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CD Review

Bernard Herrmann

Jane Eyre

Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
Marco Polo 8.223535 68:15
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Love in the Old Dark House.

Unlike many Hollywood film composers of the time, Herrmann actually trained as a composer and wrote concert pieces before working for the movies. People usually and quite rightly point to differences between film music and concert music. Having written successful concert music doesn't guarantee a great film score, any more than writing a great novel or a good stage play guarantees a good movie script. Faulkner as a screenwriter failed to come up to Dudley Nichols or Preston Sturges. Indeed, most of the great Hollywood writers came from newspapers or the pulps. Most of the successful film composers began as theater organists or conductors. Korngold began in Hollywood as the exception, rather than the rule. Around the Forties, this all began to change. Composers the likes of Antheil, Moross, Copland, Eisler, Rózsa, Elmer Bernstein, and David Raksin started to find well-paying work in California.

Concert music usually requires a long span in which to unfold its matter. A film composer only rarely gets the luxury of space. Most film "cues" run a matter of seconds. Furthermore, the music seldom asserts primary position in a film. For one thing, it shouldn't overpower the dialogue, and for another, it can't compete with the screen image. It typically hovers at the edge of conscious hearing, establishing a mood rather than directing narrative. These are some of the reasons why almost nobody records film scores as the composer wrote them. The hand of a judicious editor almost always interposes between the Ur -text and the listener. Otherwise, you would get mainly scraps, robbed of the images they supported, not very interesting on their own. Of course, there are always exceptions. Opening and end titles gave composers opportunity to shine. Indeed, I doubt whether anyone besides specialists remembers any music out of Gone with the Wind other than the strong opening title.

Herrmann owes his film career to Orson Welles. The composer hit a home run with his very first Hollywood score, Citizen Kane – yet another landmark that film set, on top of its photography, storytelling, and scenery design. One has to remember what most American film scores were like to appreciate Herrmann's achievement. Screen composers usually approached their work in one of two ways: either a close fit of music to gesture and dialogue (Max Steiner and Carl Stallings) or a kind of constant Wagnerian undercurrent establishing general mood (Korngold and early Waxman). Herrmann, however, had made his living from the radio – providing not only incidental music for radio plays, but "theme" music and identifying "stings," the latter having to be both brief and memorable. It carried over into his incidental music. Working for the radio meant working fast and to deadline, to boot. Herrmann developed his distinctive movie style from his work in radio. He could write a symphonic movement or the elaborate counterpoint of a symphony orchestra, but why, if a back-and-forth between two chords could make as much or more of an effect? Herrmann typically (that is, in the scores we tend to think of, like Psycho) doesn't work with themes, but with memorable gestures.

Nevertheless, Herrmann worked in many different film genres, besides the avant-garde Hitchcockian thriller: fantasy, Western, sci-fi, epic, film noir, horror, and romance, among them. In the Forties, Herrmann worked on four romances, fairly close together: Jane Eyre (1944), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and Portrait of Jennie (1948). Herrmann provides a musical equivalent of the photography – rich black and white, where even the shadows have shadows. Herrmann comes up with a score that makes you tense in anticipation before Jane opens every new door at Thornfield. In many ways, these four scores lie closest to then-current Hollywood practice among Herrmann's output as well as to the composer's symphony, in that we get not only the gestures, but full-fledged themes. Jane Eyre even incorporates a Wagnerian Leitmotiv system. A "passion" theme shapes Mr. Rochester's theme. Jane gets her own theme, which goes through extensive transformations as new situations arise in the film. Romance looms bigger, more obsessive in Herrmann's music even than in Brontë's book. For me, who tends to giggle during the mushy stuff, Herrmann's score is just about the only thing that keeps me interested (that and marveling at how young Elizabeth Taylor looks in the part of Helen). Herrmann hides behind the mask of Post-Wagnerian, all the while slipping in little nudges of Twentieth-Century harmony, rhythm, and scoring. In many ways, he pulls off a trick on the ear.

Herrmann liked to imagine himself as an 18th-century boulevardier and wit, despite most biographical to the contrary. His psyche inhabited the neighborhood of Romanticism, even Byronism, quite evident in the subjects that attracted him (an opera on Wuthering Heights, a cantata on Moby Dick, for example). It also comes out in his attitude toward drama in general. Elmer Bernstein tells a story about Herrmann's reaction to Richard Rodney Bennett's generally-admired score to Murder on the Orient Express. Bernstein raved especially about the sequence when the train pulls out of the station to a majestic waltz. Herrmann hated it. "That train," he intoned, "is a train of DEATH! !!" Well, sometimes a train is just a train. But that sensibility is what made Herrmann the ideal composer for Jane Eyre and Hangover Square.

As I've said, most film scores consist of scraps and shards. As far as I know, nobody records film scores as they left their composers' hands. Even Herrmann himself (and sometimes, I believe, Christopher Palmer) rearranged his scores for record. The conductor Adriano (one-name only, like Madonna) has done a bang-up job stitching things together from musical yarn into sweaters and socks as well as some other editorial ministrations. Though not the equal of London orchestras in this repertoire, the Slovak Radio Symphony does well enough, and the recorded sound is beautiful besides.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz