Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) - perfect partner to Hitchcock thrillers

Bernard Herrman - Vertigo soundtrack CD cover While the name Alfred Hitchcock is universally well known, that of Bernard Herrmann is relatively unknown outside of musical circles. Yet his music has accompanied the Director's finest work and is every bit as accomplished and inventive. Whether it is the screaming strings from Psycho, the dizzying arpeggios from Vertigo or the bird sounds edited together as the soundtrack to The Birds, Herrmann always rose to the challenge. See our article Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann: Torn Curtain by Steve Vertlieb for a wealth of information about the stormy relationship between these creative geniuses and the films they made together. Before the association with Hitchcock, Herrmann's first film (now frequently listed by film critics as the finest ever made) was Citizen Kane, having worked with Orson Welles during his radio days. He also went on to work with Welles on "The Magnificent Ambersons".

Bernard Herrmann - North by Northwest soundtrack CD cover The French director Francois Truffaut also used Herrmann's talents for two of his films, The Bride Wore Black and Fahrenheit 451. Since Truffaut is known to have idolised Alfred Hitchcock's directorial talent, it was perhaps this association which prompted Truffaut to seek out Herrmann in this way. There are not many composers who have appeared on the film screen (coincidentally Truffaut's frequent composer partner Georges Delerue has done so in "Shoot the Pianist"), but Bernard Herrmann played the part of the conductor in the climax of Hitchcock's 1956 remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" set in the Royal Albert Hall. Herrmann conducts Arthur Benjamin's "Storm Clouds Cantata" (which Herrmann admired from Hitchcock's original 1934 version, adapting it only slightly), while Doris Day and James Stewart try to stop an assassination attempt due to coincide with a climactic cymbal crash (here is the concert scene on youtube). Herrmann is even credited as conductor on the poster in an earlier scene outside the hall. The film also features bold percussion music during the opening titles. The London Symphony Orchestra were so impressed by Herrmann's musical knowledge that when filming was completed, they presented the composer/conductor with a book inscribed "To Bernard Herrmann: The Man Who Knows So Much".

Bernard Herrman & Elmer Bernstein - Cape Fear soundtrack CD cover Herrmann's theme for Cape Fear with its 4-note brass motive (watch out for the Simpsons "Thomsons" episode which parodies this) was re-used in the remake of that film by Elmer Bernstein. The association with Hitchcock came to an end when the director famously rejected his score for Torn Curtain when the composer's fittingly dark orchestration clashed with the Hollywood desire to emphasise the movie's romantic interest. Although the director then chose John Addison to score the movie, he decided to show the key murder scene most effectively without any musical accompaniment. However Bernstein also included some of the unused music from Torn Curtain in the remake of Cape Fear, and the full Herrmann version of the score has since been recorded. This is full of the tension to be expected in the real spy business, with only some brief relief in the form of a waltz.

Bernard Herrmann - Psycho soundtrack CD cover His musical style was bold and direct, yet certainly not typical of the day. Rather than full-blown themes, his knack was to select and develop simple mottos such as those high-pitched Psycho violins or in Vertigo those augmented chord arpeggios that seemed to encapsulate the whole concept of the movie. The orchestration also tended to be unusual but again tailored perfectly to the particular need. Psycho used strings only, which seemed to match the black and white photography. The orchestration for that rejected score for Torn Curtain was played using large numbers of flutes, horns and trombones. By way of contrast Fahrenheit 451 employs lots of tuned percussion. In a number of ways, Herrmann's musical style follows in the footsteps of Miklos Rozsa being bold and dark and an integral part of the film experience. In addition to the screaming effect, Psycho also has the agitated title music associated with the initial driving scenes through the rain away from the scene of the crime. As well as this there is the pervasive eerie atmosphere which reflects the creepy setting at the Bates Motel heightened by feelings of guilt. For Vertigo it is the arpeggios moving in different directions at the same time which seem to be most closely identified with the movie and its title, yet most of the soundtrack is infused with a number of related motifs which together constitute James Stewart's fascination for a woman - a theme of doomed love.

Bernard Herrmann - Taxi Driver soundtrack CD cover Bernard Herrmann also had an association with the stop motion films of Ray Harryhausen, writing scores for his The Three Worlds of Gulliver, Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. If nothing else, the music for these films demonstrates a much lighter touch than the Hitchcock movies, yet they are full of exotic adventure and excitement. Herrmann died only days after completing the music for his final film, Taxi Driver, for Martin Scorsese. This is one of his very best scores, and typically adventurous in orchestration terms with central theme on saxophone oozing a sleazy Jazz mood for the city night life, and some sweeping dramatic surges to show the Robert de Niro character's state of mind. The film's closing titles now bear a dedication to this much respected composer, and the director can now be seen in a Scotch Whisky advert on TV with the "Taxi Driver" theme in the background.

