David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
Of all the composers who have written music for films, perhaps the most remarkable personality was my friend and colleague Bernard Herrmann. He was born in New York City on June 29, 1911 into a middle-class Jewish family. His father, Abraham, had emigrated from Russia; his mother, Ida, was born here. Benny (that's how we all knew him) studied violin when he was in grammar school; by the time he entered high school he had already won a prize-for composing a song. At DeWitt Clinton High, he met another young musician who would also make a name for himself as a composer, Jerome Moross. Herrmann and Moross used to spend time after school at the Half-Price MusicShop on 57th Street, where one day they found some music by a composer previously unknown to them, Charles Ives, who became, as a matter of fact, famous for having been unknown in those days.
The two boys found the Concord Sonata and the 114 Songs and became fascinated by the power and originality of the music. The address of the composer was appended to the printed copies, so Benny wrote him a note in appreciation of his work and, in due time, received an invitation to call upon Ives. Thus began a long friendship in the course of which Herrmann became one of the earliest exponents of Ives's music.
After high school, Herrmann went on to New York University. One of his teachers there was Philip James, a composer and conductor of some renown. Next he won a fellowship at the Juilliard Graduate School of Music, where he studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar and conducting with Albert Stoessel. To support himself during this period he played all kinds of odd jobs, including a stint at the celebrated Yiddish Theatre on Second Avenue.
He also had the good fortune to encounter the Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger. This brilliant and unconventional musician had an artist's eyes and ears: he could recognize beauty where lesser men saw and heard only everyday commonplaces. So open-minded and perceptive was this gifted man that he saw nothing unfitting about composing, for example, a piece which he called Railroad Station Platform Humlet, and which was intended to divert the weary traveler. I cite this because it seems to me that the influence of such men as Ives and Grainger upon Herrmann is very clear: all through his long career Benny would exhibit the same devotion to his art, the same catholicity of taste which he admired in these two older composers.
In 1930 he founded the New Chamber Orchestra, with which he conducted concerts featuring avant-garde music. He scrounged up the money to finance this ambitious venture from friends, among them Robert Russell Bennett, the noted American composer and orchestrator, and Hans Spialek, also an orchestrator of Broadway shows who sometimes composed for other media. A typical program given at the New School for Social Research includes music by Percy Grainger, Philip James, Henry Cowell, Vladimir Dukelsky (better known as Vernon Duke: 'April in Paris' and 'Autumn in New York' are two of his famous songs), Russell Bennett, Jerry Moross; also Charles Ives, whose Fugue from his Symphony #4 was performed, and Herrmann-his own Prelude to Anathema.
In 1934 Herrmann went to work at the Columbia Broadcasting System's New York radio station, where he composed music for various programs and conducted for the American School of the Air. Within a year he became a member of the conducting staff, and in 1940 he was appointed chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, where he acquired his reputation as a champion of rarely performed music. On programs such as Invitation to Music, he presented new works and neglected masterpieces of the past. At a time when the music of Charles Ives had achieved very few performances, Herrmann gave six weeks of radio concerts of his pieces.
While at CBS, Herrmann also composed music for an astonishing number of dramatic programs. He worked with Norman Corwin on the Columbia Workshop and for Orson Welles and John Houseman's Mercury Theatre of the Air. One of our mutual friends--Benny's and mine-the film director Richard Wilson, was a junior member of the Mercury Theatre radio group, and he told me a story which in its madness is typical of the crazy way in which we worked.
Welles was directing a radio dramatization of Agatha Christie's mystery novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The actors and orchestra were together in the studio, while Welles directed from the control room. Dress rehearsals being what they are, this one ended with only minutes to spare before air time and minutes too long, leaving no time for adjusting scripts or cutting music cues. The intrepid Orson advised everyone not to worry, that he would make the necessary cuts while they were on the air! So, while directing the live broadcast, he would from time to time remove pages from his script and drop them on the floor. Dick Wilson would grab them and race out to tell the actors which scenes had been cut-in pantomime because the mikes were live. Then he would pluck pages from Herrmann's script, which left Benny wondering which music cues had been eliminated, and how he would tell the orchestra.
