal, I invariably go for my real kicks to the scores of the Great One, “The Herrmannator.” the Maestro of Mystery himself, Bernard Herrmann. In the Hollywood assembly-line scoring industry over which he towered, he remained a dissident, never to my knowledge employing a separate orchestrator, but rather generating his dramatic moods from the ensemble’s inside out, not merely adding color but building from color.

For example, in the first CinemaScope film, “Beneath The 12-Mile Reef,” (20th Century Fox, 1953) a film about ethnic clashes among reef sponge-divers, much of the action is shot underwater and Herrmann employed a standard studio orchestra, but dominated by the addition of 9 (count ‘em nine) harps. This wasn’t merely to make up for the mechanical chromatic shortcomings of the modern instrument, but rather to vivify the murkiness and fluid motion in the underwater photography. Heard apart from the film, the underwater feel is still there, a good acid test of the efficacy of any orchestration.

In “Journey To The Center Of The Earth,” (20th Century Fox, 1959) there are two standout uses of unusual color becoming a dramatic element. In a scene involving a giant snake, Herrmann coaxed a low, unsteady moaning effect out of an Renaissance instrument called, appropriately, a serpent. The bass member of the cornetto family, it is a woodwind with a brass-type mouthpiece and recorder-like finger holes, and using a tuba embouchure. Even on a good day it has trouble producing a stable, centered tone. Over a bed of contrabassoon and bass clarinet, it made a perfect bit of sound design for the slithering, menacing super-snake. (For another taste of this effect, see also “White Witch Doctor,” 20th Century Fox, 1953.) For the last (underground) half of “Journey,” Herrmann augmented his usual orchestra with 5 organs (4 electronic and 1 pipe,) again not just as a pinch of varietal spice, but as the overall base of the subterranean look and feel.

For one of the more inspired cases of chase scene underscore in my memory, take a look at “On Dangerous Ground” (RKO Pictures, 1952.) What might have been a rather pedestrian (pun intended) foot chase up an icy, rocky mountain (with its obligatory deadly slip and fall at the end) Herrmann employed 9 French horns leading the orchestra in an uncanny emulation of savage, snapping dogs.

Regarded by many critics as the finest film ever made, “Citizen Kane” (Mercury Theater/RKO/Pictures, 1941) contains what must be every orchestrator’s wildest dream—an “over the top” assignment to orchestrate so massively that the music’s climax will drown out the scene’s focus, Susan Alexander Kane, a pathetically amateur lyric soprano opera star wannabe. How often does your client really mean the words, “can’t be too big?” In this case, Herrmann had to tread carefully to compose an unknown aria so convincingly authentic that viewers would intuitively sense that the fault for the bad performance lay with the “singer” and not the composer.

In stark contrast to his most acclaimed collaboration, his most famous score was effective not for what he (overly) put in, but rather for what he left out—woodwinds, brass, and percussion. “Psycho” (Paramount, then Universal, 1960) is a black-and-white film, stark in many respects, and shot with the budget (and personnel) of Hitchcock’s television series. At first blush, a small string orchestra would make it counterintuitive for a grisly mass-murder story, but Herrmann managed a perfect, organic marriage of the visual and the orchestrational which surmounts the presumed limitations of either. The genius of the orchestration was that it deftly handled the extremes of mood as well as action, including arguably the most horrorful murder in film history.

Of course, in an increasingly sequenced and sampled industry, of what relevance is this historic figure? Aside from a true sound-design composition, most synth/sample scores are, let’s be honest, pretty conventional orchestrationally. We’ve gotten so hung up on sample authenticity that we’ve forgotten about our obligation to innovate. Also, unfortunately, most of us are neither challenged nor inspired by collaboration with a Hitchcock or a Welles, but we must strive as if we were. Give me imaginative use of mediocre samples over uninspired and unsearching use of stellar ones any day. Banish “right out of the box” from your thinking. Bernard Herrmann had access to real instruments (albeit with varying limitations) on all of his scores. And yet if he hadn’t always gone that extra imaginative mile, would we be talking about him today?


By Dave on May 21st, 2010 at 7:50 am

Thanks for the informative article. Hermann was a fascinating and inspiring composer. I wanted to take small issue with your concluding statement where you mentioned “our obligation to innovate”. While I agree with the sentiment behind the statement (and do my best to live by it) , I’m unaware that we film composers have any such obligation to innovate whatsoever. In fact, it seems to me that there is a lot of pressure arrayed against the contemporary score composer to avoid innovation altogether! With precious few exceptions when working with visionary directors, I usually find that directors are looking for a score that “is just like score x”. Film music is partly effective because it can recall associations and directors are most often disinclined to take too may chances on “new” music or musical effects. I wish it were otherwise.

