Bernard Herrmann

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Bernard Herrmann Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 17/5/17

Composer Bernard Herrmann emerged from the Golden Age of cinema and contributed a signature sound to some of history’s most significant films. Another one of those barely recognisable faces I have drawn, the undeniable fact remains that millions are familiar with his best work whilst contributing equally to his anonymity.

Herrmann brought innovation to the medium of film soundtracks. Many other composers working in Hollywood at the time were frustrated writers who took on lowly film work merely to earn a living. Imprinting their own ideas all over the screenplay, however inappropriate they might have been, or overstating emotion with overly emotional statements, Bernard Herrmann would defy this compositional mould by writing music for film that sought only to enhance the action or the psychological undertones of what was happening on screen. I make no apologies in saying that he is one of my enduring musical heroes. There was no way he wasn’t going to put in an appearance on my site.

One of Benny’s greatest strengths was his enquiring musical mind. He was one of the earliest discoverers of The Beatles when he met them performing in an English club in 1961. Over in Britain to conduct the NDO, he got to know the band personally, eventually returning to Los Angeles with their early German recordings whereupon he tried unsuccessfully to get Universal Records to sign them. Whilst still a Beatle in 1966, McCartney was commissioned to write the film score for the film, “The Family Way,” and his friend Herrmann stepped forward to give the Beatle lessons in film scoring.

Even late into Benny’s life, McCartney was still keen to collaborate on projects with him, as this personalised gift from 1973 so aptly testifies.

Recommended listening

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

The Day the earth stood still (1951)

Virtigo (1958)

North by Northwest (1959)

We may more commonly use the word fandango within the context of an elaborate or complicated process/activity, but in musical terms, it refers to a lively Spanish or Spanish-American dance in triple time that is usually performed by a man and a woman to the accompaniment of guitar and castanets. Traditionally written for decades in 6/8 time – that’s six eighth note beats – in your subconscious it’s like counting out “One and ah two and ah three and…” etc instead of the more conventional 2/4 signature “One and two and” etc) it’s a form of metering associating with musicals rather than thriller movies. Try telling Bernie that one! Here, Herrmann tears up the rulebook, leaving little scope to reglue the pages of the orchestrating handbook. Most tellingly of all, this unexpected juxtaposition just simply works, and thrillingly so. By the time we catch our first glimpse of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill – our Madison Avenue advertising exec – we’re in need of a breather, such is the level of momentum generated by the opening credits and the main overture.

Under construction

Psycho (1960)

Cape Fear (1962)

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)\

Recommended viewing

Recommended reading

A Heart at Fire's center - The Life and music of Brernard Herrmann (Steven C. Smith) 1991

I nearly missed this volume, standing proudly as it was, on the top shelf of the book section in a branch of Oxfam. But there it was, in pristine hardbound form, available for a steal at £1.99, yet still clearly marked as an early 90’s import at the then astronomical price of £25. Published by the University of California Press and a highly regarded scholarly work, the book offers insights into Herrmann’s genius, professional and personal disappointments and his ever evolving mercurial personality.

Film Music - A neglected art (Roy M. Prendegast) 1992

An ability to read music adds immeasurably to the fullest appreciation of this technical volume although the descriptive text is also excellent. The 3 and 4 staff musical scores clearly show how famed Hollywood composers create mood and deal with the psychology of important scenes in well known films.

Undoubtedly one of the best books on film music analysis, it sports several extracts from Herrmann’s ‘Psycho’ score.


Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann [1911 - 1975]