At one point, Wilson picked up a newly discarded page, looked intently at it, and whispered, "Orson!" Welles waved him off, but Dick persisted-with the same result; again Welles waved him off and pointed to the studio. So, having no other choice, Wilson removed the page from all actors' scripts and that of Benny Herrmann. Which made for a most unusual mystery story, because what Dick had been trying to say was that Welles had thrown out the scene in which Ackroyd was murdered. To the radio audience the mystery must have been: what happened to poor Roger.
For all that, Herrmann occupied a position of importance in the Mercury Theatre and in the esteem of Welles and Houseman, so that when they went to Hollywood to film CITIZEN KANE they invited him to compose and conduct the music. The result was a classic score in which images and music are bonded together in an extraordinary way. When the picture was released, the screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles, with an assist by Houseman, was thought to be scandalously close to the career of famed publisher, William Randolph Hearst. However, Benny used to say that parts of it were closer to the story of the industrialist Harold McCormick, who financed the construction of the Chicago Opera for the sake of a soprano named Ganna Walska. He also liked to point out that there was a lot of Welles himself in the flamboyant Mr. Kane. What interested me was something else: a prominent figure in the film is Mr. Bernstein, Kane's longtime friend and advisor. To begin with, Welles bestowed upon is character the name of his own guardian, a physician who supervised his care after the untimely death of his father. And as Everett Sloane played him, Mr. Bernstein was a compendium of the mannerisms of-Bernard Herrmann: he looks like Benny, acts like him, and even talks like him-although he is somewhat less raucous than Benny could be when aroused. (When you view CITIZEN KANE, keep an eye on Mr. Bernstein, and you will be seeing the shade of Bernard Herrmann.)
The Aria from Salaambo, an operatic sequence that Herrmann composed for the unhappy debut of Kane's protégé, Susan Alexander, had to expose her as the rank amateur she was unequal to so grand a challenge. So he put the Aria in a key that would force the singer to strain for the high notes. Herrmann said he wanted to convey the impression of "a terrified girl floundering in the quicksand of a powerful orchestra." (The eloquent phrase is Benny's own.) In the film soundtrack, soprano Jean Forward sang the vocal part for Dorothy Comingore. The score that Herrmann composed for CITIZEN KANE, together with the prestige that the picture achieved in professional Hollywood, established him as an important new voice in film music.
His next score was ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY, the cinema version of Stephen Vincent Benet's book, The Devil and Daniel Webster. The director was William Dieterle. In this mordant and witty fable, the devil, who is called Mr. Scratch (and played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Walter Huston) seems to have been turned loose to terrorize a New England village. An unusual task for the composer was to devise a sound appropriate for the soul of one of Mr. Scratch's victims, who is imprisoned in a matchbox -exactly the kind of challenge that drives film composers to drink (although, in our nearly four decades of friendship I never saw Benny intoxicated.) In any event, he was more than equal to the task, and he won an Academy Award for this score.
Throughout his career Bernard Herrmann continued to voice his resolute, unyielding opinions about music-and just about everything else. I used to describe him as a virtuoso of unspecific anger, which he bestowed so impartially upon friend or enemy that I often wondered whether he knew the difference. He was, it is sad to say, a flawed man, and he paid a greater penalty for his own shortcomings than those who experienced the pain of his rages. Remarkable composer that he was, he was that despite a rudimentary sense of melody, which he sought to remedy by repeating short phrases in sequencesmeaning that he would state a brief musical phrase and then repeat it, and repeat it again and again in other positions. One of my students asked me after viewing VERTIGO whether I could identify a fragment played on an organ as Kim Novak walks through a church. I answered that I could not, but that I knew the name of the church: Our Lady of Perpetual Sequences.
Is that a proper remark from a friend and colleague? More important, is it true? I believe it is, but I would not find it possible to issue such an appraisal if I were less aware of his wonderful qualities as a composer of film scores. Think of the values he gave to the movies he enriched with his music. Think what they would have been without Benny's contribution. Think of CITIZEN KANE, JANE EYRE, ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY, HANGOVER SQUARE, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, VERTIGO; try to imagine PSYCHO without Herrmann's music for the shower scene, or his evocation of Hell on earth in TAXI DRIVER, or the beauty and pathos with which he infused THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (my own favorite). Such music does not come from a man whose soul is a litany of harsh cadences. And in fact, this implausible, sometimes even impossible man could also be a loving friend, a sentimental innocent, an endearing companion. In the end it was the humanity of this extraordinary person that spoke in his music, his art, for which he is justly celebrated.
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author