Fahrenheit 451 (plus: Anna and the King of Siam, and others) by Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann - Fahrenheit 451 soundtrack CD cover As the sleeve notes to this CD point out, Bernard Herrmann was not a conventional composer. His scores seem to dredge up some strange inner demons which makes his music particularly suited for dark psychological films like his many for director Alred Hitchcock. Fahrenheit 451, this time for French director Francois Truffaut, has more than an element of this. The book by Ray Bradbury is overtly from his science fiction genre, but in reality depicting something more akin to an Orwellian future. In this future all books are forbidden, the title represents the temperature at which paper burns, and the firemen of the story are employed not to put out fires but to find and destroy any discovered books.

One of the firemen is tempted by the lure of books, and various characters including his wife and supervisor react to this in different ways. The movie has a surreal quality to it where the characters seem strangely detached from their predicament. It's difficult to pinpoint how this is accomplished exactly. In part it is due to some superb acting, where the characters behave quite normally in extraordinary circumstances, but the music is very much a part of this surreal experience. The final scenes are set in a commune of society's outcasts where great books are memorised and learned by word of mouth, and the otherworldly aspect is heightened by snow falling. Herrmann represents much of this world using strings, harps and tuned percussion, which emphasise this surreal quality. The fire engine theme is wonderful, suggesting the vehicle trundling in businesslike fashion taking the firemen towards the latest hoard of books with fiery intent, with its percussion bells ringing to broadcast its approach.

The CD also has several tracks from "Anna and the King of Siam", a familar story having been made in various forms over the last century. This one is the version with Rex Harrison as the King, and Irene Dunne as Anna. In this soundtrack (getting Herrmann one of several Academy Award nominations) the composer makes use of some Siamese instruments including a range of cymbals to give a taste of the oriental location. The first track establishes this location and the regal spendour of the King and his court, and subsequent tracks accompany the dramatic tensions of the story as relationships and events unfold. There are a variety of other tracks listed in full below, but special mention should be made of "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" because in this romantic story, Herrmann borrows music previously used in his opera of "Wuthering Heights".

The CD is a re-recording of the music with Joel McNeely (an accomplished film composer in his own right) conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. As usual, Varese Sarabande, have included a comprehensive set of programme notes about Herrmann, these movies, and their music. The CD can be found at these sites: Amazon.co.uk in the UK, or Amazon.com in the US.

Track listing:

  • Fahrenheit 451
    • Prelude
    • Fire Engine
    • The Bedroom
    • The Reading
    • The Garden
    • The Nightmare
    • Flowers of Fire
    • Flamethrower
    • Captain's Death
    • The Road
  • The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
    • Main Title
  • Tender is the Night
    • The Embrace
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
    • Andante Cantabile
  • Anna and the King of Siam
    • Prelude
    • Montage
    • Elegy
    • Coronation