According to Bernard Herrmann expert Bruce Crawford, Herrmann turned down many film score offers, including Lawrence of Arabia, 2001 Space Odyssey and The Exorcist.
Herrmann was born on the Lower East Side of New York, moved to Hollywood when Orson Welles tapped him to score Citizen Kane and then spent his later years in England, a staunch Anglophile. Film directors would fly to London to pitch him their projects, including one who said to him, “I want you to write a score as great as Vertigo. A score as great as Psycho!” To which Herrmann is reputed to have responded: “and I want you to create a film half as good as either.”
When Martin Scorsese was working on Taxi Driver he said he wanted the movie to have a Bernard Herrmann-like score, thinking Herrmann was dead. Not quite, just living in England. Brian DePalma, a friend of Scorsese, had done two films with Herrmann and helped arrange a meeting in London where Herrmann’s final partnership was struck. And just as Herrmann’s score for Citizen Kane helped lift enfant terrible Orson Welles to international film renown in 1941, his score for Taxi Driver helped Young Turk Martin Scorsese land the top prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Scorsese dedicated the film to Herrmann, who died on Christmas Eve, 1975 the day he finished the final note for his final score.
Sunday’s New York Times mentioned Bernard Herrmann in an article about the 35th Anniversary Blu Ray reissue of the movie Taxi Driver. The article says, “What could be more expansively operatic than Mr. Scoresese’s opening movement, a 10-minute montage of infernal imagery set to Bernard Herrmann’s threatening, mournful score?” That phrase has a nice ring, doesn’t it, “expansively operatic.”
Stephen Sondheim was another artist influenced by Bernard Herrmann, as Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was an homage to the great composer. A 15-year-old Sondheim saw the 1945 movie Hangover Square twice so he could memorize the Bernard Herrmann score. He then sent Herrmann a fan letter and discovered they lived around the block from each other in New York City. Sunday, at an event at the Minnesota Opera Center, host Phil Gainsley told of an interview he did with Sondheim in Chicago a few years ago when Lyric Opera of Chicago was producing Sweeney Todd. Gainsley commented on Herrmann’s relative obscurity, noting that, “Bernard Herrmann is not exactly a household name,” to which Sondheim quipped, “It depends on whose household.”
Wuthering Heights tech week is upon us, and I am really excited to start seeing and hearing the production in the Ordway. At the Adult Education Class last Monday, you could see how excited everyone in attendance was to hear this music. The composer himself was such an interesting guy. His life long ambition was to be a symphonic conductor. He was a great champion of new music, especially the music of Charles Ives. He conducted the CBS Radio orchestra for years, and this experience granted him infinite knowledge of the orchestra. You will notice in the score lots of low woodwinds, providing an eerie, distant color. He also uses the string writing to either compliment a vocal melody, giving it a Pucciniesque melodic sweep, or to create violent contrasts.
Film composing just kind of fell into Herrmann’s lap. Thankfully for us it did. The opera score is full of ideas that were recycled in other movie scores. The audience should recognize bits of Psycho in the fight sequences, bits of Vertigo in the pensive waiting sequences, bits of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in the lyrical meditative sections, and the main theme of Jane Eyre.
The opera never became known, but not for lack of trying. The composer didn’t want to give up any artistic control. His reputation was that of a hard-headed man who was often difficult to deal with. You can imagine his point of view though…Wuthering Heights was his own project. Most of his compositions were constrained by time, or action in a movie. It was with this piece that he could write whatever he wanted. It is understandable that he would be defensive of the work, even if it prohibited the work from being done in public. The artistic team has made slight, yet clever alterations to the score that retain Herrmann’s intent, but gives the score a fresh sounding style. I am excited to start hearing the rehearsals with the orchestra!
Composer Bernard Herrmann and film director Alfred Hitchcock had perhaps the most prolific composer-director collaboration in Hollywood history, teaming to create: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1957), North By Northwest (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964) and Torn Curtain (1966).
According to Herrmann expert Bruce Crawford, Herrmann was the first composer to stand his ground with the powerhouse director, often disregarding Hitchcock’s specific instructions for the music. For Psycho, Hitchcock had insisted the shower murder scene be done in complete silence. Herrmann ignored the directive and composed the shrieking violins that have become emblematic of the movie. When asked later how much of the success of Psycho was due to the music, Hitchcock replied, “33 and one third per cent,” a droll compliment to Herrmann and a reference to the RPM speed of an LP record. The Psycho score contains only string instruments because that is all they could afford. The total budget for the film was $800,000. And yes, black and white film is cheaper than color.
Both men had large personalities that inevitably clashed. Still, at the heart of their relationship was a profound respect. Their collaboration ended when Hitchcock was pressured by Hollywood to be less old-fashioned as the social changes of the 1960s unfolded. He fired Herrmann (but paid his full fee) for not getting hip with the times, as Herrmann continued to compose for a symphony orchestra instead of a 60s pop ensemble. In response, Herrmann chided Hitch for trying to be something he wasn’t. So Bernard Herrmann, the friend of Paul McCartney and an innovator of electronic music, parted company with Alfred Hitchcock over aesthetics.
On a more personal note, Herrmann’s second wife, Lucille Anderson (Lucy II), told Bruce Crawford the story of a dinner party she hosted that was attended by Hitchcock and his spouse. While Lucille was trying to make Hitchcock a daiquiri her blender broke, ruining the frozen concoction for the legendary director. She was very embarrassed and fixed him something else. The next day a large limousine pulled into the driveway of the Herrmann Hollywood home and stopped. Alfred Hitchcock popped out, and handed Lucille a new blender.
Bernard Herrmann wrote the original theme music for the TV show The Twilight Zone. He also wrote music for a few episodes in the first season, music that was recycled in subsequent seasons.
Although he was a classically trained composer and symphony orchestra conductor, Herrmann’s orchestrations went far beyond what you’d normally hear in Carnegie Hall. For instance, he is credited as the first person to include a theremin in the orchestration of a movie score. He did so for a 1951 science fiction film, creating the convention that when you hear a theremin you think about zombies or invaders from outer space (or the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations”). He had a gift for expressing the creepy, which endeared him to his long-time collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock.
Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, idolized radio dramatist Norman Corwyn. Our director for Wuthering Heights, Eric Simonson, won an Oscar in 2006 for his documentary short film about Norman Corwyn’s VE Day radio broadcast On a Note of Triumph, a program heard by 60 million Americans. And, in a The Twilight Zone-like coincidence, Bernard Herrmann wrote the music for On a Note of Triumph.
Paul McCartney and composer Bernard Herrmann were friends.
In fact, the staccato cello in the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” came directly from Herrmann’s scores for the movies Psycho and Fahrenheit 451. This is according to several interviews with McCartney and the Beatles’ producer, Sir George Martin. Then when McCartney was asked to score a movie he called Bernard Herrmann for help. As a thank you, Paul McCartney gave Herrmann a painting by Marc Chagall.
Introducing Jeremy Reger
Minnesota Opera Resident Artist Coach/Accompanist Jeremy Reger will be leading Opera Insights on the Marzitelli Foyer one hour prior to performances of Wuthering Heights this next month and will be sharing insights throughout the next several weeks on the history of the opera.
From last week:
“I’ve started coaching and working with the singers on Wuthering Heights in anticipation for the maestro and guest artist’s arrival next week! As we work through the score, I find it so interesting to see Hermann, a movie composer, writing an opera. His sense of timing is so cinematic, with long stretches of some of very gorgeous and extremely lush music. It makes me want to go see some of his most famous movies and listen carefully to their scores. I guess I will be putting Pyscho, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and North by Northwest on my Netflix list!”
At Mary Stuart – “What is the ETA on the strings of dead animals and the riding crop?”
Hello all you opera lovers:
Minnesota Opera and the creative team of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis have postponed the opera’s world premiere, which had been scheduled for April, 2011, until the spring of 2013, as part of Minnesota Opera’s 50th anniversary season. We are pleased to announce that Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, previously scheduled for the 2013-2014 season, will now close the 2010-2011 season. Minnesota Opera’s new production of this forgotten masterpiece celebrates the centennial of the composer’s birth.
This decision comes on the heels of the first workshop of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is an essential development stage of Minnesota Opera’s commissioning process. The opera shows tremendous promise and Minnesota Opera committed to giving it the resources necessary to reach its full potential. In this case, the most critical resource is time. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie requested that the premiere be delayed in order to make revisions and orchestrate the opera with ample time to for the cast to learn their roles. “We are extremely grateful that Minnesota Opera is giving us its full support by giving us the necessary extra months we need to refine our work,” said Korie. “With this extension, we need never feel that we didn’t give sufficient attention to any aspect of this opera or its vitally important subject matter.”
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Hello! This is resident artist Michael Nyby updating after our final run-through of Casanova’s Homecoming before we go into production week. This opera was a challenge musically, but the end result is going to be well worth the effort. When I first received my score, I spent some time reading through the text and laughed out loud on several occasions. Now that I’ve had the chance to see the entire production come together, I can honestly say that this is one of the most hilarious operas I have ever encountered. Argento wrote both the music and the libretto, a feat only a few composers have dared, and with a few exceptions, many of whom ended up with rather middling to woefully poor results. Casanova on the other hand has a delightfully funny libretto in which the text never becomes subservient to the music nor vice versa. It boggles the mind that this opera hasn’t been produced more than three times since the original premiere twenty-five years ago. I hope this time around it is again well-received and more productions are mounted elsewhere; this work certainly deserves it. I hate to sound like an advertisement, but I really love this opera!