Suite from Vertigo (Herrmann)

Program note

Music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or mystery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all.

PROGRAM NOTE
BERNARD HERRMANN (1911–1975)
VERTIGO – SUITE

She starts to undress. He is looking through a peephole. Subdued lecherous string music. She puts a bathrobe on. The eyeball in the peephole dominates the screen. Excited. Lascivious. She walks into the bathroom and turns on the water. The shower curtain closes. Rows of water are coming down straight on the camera. The audience is in the shower with her. Then, in the background, the door opens and a shadow emerges, menacingly close to the shower curtain. Suddenly, the curtain flings open. The violins shriek as the knife comes down, repeatedly. Blood. On the wall, in the bath, down the plughole. Silence. The abyss of infinity. Then her eye. Open. Unresponding. Vacant. Dead.

The shower scene from Psycho. Few people would not know this terrifying montage, arguably the greatest synthesis of sight and sound in cinematic history – the thrusting of that terrible knife, synchronised with the horrific screeching upper strings.

The film is vintage Hitchcock, and the music classic Herrmann. The son of Russian immigrants, New York-born Bernard Herrmann is perhaps not the best-known of the Hollywood film composer imports, but certainly one of the most talented.

A graduate of Juilliard and New York University, where he studied composition with Percy Grainger, he was renowned for moving away from the full, lush arrangements of the neo-Romantics so popular in Hollywood at the time, opting instead for smaller, often unorthodox orchestration. Herrmann also disliked long, singable melodies, favouring small clusters of notes as a structural unit, not unlike the leitmotif.

‘The reason I don’t like this tune business is that a tune has to have eight or sixteen bars which limits a composer. Once you start, you’ve got to finish – eight to sixteen bars.’

1936 began his collaboration with motion picture iconoclast, Orson Welles. In fact it was Welles, after working with Herrmann at CBS on several radio plays including War of the Worlds, who encouraged him to try his hand at film music. The result was Citizen Kane.

When Paramount asked Herrmann to write the score for The Trouble with Harry, his association with Hitchcock began. They worked on nine films together – the partnership ending when Hitchcock rejected his score for Torn Curtain. This was the start of a change in the studios’ concept of film scoring, and the beginning of Herrmann’s Hollywood hiatus.

‘Real film music is only of archaeological interest now. What’s currently demanded of a
film composer is that he come up with a pop tune easily identified with the movie to help promote it. Those highly touted scores for such films as A Man and a Woman and Dr Zhivago are nothing more than a few popular tunes strung together by the most obvious kind of musical bridges, obviously conceived and obviously executed.’

However, during his years with Hitchcock, Herrmann wrote some of Hollywood’s most enduring film scores, not least of which being Vertigo. The film itself is regarded by cinema aficionados as one of the ten greatest films of all time, and certainly one of Hitchcock’s best.

Made in 1958, and filmed in technicolor, it’s the story of a man who is tricked into something that becomes an obsession – essentially a horrible practical joke. The film’s lead character Scottie (James Stewart) is asked by an old college friend to keep an eye on his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who appears to be descending into madness. Scottie has a fatal flaw of his own – uncontrollable vertigo.

But to reveal too much of the plot would be to ruin the film for those who have not seen it. Needless to say Scottie and Madeleine fall in love, but can their love survive Madeleine’s terrible secret? In his inimitable style, Herrmann assigns small motifs to both the characters and the locations in the film. Perhaps the most haunting is Madeleine’s theme. It is desperate, searching, aching music, mirroring her demeanour.

Herrmann’s perception of the function of film music is made clear in his reply to an article by Erich Leinsdorf criticising its irrelevance:

‘Music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or mystery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry. Finally it is the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all.’

© Hilary Shrubb, Symphony Australia

Reprinted by permission of Symphony Services Australia

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