Bernard Hermann: Knowing The Score

Bernard Herrmann, the composer of a litany of groundbreaking film scores, was a genius. In this presentation, Neil Brand, an incredibly skilled silent film accompanist and composer himself, offered an intriguing insight into Herrmann’s methods.

Brand began with Herrmann’s collaboration with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, explaining how the music underwrites and explains the opening montage of images, while compounding the mystery of the newspaper mogul. The isolation of an individual instrument (frequently the haunting vibraphone) was taken to a greater extreme in Hitchcock’s Psycho, with a score composed entirely of strings. Listening to the score alongside the sheet music, the composition from the infamous shower scene, was revealed as frightening simplistic and yet brutally effective.

Moving on to Vertigo, Brand illuminated the major role played by Herrmann’s score, supporting rather than pre-empting the shock of Kim Novak’s Madeleine jumping into the San Francisco Bay. He continued with Herrmann’s technical innovations in a B-movie called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, where he created the first in-studio reverb – in order to replicate the aural sensation of being underwater – by looping the recorded sound of 10 harps back into the recording microphones, with the slight millisecond electrical delay. Finally, he demonstrated how Herrmann’s score was a financial and artistic boon for the sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) because it enabled the fear of a potential alien invasion to be enhanced through intimation, rather than expensive and ultimately unsatisfying visual shots.

Brand finished with a plea to directors to give their composers a greater degree of autonomy. On the basis of Herrmann’s achievements, one can hardly disagree.