Bernard Herrmann - Fahrenheit 451 soundtrack CD cover Bernard Herrmann was born in 1911, and 2011 marked the centennial of the composer's birth with a number of tributes to celebrate the anniversary. Here is A Centennial Tribute on the website of the American Music Preservation website. There is also an interesting documentary about the composer called "Music from the Movies: Bernard Herrmann". This has footage of Herrmann and his films, with many contributions from people who worked with him, whether filmmakers or musicians, and including commentary from his fellow composers David Raksin and Elmer Bernstein. The documentary is available on Youtube in 8 parts and here is Part 1.

Among many pieces Herrmann composed for the concert hall are a Symphony, a String Quartet, a suite based on "The Devil and Daniel Webster", a tribute to the soldiers of WWII called "For the Fallen", the Opera "Wuthering Heights" and a cantata called "Moby Dick". Apparently Herrmann's father had worked as a whaler so Herman Melville's story about a whale may have resonated with the composer. Many of these concert works have been recorded and are available on CD.

Films by Bernard Herrmann:

  • Citizen Kane - a busy theme tune, and the movie uses some classical music too, including Mendelssohn, Wagner, Chopin and Beethoven
  • The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941 aka All that Money Can Buy) - his one Oscar for this early score, a track called "the devil's concerto" is a wicked version of pop goes the weasel for violin and strings
  • The Magnificent Ambersons - another Orson Welles classic
  • Jane Eyre
  • Hangover Square
  • Anna and the King of Siam - with some dramatic oriental music
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - this re-used some material that Herrmann had earlier composed for an Opera version of "Wuthering Heights"
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still - has the recognisable intensity of Herrmann with the inspired use of Theremins to produce the eerie electronic sounds which have influenced sci-fi music ever since, leading to the affectionate parody of Danny Elfman's Mars Attacks
  • On Dangerous Ground - although much of the soundtrack is sweet and innocent, in places Herrmann subverts the traditional classical cliche of counstryside musical associations with an ominous pastoral figure, and then there's some demonic hunting horns for the pursuit scenes
  • Bernard Herrmann: On Dangerous Ground - soundtrack CD cover
  • Five Fingers
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro
  • White Witch Doctor
  • Beneath the 12-Mile Reef
  • King of the Khyber Rifles
  • Garden of Evil
  • The Egyptian - it's not often that composers collaborate on a score, but Herrmann worked with Alfred Newman on this one
  • The Kentuckian
  • The Trouble with Harry - Herrmann's first film score for Alfred Hitchcock contains some gentle pastoral music and some oddball comedic music, which Herrmann identified with the director since he turned the music into a concert suite "A Portrait of Hitch"
  • The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
  • The Man who Knew too Much (1956) - Doris Day sings the song "Que Sera Sera" by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and there's an appearance by Bernard Herrmann himself as the Conductor for the concert scene
  • The Wrong Man - of course Herrmann uses a Double Bass to reflect the occupation of the main character played by Henry Fonda, and it's great how the main theme easily alternates between a latin number and a dramatic Herrmannesque mood
  • Vertigo - the arpeggios of the title theme are key to the "vertigo" title (and reused on a recent car advert in the UK with David Duchovny), though the pervasive mood of the film comes from the tortured love theme
  • The Naked and the Dead
  • The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
  • North by Northwest - instantly recognisable and very atmospheric
  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959) - Herrmann uses a wind & percussion orchestra (no strings) plus acoustic & electric organs, the score has a "serpent" at one point and Pat Boone sings a bit
  • Psycho - famous for the screaming strings in the shower scene, but the tension really mounts during the car journey through the rain
  • The Three Worlds of Gulliver
  • Mysterious Island - the music changes completely in character when the adventurers arrive at the island
  • Tender is the Night
  • Cape Fear - the original and the remake as used by Elmer Bernstein
  • The Birds - there is no background music in the film but sound plays an important role with bird calls and flapping noises enhanced electronically, Herrmann was credited as "sound consultant", with the bird sounds created by Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann using an early electronic instrument called the Mixtur-Trautonium
  • Jason and the Argonauts
  • Marnie - this was his last completed film score for Alfred Hitchcock, and the main theme (with added lyrics) was released as a song by Nat King Cole, though it wasn't particularly successful
  • Fahrenheit 451 - for Francois Truffaut, with strings and tuned percussion and a wonderfully surreal fire-engine sequence
  • The Bride Wore Black - also for Francois Truffaut, dark in places and includes ironic use of Mendelssohn's Wedding March
  • Bernard Herrmann: Marnie - soundtrack CD cover
  • Twisted Nerve
  • Backtrack! - some Herrmann stock music was used on this cross between "The Virginian" and "The Three Musketeers"
  • The Battle of Neretva - a war drama with Yul Brynner with the music suggestian a Balkan influence
  • The Night Digger
  • Endless Night
  • Sisters - for Brian de Palma, the murder scene is shocking with shockingly complex music
  • It's Alive
  • Taxi Driver - his last score and highly recommended
  • Obsession - also for Brian de Palma, the scores features a standard symphony orchestra augmented by voices and an organ and a brief quotation from the Dies Irae
  • It Lives Again - sequel to "It's Alive"
  • It's Alive III: Island of the Alive - the theme was re-used posthumously

