With the centennial of Bernard Herrmann’s birth on June 29th fast approaching, I thought that writing a series of blogs about him leading up to the commemoration would be a natural. Just what to write about however was the question. Herrmann is widely acknowledged as one of the giants of film music and considered by many to be the greatest of all film composers as well as the most influential. Because of such lofty distinctions, his film music has been written about endlessly over the years and much of it has been recorded time and time again. So what could I write about then that wouldn’t be just another rehash of what has been said so many times before? How about his concert works?
As a film composer, the American Herrmann stood apart from his mostly European contemporaries choosing a different approach to scoring that did not follow the long line melodies, phrases and structures of romantic and post romantic music. That style of musical composition had already been adapted to film by composers such as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Instead Herrmann, the defiant iconoclast, chose what he felt was a more effective approach that used short phrased or fragmented structures (often referred to by some as cell structures) that were tailor made for supporting the sometimes quickly shifting dynamics and edited nature of film.
Herrmann generally eschewed the use of themes as primary dramatic musical devices in film in favor of a more blocked modular approach that used orchestral texture & color, motivic & rhythmic ositinati, and precisely chosen harmonies in order to delve deeper into the psychological and emotional aspects of a film. In addition, never did he feel constrained by the need to use a standard symphony orchestra, instead choosing an ensemble of instruments that served his idea of the colors and textures that he thought best served a film’s needs. As a result Herrmann’s scores were often made up of some of the most diverse and at times seemingly bizarre groupings of musical instruments to be found in any type of music. Add to that the fact that the orchestral makeup could also change from cue to cue. This in a nutshell defines much of Herrmann’s film music style.
So what about the non-film/non-radio music he wrote for the concert hall? Quite often a composer’s concert works differ greatly from his or her film music, but in the case of Herrmann both are very similar. The harmonic language is pretty much the same (mostly tonal or modal with occasional forays into stark dissonance) and the reliance on developing varied textures and colors through orchestration is just as important. Herrmann did however make greater use of thematic material, at times using longer lined melodies and subsequently employing more development of material in his concert works. The dictates of writing to film was not a factor so there was no need for him to employ his usual shorter musical structures, although they were still a dominant trait of his compositional style. Even so, Herrmann was not primarily known as a tunesmith and his concert work, like his film work, seemed to lean heavily on orchestration, harmony and rhythmic structure to express much of the emotional and intellectual content of the music.
Since Herrmann’s concert works are less known in general than his film music, I thought they would make a good subject for a series of centennial blogs. I’ve chosen some of his better known works and those for which recordings are available so those unfamiliar with his concert music can sample some of it and compare it to his film work if so desired. I’ll be posting a separate blog for each work over the next few months in mostly chronological order. Most of Herrmann’s concert works are from the late 1920s to the early 40’s tapering off in 1943. That seeming halt occurred as a result of his devoting all of his non-film/radio writing energies to his opera Wuthering Heights for the remainder of the 40s and into the early 50s. Even after the opera was completed in 1951 he didn't return to concert music until he wrote a few small scaled chamber works in the late 1960s.
This is the list of the concert works that will be presented in upcoming blogs:
Moby Dick (1937) - Cantata
Symphony (1941) - Orchestral work
The Fantasticks (1942) - Song cycle
For the Fallen (1943) & Silent Noon (1935) - Orchestral works
Currier and Ives Suite (1935) - Orchestral work
Echoes (1965) & Souvenirs de Voyage (1967) - Chamber works
I did not include The Devil and Daniel Webster Suite (1942) or Welles Raises Kane (1943) since they are concertized works of his film music and not original concert compositions. Many are probably familiar with the music already in its original score form.
So join me in a week or so for Part 1, a presentation of Herrmann’s cantata Moby Dick.
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Trivia of the week: Bernard Herrmann's father was a Russian immigrant whose last name was Dardik, a name he eventually changed to Herrmann. So this blog could have been titled "Dardik Centennial: Concert Work Series" if his father hadn't changed the family name before Benny was born. "Dardikesque"?!
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