360 Degrees of Bernard Herrmann

A View from the World’s First Festival Devoted to the Composer

By Kurt Luchs

The month of April just past was a landmark in the growing appreciation for the work of composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), still primarily known as the creator of memorable soundtracks for some of the finest films of Hollywood’s golden age. From his first film score for Citizen Kane in 1941, to his last for Taxi Driver in 1976, Herrmann remained the best of the first generation of film composers, a group that included Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Dmitri Tiomkin and Alex North, among others. Talented as they all were, Herrmann towered above his contemporaries then, and he still does today.

The 105th anniversary of the year of his birth is a fitting time to begin to take the full measure of his achievement. Thanks to the PostClassical Ensemble, a Washington, D.C.-based collection of forward-thinking virtuosos, the long-overdue Herrmann renaissance is already underway.

The Postclassical Ensemble, led by Executive Director Joseph Horowitz and Musical Director Angel Gil-Ordonez, assembled the first-ever Bernard Herrmann Festival, held at various locations in the city. This would be noteworthy enough in itself, but the Festival was remarkable for another reason: it was the first presentation of “Herrmann in the round,” showcasing not only his film work but also his countless scores for radio and his smaller yet substantial body of concert hall compositions. These other two sides of Herrmann are not nearly as prominent as his film work; to put them on a par with the film scores took vision and guts, which appears to be a PostClassical specialty.

While there were naturally a number of screenings of movies with scores by Herrmann throughout the month, many introduced by film historians or Herrmann scholars, the heart of the Festival occurred the weekend of April 15-17, with performances that brought the composer to life for a whole new generation of fans. Now let me abandon any pretense of objectivity and tell you that for all the Herrmann aficionados lucky enough to be there, it was absolutely thrilling!

The celebration began on April 15 at Georgetown University, in two parts. Part one, in the afternoon, was highlighted by the performance of the 1944 radio play “Untitled,” written by Norman Corwin and scored by Bernard Herrmann. Norman Corwin is perhaps the buried giant of Old Time Radio. He did not go on to make a name in film or television, so he is not as well recognized a figure these days as Orson Welles. However it is almost impossible to overestimate his contribution to the art of radio drama — the dominant medium of the era, comparable to television today — or his influence on writers and directors since then, from Robert Altman to Ray Bradbury.

Dramatic roles in “Untitled” were undertaken by an energetic group of Georgetown University student actors expertly directed by Anna Celenza, the Caestecker Professor of Music (who also assumed some roles herself). The music was ably performed by the GU Orchestra, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez. Radio historian Dan Gediman, author of an unpublished biography of Norman Corwin, introduced the play, setting it in its World War II context. It is the story of a recently deceased American soldier as told through the voices of those who knew him, from his mother and girlfriend, to his barracks buddies, to the German who killed him with a mortar round. Wartime propaganda, to be sure, but in Corwin and Herrmann’s hands, subtly wrought and deeply moving. The whole thing seemed to be a revelation even to the young actors.

It must be said that this was not the kind of Old Time Radio recreation you may have seen before, focusing on the mechanical wonders of the sound effects person or the nostalgia of period commercials. This was treated as a piece of high performance art, with the music held equal to the spoken word. The recreation would not have been possible without the painstaking reconstruction of the score by Christopher Husted, musicologist and former Curator of the Bernard Herrmann Archive at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Following the play, Herrmann’s daughter Dorothy took the stage to discuss her father’s passion and magnum opus (in his eyes), the opera Wuthering Heights, which he spent eight years composing and many more years trying to get produced, never successfully in his lifetime (though thankfully he did manage to get it recorded). Dorothy proved to be a delightful and informative raconteur, full of anecdotes about her father and the people he worked with.

For example, when he took her to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho during its initial release, he said to her afterward, “Isn’t that the worst piece of crap you’ve ever seen in your life?” Only when the movie became a cult classic did he alter his opinion and take pride in his association with it. That’s almost hard to believe now, when his score for the shower murder scene contains probably the single most recognized and imitated film music cue of all time, those lovely stabbing strings that set back personal hygiene for an entire generation.

The Friday afternoon session of the Festival ended with a lively roundtable discussion with Dan Gediman, Dorothy Herrmann, Anna Celenza, Christopher Husted, Angel Gil-Ordonez, Joseph Horowitz, and Neil Lerner, Professor of Musicology at Davidson College in North Carolina. It was here that the question was first raised about the continuing unavailability of some Herrmann score manuscripts and original soundtrack recordings, a theme that would recur throughout the weekend. The most knowledgeable person on this subject was Husted, whose grim recounting of the sad and twisted details was leavened with a dry wit and a few hopeful signs — for instance, his ability to obtain the materials needed to reconstruct the music for the Corwin radio plays and the concert suite from Psycho (about which, read on).

Part two of Friday’s festivities was held in the evening at the same location and began with a presentation by Gediman about the Corwin/Herrmann partnership, which resulted in dozens of outstanding radio plays. He used numerous excerpts to illustrate Herrmann’s intuitive grasp of how music can ideally complement storytelling — by offering commentary and counterpoint, rather than simply hammering home plot points for emphasis. The GU Orchestra and Gil-Ordonez were on hand again to play parts of the “Untitled” score without the actors, so that the music could be appreciated on its own. I’m sure I’m not the only audience member who immediately thought, “I must have a recording of this radio play, and it must include an isolated score!”

Gediman spent much of his time rightly focusing on two other Corwin/Herrmann plays that made a tremendous impact when first heard. “We Hold These Truths” was a rousing celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights. The week before it was scheduled to be broadcast in December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was suddenly in the war. Corwin quickly rewrote the script to reflect this development, and the revised production was the first to be heard on all four radio networks, by an estimated 63 million people — half the population of the country at that time.

It is not too much to say that “We Hold These Truths” helped America process Pearl Harbor and come together after that tragedy in a way that no medium can still do today in this time of endlessly fragmented audiences (I had occasion to hear the author himself express this thought when I interviewed Corwin shortly after 9/11). Herrmann’s music plays a major role in the play, striking just the right note: proud, patriotic, hopeful and elegiac all at once.

The second major Corwin/Herrmann collaboration that Gediman examined was “On a Note of Triumph,” perhaps the most famous broadcast of World War II. It managed the tricky task of celebrating VE Day (Victory in Europe) while acknowledging the sacrifices that still lay ahead to win the war in the Pacific. The musically straightforward yet emotionally layered score by Herrmann goes a long way toward selling that difficult proposition. The play is one of the high-water marks of the art of radio, right up there with Welles’ “War of the Worlds” — for which, coincidentally, Herrmann also provided the music. He almost always worked with the best.

Next up on Friday evening, Husted told the story of the CBS Symphony…

[And here, I’m afraid, my original coverage of this amazing weekend came to an all-too-abrupt end, as I returned to an extremely busy time at work, and the finer details of the Bernard Herrmann Festival gradually faded from my memory, leaving me unable to sustain the same level of analysis. Unfortunately, the above report doesn’t even quite get through the first day of the Festival, and the other two days were very different and equally exciting. Perhaps someday I can return to this account and complete it appropriately.]