TV music by Bernard Herrmann:

Bernard Herrmann - The Twilight Zone soundtrack CD cover Herrmann wrote the theme music used for the first season of The Twilight Zone, and he scored many episodes including "Eye Of The Beholder" which consistently tops polls for people's favourite episode, plus "Walking Distance", "Living Doll" and "Little Girl Lost" among others. (Here is a video with Herrmann's music for the episode Walking Distance with synchronised hand-written score.) Herrmann's Season One theme was replaced in later seasons by the now well-known spooky tune which starts by repeating 4 notes. This 2nd theme for The Twilight Zone was compiled from fragments of library music composed by the Romanian-born classical and ballet composer Marius Constant who studied and lived in France where he died in May 2004 at the age of 79. A number of Herrmann's Stock Music tracks were also used (often uncredited) throughout the series, an interesting example being on the season 1 episode "The Hitch-Hiker" which was adapted by Rod Sterling from the story written originally by Lucille Fletcher (Herrmann's 3rd wife) for Orson Welles' radio series "Mercury Theatre on the Air" which was scored by Herrmann and included the famous "The War of the Worlds" broadcast.

Bernard Herrmann - The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (volume 1) soundtrack CD cover Herrmann also provided incidental music for various episodes of several TV series including a number of westerns and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" when the original "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" series became hour-long shows in the early 1960s. Among his music for "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" are the episodes "A Home Away from Home", "The Jar" and "Death Scene", though music from the series (by Lyn Murray and Bernard Herrmann) was frequently re-used in later stories. For the episode "The Jar" Herrmann uses the famous Gregorian Hymn called the Dies Irae. To illustrate this here is Part 2 of 4 of "The Jar" on youtube where you can hear the melody starting at 6:12 and at 9:21. Interestingly this episode was remade in the 1980s for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" where it was directed by Tim Burton with music by Danny Elfman who cites Herrmann as a major influence. The main theme people remember from Alfred Hitchcock Presents is the "Funeral March of a Marionette" by 19th Century French composer Charles Gounod.

  • Twilight Zone - theme music for Season 1 and selected episodes such as "Where is Everybody?", "Walking Distance" and "The Lonely" (see also our notes about the involvement of Jerry Goldsmith in the series)
  • Gunsmoke - 3 episodes
  • Hong Kong - stock music
  • Whitman - a Radio drama based on "Leaves of Grass", a collection by the poet Walt Whitman
  • Have Gun - Will Travel - theme
  • Kraft Suspense Theatre - 1 episode
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents - the long-running series also used Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette" on a number of episodes, and again when the series returned in the 1980s
  • The Alfred Hitchcock Hour - the alternative name for a later series lasting an hour, most scored by Lyn Murray though Herrmann did 17 and Leonard Rosenman did 2
  • Rawhide - 2 episodes
  • Lost in Space - more stock music
  • Cimarron Strip - 1 episode
  • The Virginian - 4 episodes
  • Ratched - Herrmann's music from various films is featured prominently in some episodes of this Netflix series, and this type of mood often informs the scoring of series composer Mac Quayle

Bernard Herrmann Recommendations:

Herrman & Hitchcock: A Partnership in Terror - soundtrack CD cover On mfiles, we have reviews of CDs for Taxi Driver, Fahrenheit 451, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and a nice collection called The Classic Film Music of Bernard Herrmann - Torn Curtain consisting of a various tracks and suites from many of Herrmann's classic movies. In addition to these, there are numerous other albums of Herrmann music or indeed collections of music from the Hitchcock films. Citizen Kane was re-recorded a decade ago, and the complete music from the rejected Torn Curtain is also available on the Varese Sarabande label. Such is the respect held for Herrmann and his music that much of it has been recorded by the likes of Elmer Bernstein and Joel McNeely and it is worth looking out for some of these recordings. Here are a set of Amazon links for some of the major Herrmann film scores:

Here is a small selection of music books which contain some Bernard Herrmann sheet music for piano:

  • The Best Film Scores for Easy Piano (contains the Psycho prelude and the theme from Taxi Driver) - from Sheet Music Plus and Music Room
  • Music From The Movies: Film Noir (contains the Cape Fear prelude) - from Music Room
  • Dip In: 50 Graded Film Tunes for Piano (contains Scene D'Amour from Vertigo) - from Music Room

See also our interesting article by Steve Vertlieb appropriately called The Torn Curtain about the frequently stormy relationship between Herrmann and the director Alfred Hitchcock. The Bernard Herrmann society have an in-depth web-site dedicated to the composer at

There is a lot of Bernard Herrmann music on youtube but this is a very small selection with 2 well-known and 2 no-so-well-known examples: