Bernard Herrmann

Check out this remembrance of Bernard Herrmann, written by David Raskin, on our SoundAdvice blog


Though known primarily as a Hollywood composer, Bernard Herrmann was born in New York, studying composition at Juilliard and earning a reputation as a conductor as well as a composer here. In 1931 he founded the New Chamber Orchestra of New York, which he conducted until he was appointed staff conductor of the Columbia Broadcasting System three years later. He became conductor-in-chief of the CBS Symphony Orchestra in 1940, a post he held for 15 years, and appeared regularly with many American orchestras. His compositions of the 1930s and 1940s earned him something of a reputation for being an enfant terrible of American music. Although best known for his associations with Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells, he also wrote a number of important concert, operatic and chamber works, some of which only became widely known after his death. Wuthering Heights (1950), an opera in four acts, was first performed in 1982 by Portland Opera, and the choral cantata for male voices Moby Dick (1938) received its premiere with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. A Portrait of Hitch (1968), a short orchestral piece dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, is based on music written for the film The Trouble with Harry.

About Psycho Suite
Countless movie-goers who have never heard of Bernard Herrmann immediately recognize his most famous motion picture score— the score for the 1960 Paramount film Psycho. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s budget for Psycho was not very large, and Herrmann was forced to restrict himself to a relatively small instrumental ensemble. The result is a score composed entirely for string instruments that perfectly suits the stark black and white cinematography of the film. The Psycho score has been, and likely will remain, his most widely admired and often-imitated film score.

Melody as we normally think of it is altogether absent in Psycho; even theme, in the proper sense of the word, only occasionally sneaks onto the scene. Instead, the music is built around strings of fragmentary motives, stacked around one another, often in dissonant ways, and raised up into a musical whole that manages to create a state of near-perpetual suspense, unresolved, unremitting, and yet, never tired or worn thin.

Some of Psycho’s music is active and physical. For example, the famous opening credits music, which is reused as the character of Marion Crane flees with stolen money, her face dispassionate but her mind frenzied and burning, and, of course, the infamous shower scene music, with its shrieking jabs in the uppermost register of the violins. Some of the music, on the other hand, simmers quietly to itself, tension and insanity woven by layers of agonized counterpoints (e.g. a cue called “The Madhouse,” in which Norman Bates first begins to seem to us a man off his rocker). And then there is music like “Temptation” (which underscores Marion’s growing desire to steal the money from her boss at the start of the film) and “The Peephole” (which underscores Norman spying on Marion), in which a kind of steady, pulsating music seems to go nowhere and yet boils inside. Even in the last bars of the score there is no resolution of the psychological or harmonic dissonance: inhuman strands of counterpoint in the high violins and violas, muted, dissolve and are replaced by a dense final sonority as Marion’s car is dragged out of the swamp behind the Bates Motel.
– Blair Johnston