An Interview with Bernard Herrmann August 1975

Royal S. Brown
1976 rev. 1994
Originally appeared in Overtones and Undertones (University of California Press 1994). Reprinted with the permission of the author. The interview is somewhat modified from the one that appeared as "An Interview with Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)" in High Fidelity (September 1976). ****


In a Hollywood studio where Bernard Herrmann had been supervising the recording of his score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it had been suggested that the session be finished the following day. Herrmann insisted, however, that it be completed. That night, on Christmas Eve 1975, Herrmann died in his sleep. Only four months earlier, when the composer was in Manhattan to supervise the dubbing of the music tracks for Brian De Palma’s Obsession, I had had a chance to talk with him. Gravel-voiced, with speech patterns that could only have come out of the Jewish community of old New York, totally outspoken, but always keeping his sense of humor, the composer first talked about his life in London, where he had taken up residence some ten years earlier.

Royal S. Brown

B.H.: I like it [London], and I can make records there. Where can I make records here? No place. My last album there ["The Mysterious World of Bernard Herrmann"] I had 120 musicians. That would never be done here. You can’t make that sound except…. By the way, you know this terrible record called the complete Citizen Kane [on United Artists]? That’s a fake. It’s none of my music, it’s not the orchestra….

R.S.B.: I think it was a forty-piece orchestra.

B.H.: I think maybe sixteen. I think it’s vulgar. This guy [conductor/ arranger LeRoy Holmes] never even approached me. Well, Decca will do a complete Kane. With Joan Sutherland singing the arias. She wants to do it. I’m trying to get Orson [Welles]. I spoke to him on the phone. He said he’d introduce the record. He’d say a text, a few words, before the music. *

R.S.B.: Is there a possibility of your ever scoring a new Welles film?

B.H.: I doubt it. Well, I can’t worry about that. I don’t think there’s any chance of my doing a film with him-or Hitchcock.

R.S.B.: Was the Hitchcock break basically the doing of producers who decided they wanted a pop composer?

B.H.: No, it’s Hitchcock. He just wanted pop stuff, and I said, “No, I’m not interested.” I told him, “Hitch, what’s the use of my doing more with you? Your pictures, your mathematics, three zeroes. My mathematics, quite different.” So it meant forget about it. I said, “I had a career before, and I will afterwards. Thank you.”

R.S.B.: Was he doing it mainly for commercial reasons?

B.H.: Well, he said he was entitled to a great pop tune. I said, “Look, Hitch, you can’t out-jump your own shadow. And you don’t make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don’t write pop music.” It’s a mistake, I feel. Because … he only finishes a picture 60 percent. I have to finish it for him. But he wasn’t happy. I always tell a story: a composer writes a score for a picture, and he gives it life. Like a fellow goes to a doctor, says, “I’m dying,” and the doctor cures him. Then the doctor says, “Aren’t you pleased? I cured you.” And the fellow says, “Yeah, that’s right. But you didn’t make me rich, did you?”

R.S.B.: In your earlier pictures with Hitchcock, you must have had a certain rapport.

B.H.: But he wasn’t then working for Universal. He became a different man. They made him very rich, and they recalled it to him. And I told Lew Wasserman he could go to hell. I do what I like to do. I don’t have to work for Universal, or him, or Hitch. He said, “Well, come around when you get hungry.” I said, “I’ll tell you something. When I get hungry, I go to Chasen’s.” I said to Hitchcock, “What do you find in common with these hoodlums?” “What are you talking about?” “Do they add to your artistic life?” “No.” “They drink your wine?” “Yes.” “That’s about all. What did they ever do? Made you rich? Well, I’m ashamed of you.”

R.S.B.: Are there any directors you would like to have worked with but never had the chance? Directors with whom you might have had a fruitful collaboration?

B.H.: Well, I was supposed to do, with William Wyler, The Collector. But he backed out. He says, “I don’t want to use a Hitch man.”

R.S.B.: There are scores, such as Alex North’s 2001 or Henry Mancini’s Frenzy, that were commissioned, composed, and even recorded for the music tracks and then never used in the movie.

B.H.: I know about one case, about Mancini. Hitch came to the recording session, listened a while, and said, “Look. If I want Herrmann, I’d ask Herrmann. Where’s Mancini?” He wanted a pop score, and Mancini wrote quasi what he thought was me.

R.S.B.: Have you ever written a score that hasn’t been used?

B.H.: Yes. Torn Curtain. I want to make a record of scores never used. I want to do Antony and Cleopatra of Arthur Bliss, that he wrote for Korda, that he never used. I want to do Torn Curtain. I want to do William Walton’s Battle of Britain. It would be an interesting record.

R.S.B.: Perhaps you could do a sequel and include North’s 2001.

B.H.: I don’t know that. They spoke to me to do the film, and I said to Kubrick, “No. You want me to do it, I’ll do it for double my fees, two pictures.” That’s crazy. Like this guy from The Exorcist [William Friedkin]. I was going to use an organ, and he said, “I don’t want any Catholic music in my picture.”

R.S.B.: He apparently wanted to have equal billing with you for the music.

B.H.: Yes, that he composed it with me.

R.S.B.: What do you think about the use of already existing music in a film?

B.H.: I think it’s stupid. What’s it got to do with the film? Nothing. Cover it with chocolate ice cream, that’s about it!

R.S.B.: When you do a film, then, it’s inspired by what you know of the film itself?

B.H.: Well, cinema music is the cinema. That’s part of making the picture, not something that’s put in later. I mean, I wrote this score…. I was just telling Brian [De Palma] today: I really can’t tell you, I don’t remember writing it, I was so carried away with the picture. I don’t know. I used to write at four in the morning, it just all came to me so quickly, I don’t know where from. And I identified with the girl, you know, how she felt it. This I did in a month. Obsession is a very strange picture, and a very different score, even for me. It starts with chorus and orchestra. In one sequence, for about five minutes: unaccompanied voices.

R.S.B.: You’ve mentioned that the chorus more or less delineates the levels of time De Palma is working with in the picture.

B.H.: That’s right.

R.S.B.: It’s quite obvious that in all your music there is a very strong emotional involvement. Reading things that you’ve written or said in interviews, I notice you keep using words such as instinct, unconscious, emotion.

B.H.: I’ve always loved that story of Rossini. He had a talk with Wagner. He says, “I don’t have genius, like you do, but I have lots of intuition.”

R.S.B.: You’ve also said that, ideally, film music should be based on phrases no longer than a second or two.

B.H.: I think a short phrase has got certain advantages. Because I don’t like the leitmotif system. The short phrase is easier to follow for an audience, who listen with only half an ear. Don’t forget that the best they do is half an ear. You know, the reason I don’t like this tune business is that a tune has to have eight or sixteen bars, which limits you as a composer. Once you start, you’ve got to finish-eight or sixteen bars. Otherwise, the audience doesn’t know what the hell it’s all about. It’s putting handcuffs on yourself.

R.S.B.: Perhaps the only place where a tune might really be in place is in the title shots.

B.H.: Well, that’s a different story. Did you see Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? Scorsese. A very interesting film. It starts very funny. It’s the story of this girl, how she grows up and always has the dream of being a great pop singer. The way he did it was wonderful. It has to do with the drama. I don’t mind it if it’s related to something that makes sense. Take Mean Streets. He does it like Italian opera. I’m doing his next film, called Taxi Driver. I’m going to do a film for a fellow named Larry Cohen, called God Told Me So. ** It’s about city people who keep getting killed. And they catch the people, and they say, “Why do you keep doing this?” And they say, “God told me so.” It’s a study about violence, what makes people go around killing. I did his It’s Alive. That’s a strange orchestra. Moogs, synthesizers, electric basses, viola d’ amore, organ, brass.

R.S.B.: You’ve used viola d’amore in several pictures. On Dangerous Ground, for instance.

B.H.: It depends on whether you can get someone to play it. Not so easy. Most people don’t play it.

R.S.B.: You always seem to have an instrumental conception of every picture you do.

