“My feelings and yearnings are those of a composer of the 19th century,” wrote self-identified neo-romantic composer Bernard Herrmann in 1948. “I am completely out of step with the present.”
Herrmann’s heart at the time was with his in-progress opera, based on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, but he made his name—and sealed his immortality—in distinctly modern media. The greatest American-born film composer, Herrmann was just done scoring The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which accompanied the romance between a widow living on the English seaside and the ghost of a sea captain. The beyond-the-grave affairs of Brontë and Mrs. Muir typify Herrmann’s greatest work, interpreting through music a romantic yearning inextricably linked to or forbidden by death. It’s certainly present in two films irresistibly double-featured in Film Forum’s two-week, 22-film Herrmann retrospective, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), submerged in Herrmann’s voluptuous chromaticism, and Brian De Palma’s Hitch-takeoff Obsession (1976), both among Herrmann’s highest, dizziest achievements.
New York City–born Herrmann, educated between NYU and Juilliard, began his broadcast career at CBS Radio, where he eventually climbed the ranks to chief conductor. From this post, Herrmann introduced a listening public to programs representative of his catholic tastes and encyclopedic knowledge, and met his first great film collaborator, Orson Welles, whose Mercury Theater broadcasts he scored. Welles’s Hollywood debut would be Herrmann’s—he was hired to create the innovative music for Citizen Kane, complete with radio-style interlude pieces and Susan Alexander’s disastrous debut opera, Salammbô. Not bad for a first outing—but Welles and Herrmann would both fight to recapture this level of independence ever-after.
Part erudite gentleman, part obstreperous loudmouth, per Steven C. Smith’s superb Herrmann biography, Herrmann did not suffer fools (nor, often, the well-meaning) lightly, gradually isolating himself through a refusal to compromise, and flourishing best under the patronage of sympathetic collaborators. He is most remembered for his thriller scores, with Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) a notable precursor to his 11-year collaboration with Hitchcock, beginning on 1955’s The Trouble With Harry. (Most famously, it’s Herrmann’s violins that vivisected Janet Leigh in Psycho.)
Among Herrmann’s less-known submersions in morbid psychology, especially recommended is John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945), whose protagonist, George Harvey Bone, is a tormented composer of the late Victorian period, his murderous episodes triggered by the sound of discord. Bone (Laird Cregar) is composing Herrmann’s frenzied “Concerto Macabre” throughout the film, and the piece finally premiers in a bravura climax, ending with Cregar pounding his keyboard, undeterred, in a room engulfed in flame, an image of passionate self-destruction in which who knows how much Herrmann saw of himself.