Three Movements for Herrmann

“They’ve got music for melancholiacs, and music for dipsomaniacs, and music for nymphomaniacs… I wonder what would happen if somebody mixed up their files?”—Midge, VERTIGO


My first semester at the University of Texas at Austin was a fun, wild, and all-consuming ride that, unfortunately, did not leave much time for the blog. To atone for my neglect, I wanted to provide a brief offering to finish out 2021 (another may follow), inspired by recent experiences with films scored by composer Bernard Herrmann.

The catalyst was a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in late November at Austin Film Society. (I can only entreat those who have not yet seen Vertigo on the big screen to do so at their earliest opportunity.) The filmwas the third collaboration of the director and the composer, and for many, it will remain the most iconic. It sent me on a listening tour of other Herrmann scores, many of which are now available for commercial consumption. Herrmann believed strongly in the efficacy of film music in the concert hall and, naturally, on the record, where his elaborate orchestrations (all by his own hand) were often better rendered than on film soundtracks, especially when presented in full stereophonic sound. His scores have found a great posthumous advocate in conductor Joel McNeely, who has recorded a number of them for Varèse Sarabande with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Vertigo included. (I offer an honorable mention for McNeely’s album of music from episodes of The Twilight Zone scored by Herrmann.)


While the significance of the score of Vertigo is undeniable, my personal favorite of the Herrmann and Hitchcock collaborations is the score for Psycho. It is a chiaroscuro masterpiece of suspense in strings, a stark antidote to the more expansive romanticism of Vertigo. McNeely’s recording of Psycho manifests all the dread and disquiet of the film, helped by including cues and segments that did not make it into the final edit. One does hope, however, that the original orchestral tracks will be released on their own one day. There is a certain violent tactility in this performance and mix not found anywhere else. Even Herrmann’s later recording of the abbreviated Psycho “Narrative for Orchestra” for Decca comes off as languid. (He occasionally gave in to lugubrious tempi in his studio recordings, as evinced by his recording of Walton’s film music for Richard III, which barely has a living pulse.)

Two cues from Psycho always impress me. The first is “The Madhouse,” written to accompany the parlor scene between Marion Crane and Norman Bates. Most of the sequence has no underscoring, but the trigger of Marion’s question, “Wouldn’t it be better if you put her someplace…” sets both Norman and the orchestra off. The opening motive F–E-flat–D is among the most memorable gestures in the entire score. The cue uses thematic material introduced in Herrmann’s earlier SinfoniettaforString Orchestra from 1935, but it is not an issue of simple adaptation. In Psycho, Herrmann wove his material into a taut web of dissonances, using extreme leaps and registers to reflect the various emotional and psychological strands clashing in Bates’s mind. Only nineteen measures long, it concludes with an ambiguous open fifth, an uneasy hint at what is to follow.

The second cue of note, entitled “The Stairs,” underscores the sequence when doomed detective Milton Arbogast returns to the Bates Motel to question the mysterious “Mrs. Bates.” The music picks up when Arbogast enters the motel office and, after ascertaining Norman Bates is absent, makes his way up to the second floor of the Bates house where Mother is waiting. The second half of the cue (1:30 mark) is another Herrmann masterstroke, using the extremes of the string registers and harmonics to an unsettling advantage. A discordant E-flat, given three statements but reduced to one in the film’s final edit, heralds the silent opening of Mother’s bedroom door. With piercing shrieks, the motive for the murder then enters in the next cue, “The Knife.” This cue is longer in the original score, hinting at more grisly shots of Arbogast’s death.


Herrmann’s talents were well-suited to Hollywood’s fantasy epics of the 1950s, though he mostly avoided sword-and-sandal outings. One of his most spectacular scores in this category is Journey to the Center of the Earth from 20th Century Fox in 1959. The original orchestral masters for this film have survived (including several Pat Boone ballads better forgotten), giving listeners a chance to hear Herrmann’s work on its own.

More compact is the “suite” from Journey that Herrmann later arranged and recorded for Decca in 1973, released the following year as part of the album The Fantasy World of Bernard Herrmann. Barring Herrmann’s edits and elisions, the suite corresponds to the following cues from the original film: “The Mountain,” “Sunrise,” “Prelude,” “Grotto,” “Salt Slides,” “The Pool,” “Dead Groom,” “Atlantis,” “Giant Chameleon,” “The Fight,” “The Shaft,” and “Finale.” Recorded at Kingsway Hall in London with the National Philharmonic Orchestra (an ad hoc orchestra of London players), the Journey suite benefits from the full range of Decca’s vintage “Phase 4” stereo. Herrmann’s subterranean orchestration for brass and low woodwind takes on an uncommon richness, especially the serpent highlighted in the “Giant Chameleon” section, as well as the writing for harp throughout. The most masterly portion of the suite is the section “Atlantis,” scored primarily for organ and vibraphone. In the recording of the suite, Herrmann makes terrific use of stereophonic distance and reverberation, giving the impression of age and immensity. Recognizing the protagonists’ isolation along their underground gauntlet, Herrmann’s strongest work in the score of Journey comes from his grasp of the monumental but still frightening sublimity of the Earth.


Finally following Stephen Sondheim’s exhortations, I watched the film Hangover Square from 1945, another 20th Century Fox offering boasting one of Herrmann’s best early film scores. The atmospheric influence of the movie on the conception of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as a gaslight revenge thriller is palpable, though the Edwardian trappings of Hangover Square stand in a milieu apart from both Victorian melodrama and the source novel by Patrick Hamilton. Hangover Square follows the exploits of musician George Bone, who is triggered into murderous fugue states by high-pitched tones heard at moments of extreme stress. While the film was capably handled by director John Brahm and writer Alfred Edgar (under the non de plume Barré Lyndon), it is tantalizing to ponder what Hitchcock would have made of the material, considering that he adapted Hamilton’s Rope for the screen in 1948 and made much in his own films out of psychological triggers, though sounds were rarely among them. (I welcome corrections on this point.)

Amid the film’s extensive body of diegetic music, Herrmann composed Bone’s enigmatic piano concerto, which figures extensively into the main score from the main titles through to the climax. Herrmann later arranged it for commercial recordings under the title Concerto Macabre, and it is a stand-alone track on Chandos’s 2010 release of musical excerpts recorded from the film score. Sondheim claimed to have memorized the first page of the concerto from an on-screen prop manuscript on his second viewing of the film.


My opening sentence recalls another Herrmann cue:

A Magic Helmet of Bleeding Chunks; or, What Bugs and Elmer Owe to Hans Knappertsbusch

Resetting the Boom on Herrs Wagner, Jones, Maltese, Bugs, and Elmer.

The famous animated short What’s Opera, Doc?—the gold standard of Warner Brothers’ animation and my admitted favorite of all time—is conventionally billed as a compact distillation of the entirety of Richard Wagner’s mammoth four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Those familiar with Wagner, however, recognize that it would barely pass as a Reader’s Digest reduction. The only extracts taken from the Ring proper are the “Ride of the Valkyries”from the Ring opera Die Walküre—indelibly transmuted by Elmer Fudd into the battle cry “Kill da wabbit!”—and Siegfried’s horn call from the opera Siegfried—Bugs’s innocuous statement “Oh, mighty hunter of great fighting stock!” These two examples aside, the bulk of the musical material in What’s Opera, Doc? comes from the overtures to Wagner’s earlier stage works Die fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and Tannhäuser. (Astute listeners will also catch a brief snippet from the overture to Wagner’s Rienzi in a chase sequence.)