B.H.: Always. Color is very important. And this whole rubbish of orchestration is so wrong. You know, they make everything shit. I always tell them, “Listen, boys. Don’t give me this shit. I’ll give a thousand dollars. I’ll give you the first page of the Lohengrin prelude, with all the instruments marked. You write it out. I bet you won’t come within 50 percent of Wagner.” To orchestrate is like a thumbprint. People have a style. I don’t understand it, having someone orchestrate. It would be like someone putting color to your paintings.

R.S.B.: I’ve read statements by several film composers that they have often taken the particular voice, the particular character of an actor or actress into consideration in writing a film score. To take a hypothetical situation: suppose Hitchcock had used Vera Miles in Vertigo, as he wanted to, instead of Kim Novak. Would your score have been different in certain parts?

B.H.: No, because the thing was the drive of the emotions. I felt Vertigo made one big mistake. They should have never made it in San Francisco. And not with Jimmy Stewart. I don’t think he was right for the part. I don’t believe that he would be that wild about any woman. It should have had an actor like Charles Boyer, or that kind. It should have been left in New Orleans, or in a hot, sultry climate. When I wrote the picture, I thought of that. When I do a film, if I don’t like it, I go back to the original.***

R.S.B.: You mean you go back to the novel or the play?

B.H.: That’s right. I always have done that

R.S.B.: I know that you’re particularly partial to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Are there any other scores of yours that you’re particularly partial to?

B.H.: Well, I like Anna and the King of Siam. I like all the Balinese and Javanese music.

R.S.B.: It seems to me that there’s been a renaissance in the really genuinely good composers.

B.H.: The trouble is, good composers, when they do a film, for some reason or other, they’re brainwashed, and they write rubbish. They’re afraid to write. The only one I know who doesn’t is Copland. Korngold also. But generally they say, “This is the Hollywood style, let’s write for it.” Of course that’s all wrong, what they do.

R.S.B.: It seems to me that one way you’re able to sustain the depth of emotion in your scores is by carrying your harmonic language almost to the breaking point. It’s a basically tonal language that you rarely resolve.

B.H.: Well, I don’t see any use to write a language no one understands. I don’t understand Boulez. Last month, in London, he said, “I will never conduct Tchaikovsky, Strauss, or Puccini.” Who gives a damn? I suppose the crap he’s doing is better. I mean, he’s a talented man, but he doesn’t have any feeling. Like Poulenc had. I knew him very well. I love La Voix humaine, and his Gloria. Erich Korngold once told me that he said to [Richard] Strauss, “Are you going to Herr Schmidt’s?” Strauss said, “Me go to Herr Schmidt’s? Are you crazy? Do you know they actually have a score of Puccini’s Tosca in their house?” Strauss was not interested in music, he was just jealous he earned more money. Strauss never earned the money Puccini did. They’re all wrong, of course. Puccini was a very great composer. I always feel sorry that Ravel never did his version of Salome. Because I still think that [Strauss's] Salome has great, great flaws. Like the dance. It’s really Franz Lehar.

R.S.B.: Are there any young composers of promise that you see on the horizon?

B.H.: Not that I know of. Well, I tell you what. You have to have a special kind of mentality. I like drama. They like other things. I gave a talk at the British Film Institute. I told the audience, “Remember old maps, before World War I, how the world had big white spots every now and then? You looked down below, it said `White, unexplored.’ That’s film music. It’s all unexplored.”


Copyright © 1976-2013 by Royal S. Brown

* This project never saw the light of day.
** Herrmann died before the latter film was made. Released in 1977 as God Told Me To, the film was later retitled Demon.
*** Both the original French-language version of the Boileau/Narcejac novel, D’entre les morts and the English translation take place in Paris and Marseilles, not New Orleans. Perhaps Herrmann was alluding to an early version of the screenplay.
****The original tape of the interview was referred to in order to restore certain deletions and, in certain instances, the composer’s original words. As the interview was done in the noisy cocktail lounge at New York’s Regency Hotel, there remain a few unintelligible passages on the tape.