By DennyJ on May 21st, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Nice article. He (Bernard) and Ennio Morricone are the 2 of my favorite composers. I have a great interview with B.H. and it is a laugh riot from beginning to end. Total musical genius, but a true dissident against the Hollywood machine. My favorite line by him is “I am not a film composer per se, I am a “composer” who writes for film.” It is still the us (composers) against them (the folks with the coins) mentality.

By Lisett on May 25th, 2010 at 8:44 am

Thank you for such nice article. I heard Shia LaBeouf talk about Indiana Jones- Crystal Skull, and how he failed to make certain certain scenes great, or “sell” them in his words. As composers it’s our jobs to bring the “unexpected” and make it work. To take the scene to a higher level. Directors don’t know what they don’t know, but if we aspire to do as Herrmann did, he brought the scenes to life in a new exciting way. It’s hard, because yeah, they are going to want revisions and maybe not get it all the time, but we are here to create under ridiculous time constraints and no budgets, but hey we love this right?!

By Bob on June 2nd, 2010 at 6:04 pm

When discussing Bernard Herrmann, we mustn’t forget his unusual score to THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), using two theremins and a vastly expanded brass section along with multiple pianos/organs/harps.

By William V. Malpede on June 8th, 2010 at 9:21 am

Thank you for your article about Mr. Herrmann. I would hope that many composers, other musicians, and filmmakers will have the opportunity to read it. I have been listening to and studying Mr. Herrmann’s music for twenty-five years, and am always inspired by his flawless craft as an orchestrator, and by his unique voice shaped by color and emotion being expressed through music. This gift, and his talent and proclivity for short, motivic writing, makes him one of the all-time most influential composers who wrote music for cinema and television. Favorites, though perhaps utilizing a more conventional orchestra: “Jane Eyre” (1943), “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), “Sisters” (1973).

By Merrill J on June 8th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I loved the article. It is amazing that Herrmann was so inovative coming from that era. You are right, Dave, we composers are finding more presure to create a “creative” score yet sound like, let’s say XYZ soundtrack. Some of us have probably even been asked to even comp a Herrmann style. I don’t find that restrictive, I choose to try to find some stimulating thread from the score and just create something fresh from it. I love the challenge. You have got to look at it that way or composing wouldn’t be any fun.

By Phil Kelly on June 29th, 2010 at 10:19 am

There’s no question that Herrman was a master of using the available ( mostly
non electronic ) sound sources of the period to create innovative musical textures. In the early 70s, I also recall scoring one of the early computer sales films using a “music concrete” approach:
What we had to work with as an “orchestra” was:
office machines -mechanical typewriters and calculators, and an old news ticker
( borrowed from a TV station )and a series of tape loops of various industrial machinery that emitted rhythmic patterns and old announcer demo tapes – run in reverse!
All this stuff was manipulated by the available studio tools of the period (band pass filters, vari speed rheostat devices, primitive “sample and hold” mono synths, gating, etc ) and managed to effectively portray a new family of technology that at that point in time, no one actually *KNEW* what it would sound like

By Peter Roos, San Francisco on August 5th, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Excellent article – thanks for posting this. Bernard Herrmann was a genius and deserves to be recognized as such.

By Ann Miller on September 9th, 2010 at 9:32 am

I’m sure all devotees of Herrmann will know of the tragedy of the score for “Torn Curtain” that caused the unmendable rift between Hitchcock and himself… scored for lower strings, 16 trombones, 16 horns, and I think 8 flutes (or was it 16 as well?) mostly on alto and bass flutes… What is very enlightening is the special features on the DVD for this film where one can see the opening scene using Herrmann’s original score and compare it to the the film’s replacement composer, John Addison. To my mind Herrmann’s scoring keeps the film dark and dangerous where Addison’s approach makes the film rather over sentimental and trivial….

By Robert Feigenblatt on September 10th, 2010 at 4:33 am

Nicely written. However, the frist Cinemascope film was THE ROBE.

By Ron Hess (the Chart Doctor) on September 10th, 2010 at 8:23 am

Robert: You are correct, technically. My error was one of omission, in that the simplified moniker “the first CinemaScope film” does not tell the whole story. At the time, the only 3 original Chrétien lenses considered worthy of being employed were used on three films in production simultaneously: “The Robe, “How To Marry A Millionaire,” and “Beneath The Twelve-Mile Reef.” Clearly intended to be the flagship production for the new photographic process, “The Robe” was released first, even though “Millionaire” was completed sooner. “Reef” was the first CinemaScope film with underwater photography, beating out “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” by a year.

By David Portugheis - Film Composer on September 13th, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Undoubtedly a true master of orchestration, an absolute inspiration.

Great post!

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