The more I got to know Wagner, the more I have wondered why director Chuck Jones, writer Mike Maltese, and music director Milt Franklyn lit upon these specific “bleeding chunks” of the operas as “magic helmet” fodder. Of course, the Holländer and Tannhäuser overtures were (and remain) popular concert and radio fare. They were also familiar objects of appropriation for feature film and animated short musical accompaniment. Director Friz Freleng, one Jones’s colleges at Warners, famously used the Pilgrims’ Chorus from the Tannhäuser overture in an earlier World War Two short, Herr Meets Hare, which pitted Bugs against the corpulent Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in the Black Forest. After a failed gambit to disguise himself as Hitler, Bugs returns from offscreen dressed in drag as Brünnhilde astride a horse, prompting a corresponding quick change for Goering into Brünnhilde’s paramour Siegfried, complete with pelt and helmet. The version in What’s Opera, Doc? is far more dramatic and lacks the propagandistic bite of Herr Meets Hare. Instead of Wagner’s voluptuous Venusberg music from Tannhäuser in Jones’s iteration, Bugs and Goering traipse about to the saccharine waltz from act 2 of Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus.

In a Zoom panel on What’s Opera, Doc? sponsored by San Francisco Opera earlier this year, Chuck Jones’s grandson Craig Kausen discussed how Jones was an avid operagoer, and I would be curious to know what Wagner he (as well as Maltese) would have seen on the West Coast in the decades leading up to work on the short. A more promising and overlooked clue to the choice of excerpts in What’s Opera, Doc? exists in a famous photograph of Jones and Maltese standing in front of an animation storyboard around the time of production. Each holds an LP case in their hands. Jones has a Wagner release from London Records, while Maltese displays a disc conducted by Felix Weingartner. (In his autobiography, Jones captions the image “Director and writer about to lower the boom on Herr Wagner.”) While I have often seen this photo, I hitherto gave the case covers little attention. Given that the albums were an apparent source of inspiration, exploring their contents in detail illuminates many potent connections between recording history and the short.

Maltese’s disc was part of a collectors’ series released by Columbia Records that reissued earlier recordings by Weingartner, who died in 1942. The Wagner compilation in question carries the Columbia serial number ML 4680 (see the eBay image below for comparison). Performed by the Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire Paris and London Philharmonic Orchestra, the selections on the record include the Rhine Journey and Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, the preludes to the third acts of both Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, and the Siegfried Idyll. With the Götterdämmerung selections on this disc, one can discern a listening source Siegfried’s horn call in What’s Opera, Doc?

Turning to Jones’s disc, however, the connections increase. This 1953 release from London Records (serial number LL800, see Amazon image below) features the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Hans Knappertsbusch in three Wagner selections: the Holländer overture, the “Ride of the Valkyries,” and the Tannhäuser overture and Venusberg music. These are the same major excerpts used in What’s Opera, Doc? and in the order in which they appear. While the Warner studio orchestra performed the final score, we can assume that Jones at some point had the Knappertsbusch sound in his mind’s ear. Indeed, when listening to subsequent digital releases of the Knappertsbusch recordings, it is tempting to hear many similarities with the What’s Opera, Doc? soundtrack, particularly the prominence of bass registers in the Holländer overture and the trombone phrasing in the Pilgrims’ Chorus. (One can only conjecture what Knappertsbusch would have made of something like What’s Opera, Doc? I am sure it would have included one of his patented vulgarities.)

These are admittedly analytical straws, but the broader connection between the world of animation with the classical recording industry, which in 1957 was at the start of the stereophonic sound boom, presents a fascinating example of musical exchanges across media. I always state with pride that all the Warner shorts remain the best music appreciation class for which one could ever hope. When combined with the visuals of animation, the quotational gestures in the scores at the time of their premiere arguably imparted a pop-culture sensibility to their classical source music. At the same time, recordings were making much of the classical repertoire available to those consumers without ready access to either an opera house or concert hall. What’s Opera, Doc? shows an instance when the two conjoined to produce one of the most iconic homages of the twentieth century.