Getting beyond Herrmann's famed film scores
I much enjoyed an article about the centenary of the birth of legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann that appeared in last week’s Wall Street Journal. The writer, Jim Fusilli. begins by noting that Herrmann may have preferred to be remembered for his concert and stage works – including his sole opera, Wuthering Heights. He also quotes another film composer, John Williams, who points out that Herrmann’s greatest ambition was to be recognised as a conductor (you can see him on the podium in the climactic scene of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much on YouTube). Who knew? All of this got me thinking and Googling – as well as heading to Wikipedia and my record shelf.
As I poked around the Internet, I found other Herrmann centenary tributes – as well as a so-so review of Minnesota Opera’s production of Hermann’s Wuthering Heights that appeared in the Wall Street Journal back in April – but I didn’t find articles that said much about the amount and quality of his concert music. And why would I have? When you’ve written the scores to 48 feature films, several of them classics, it must be awfully hard to compete with yourself for people’s attention.
Undeterred, I headed to Herrmann’s Wikipedia page and saw listings for 25 concert works written between 1929 and 1967. There was a Sinfonietta for Strings (1935), the Moby Dick Cantata (1937) and an Echoes String Quartet (1965). A few of the works – such as a 1937 Violin Concerto and the 1940 cantata Johnny Appleseed – were unfinished. A few of the listed titles caught my eye, and I realised that I actually had two Bernard Herrmann discs on my shelf (both on the Koch label). I hadn’t listened to either in ages, but clearly it was time to revisit them.
Bernard Herrmann’s music might be a strange choice for July 4th weekend listening, but the first disc I sampled, rife with references to Americana, seemed to fit the occasion the reasonably well. Here I heard James Sedares lead the New Zealand Symphony in two concert suites by Herrmann: the first drawn from his Academy Award-winning film The Devil and Daniel Webster, the second, Currier & Ives, inspired by that printmaking pair’s famous engravings. The former creates some highly memorable and varied portraits; the latter is lighter but extremely charming entertainment. Not a bad start!
James Sedares is also at the helm of my other Bernard Hermann disc. This time he’s with the Phoenix Symphony in a beautifully rich recording of Herrmann’s Symphony No 1 (1941). I learned from the notes that the work was commissioned, to my surprise, by the New York Philharmonic, along with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Herrmann called it a “Roman Holiday”, noting, “For the first time I was not confined to the outline of a story” (I also learned from the notes that Herrmann studied with, among others, Percy Grainger, and as co-founder of the New Chamber Orchestra of New York, he gave a number of important American premieres, including Milhaud’s La Création du Monde and several works by Charles Ives).
Is Herrmann’s Symphony more than a curiosity? I think so. With its moments of soaring lyricism, nervous energy and arching, brass-led rhetoric, it is reminiscent of music by Samuel Barber (particularly in the first movement), William Walton (especially in the spiky, percussion-laced Scherzo that is the second movement) and William Schuman. The Third movement, Andante sostenuto, is a string-led elegy punctuated by a few eerie solo contributions from a trombone; its somber tone suggests the work’s genesis during the Second World War. The fourth movement has a bustling quality that suggests people getting back to work in a busy city. The bold coda has plenty of pulsing strings and smashing percussion: very exciting!
An indisputable masterpiece? Perhaps not, but does it really matter? Given Herrmann’s outsized contribution to the world of film music, it would seem only fair – and grateful – to give his Symphony and his other concert works the benefit of the doubt, and at least a few more hearings, before passing judgment. You can buy the Sedares recording on iTunes, and Amazon lists some places to buy a used CD for a discount price. The recording also includes a terrifically spirited performance of William Schuman’s New England Triptych: when was the last time you heard that?