Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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Benny the Great

I have started reading Steven C. Smith's book A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. This book is one that I have always wanted to read; it is very highly thought of in the world of film music and the reasons why are obvious from the very beginning. Music was Herrmann's passion, and it is music that is what this biography is about.

The fact that Herrmann's personality was so volatile is also an element that keeps the book interesting. I started this book at lunch, so I am only up to page 73, but it has been an extremely engaging journey thus far, and he's only just met Orson Welles!

The book has gotten me interested in hearing the music of Charles Ives, whose work was a great inspiration to Herrmann. Ives' music gained much in stature after Herrmann used his position at CBS to champion his work.

There is also something else that has sparked my interest, but, unfortunately, there may not be a way for me to hear much of this.

Herrmann, when employed at CBS, often provided musical scores for dramatic radio shows. While I have heard a snippet of his music for Welles' adaptation of Hearts of Darkness in the documentary Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, none of this music seems to be available. Given Herrmann's literary, dramatic and orchestrational acumen, the music he wrote for the poetry readings and plays sounds fascinating. Lucille Fletcher (soon to be the first Mrs. Herrmann) recalls:
The melodramas were full of music germs - effects like the shrill wind or the scuttering of dead leaves in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," the moonlight in "Annabel Lee," the mental lonliness of the sightless kings in "The City of Brass."
For example, there were such instructions as these scattered through them: "Harp: Place long strips of paper among strings to soften tone." Or "Piano: Place ruler on 12 notes above high C. Put down damper pedal. Play other notes in score with left hand."
In a 1939 article, she describes:
He had to compose a musical representation of [a time clock] when Pare Lorentz - who was a guest producer - hadn't heard about Herrmann, and at first he planned to use a real sound effect time-clock as background for the show. His friends talked him out of it.
"Get Herrmann to write you a time-clock," they told him. "It'll make the show." It did. Herrmann has never been inside a factory in his life, but he whipped up a cue out of a French horn, a couple of Chinese wood blocks and a piano; and it was better than the real thing...
Herrmann and the Sound Effects departmen cooperated, too, in a Workshop production of Lord Dunsany's "Gods of the Mountain."
The play was about three Indian beggars who disguise themselves and pretend to be three stone gods who sit out in the middle of the desert. The populace feeds and worships them, until suddenly the footseps of the real gods are heard in the distance, striding over the desert toward the town. Herrmann's job was to express these giant stone footsteps in music...
Herrmann and his orchestra - fortified for the occasion with a couple of extra kettledrums and tom-toms - were placed on the twenty-second floor in a studio of their own. Downstairs in another studio, a sound effects man sat, with a huge bag of rocks at his side. But the sound effects man and Herrmann wore earphones which were connected with the main studio where the drama was taking place. At a signal from the producer, Herrmann would bring down his baton, and the orchestra would give an ominous "rumble" cue. Then, on the off-beat, the sound effects man downstairs would throw his bag of rocks from one end of the studio to the other. Herrmann would pause, and bring his baton down again. Again the rumble would sound, and again the bag of rocks would fly across the studio. On the air, it gave the effect of ponderous feet, moving slowly and terribly across the earth.
Herrmann also had a show, called "Melodrams," a Greek concept combining music with performance art, in which he would conduct his music while David Ross read poems.

I can't help but be intensely curious about this section of Herrmann's career. Unlike his film music, which was immortalized by the movies themselves, and later in a myriad of recordings as the critical establishment (reluctantly) began to admit that he was one of the most important American composers of the Twentieth Century (recordings and re-recordings of his film music usually do rather well), this music is largely lost.

The scores exist, apparently. Possibly some day we might hear the poems re-recorded with Herrmann's music.

What interests me is not just the odd orchestration; Herrmann is often associated with "the music of the irrational," which is, I must admit, an accurate description of much of his cinematic output... certainly Psycho, Cape Fear, Sisters, Taxi Driver and any number of his films would fit this idea. I must say that when Herrmann revealed that "heart" that was at his "fire's center," in such scores as Vertigo, Fahrenheit 451 and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, it created musical moments as georgeous and engaging as anything.

Herrmann's last film score was Taxi Driver. He completed recording the score on Christmas Eve of 1975. He was quite sick at the time, but insisted on finishing the session, which was the last. He died that night. His dedication to his craft paid off in a body of work that still continues to fascinate today.

All quotes from A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith, paperback edition, © 2002 University of California Press.
Tags: bernard herrmann, film music, memorial

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