This is entry number 3 of 7 in a series of blogs that will continue over the next few months celebrating the centennial of Bernard Herrmann’s birth, June 29th. The series will focus on Herrmann's concert works rather than his film or radio music. The approach for each part will be to preface the work by presenting historical and musically relevant excerpts from A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith (indicated by italicized dark blue text). This will be followed by YouTube presentations of as much of the music as possible, along with more excerpts from Smith’s book. From time to time I will also add my own personal comments whenever I feel they may add something.
Symphony No. 1 (1941)
With Herrmann's Hollywood success came a new peak in prestige at CBS and a strengthening of his relationship with the New York Philharmonic. In late 1940, the network and symphony had jointly commissioned a major concert work from the composer for the following season. The result was Herrmann's only symphony, completed on March 29, 1941.
After the innovations of Kane and All That Money Can Buy and the orchestral originality of Moby Dick, Herrmann's Symphony seems in some ways a step back, a retreat to concert Neo-Romanticism. The four-movement work, dedicated to Lucille [Herrmann's then wife], would be Herrmann's last piece of nonprogrammatic music: "For the first time I was not confined to the outline of a story. It was not necessary to depict waves, portray the anguish of a lost soul, or look for a love theme.... Consequently, working on the Symphony I had a Roman holiday."
Although Herrmann apparently enjoyed the process of its composition ("It's just like writing cues," Herrmann told Lyn Murray), the Symphony illustrates Herrmann's uneasiness working in a rigidly formal structure. It also suffers from the fragmentation that characterizes most of Herrmann's output, a quality ideal for radio and film but not for the concert hall. Yet the Symphony was an impressive achievement for the thirty-year-old Herrmann: a mature, brilliantly orchestrated work whose power increases on subsequent listenings. Its traditional idiom makes it the most accessible of Herrmann's concert works and the most likely candidate for rediscovery (especially in its 1973 revised form).
Like Moby Dick, it is almost unremittingly oppressive in tone-"a Sibelian symphony," observed author-composer Christopher Palmer, "all bleak winds and bitter Northern skies with, as Sibelius would have said, nothing of the circus about it." "While such stylistic antecedents are evident (the first and third movements, for example, contain a strongly Sibelian "fate" motive for brass and several lyrical string and woodwind passages), Herrmann's personality is equally apparent, especially in the force of the brass writing, the ominous bass rhythms and textures, and the dark brilliance of the second-movement "Hunt Scherzo," which, in Palmer's words, evokes "images of the accursed Huntsman and his pack of wild dogs, the 'wild hunt' of Nordic mythology and a witches' dance on Walpurgis Night all colliding and merging in quasi-surrealistic confusion." Ghostlike string harmonics and pizzicatos are briefly overcome by an eerie graveyard serenity as an oboe beckons from afar (a passage suggested by Milton's "Nymphs and shepherds, dance no more"), but the jocular hunt theme soon returns, bursting with skeletal string tremolos and a demonic fiddle-like violin solo (recalling Mr. Scratch?). The symphony's high point, the scherzo is not coincidentally its most programmatic section.
I. Maestoso: Allegro Pesante
Herrmann employs a number of variants of the Dies Irae plainsong chant throughout the first movement. This continues his often called upon use of this timeworn purveyor of fate, death and darkness that very much reflects his lifelong obsession with such things. The latter part of the first movement (from around 8:50-9:30) is similar to his treatment of it, done around the same time, for the finale of Citizen Kane. In both, the trumpets slip from one note to the next highlighting the unsettling harmonic shifts in an almost sickly sounding fashion.
II. Scherzo & III. Andante Sostenuto
Herrmann again calls upon the Dies Irae in the third movement, but not to the same extent that he did in the first.
IV. Rondo: Epilogue A La Processional
The symphony concludes in a rousing, upbeat fashion, very different from much of the austerity and darkness of the previous movements.
The work received its premiere on July 27, 1941, not at Carnegie Hall but in CBS's Radio Theatre, under Herrmann's direction. (Its Philharmonic debut took place the following year). Reviews were consistently favorable. "Mr. Herrmann is a man of ideas and he can keep them going over wide spans in steadily refreshed guise," one critic noted. "Grasp of color is another of his fortes, and his idiom is steeped in rugged modernism under classic control.... His known knack for realism in the best style keeps you seeing things.
After the New York Philharmonic performance in late 1942, Herrmann hoped to interest Dmitri Mitropolous and Sir Thomas Beecham (his good friend) in performing the symphony, but neither it seems were interested. Eugene Ormandy on the other hand wanted to perform the symphony in Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Baltimore, but only if Herrmann would agree to cut about 15 minutes from the work. Herrmann being Herrmann of course refused which is too bad because performances by someone of Ormandy's stature may have possibly lead to it finding a place in the concert repertoire. Instead the symphony went unperformed until Herrmann recorded it in 1974, ironically with a number of cuts.
About the recording: (1974) Bernard Herrmann conducting The National Philharmonic, Unicorn label (out of print).
There is also a newer digital recording from 1993 that is still in print: John Sedares conducting The Phoenix Symphony, Koch label.
Previous entries in the Herrmann Centennial Concert Work Series: