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Number 56

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:

Number 54 - Introduction

Number 55 - Moby Dick


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Comments (27):Log in or register to post your own comments
Since a couple of people have asked, the John Sedares conducted Phoenix Symphony recording of Herrmann's Symphony is available on CD through third party sellers on Amazon and also as an mp3 download at places like Amazon and AchivMusic.

I want to thank you for your continuing series of posts concerning Mr. Herrmann's concert works. This is a terrific ongoing project!

I am a little surprised that more folks don't join in and comment. Frankly, it has taken a while for this Symphony to resonate with me on any level at all -- although I had an immediate and lasting connection to Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, and most of the other concert works released on Unicorn.

I am honestly not sure why this work has taken so long to engage me -- but for many years I became impatient with its musical development -- I think I was thrown out of the music by what struck me as thematic incongruities and mood swings. During more recent listenings, however, the piece has ceased to have those problems for me -- it seems more of a unified whole. Perhaps I am just older... I prefer the older Herrmann version of this work -- the sound is a bit low key on it -- but the Phoenix recording seems a bit ragged in playing around the edges at times. But these are my strictly amateur opinions of course. It is wonderful to have two recordings of Herrmann's Symphony -- wish there were more.

The first movement is probably my favorite work from Herrmann. Theres a lasting sense of self-loathing and barely contained remorse in it. Its a very emotionally complex work but it sticks with you.

John, thank you for your support in the series!

One thing I've noticed about blogs is that they rarely generate many comments. A lot of that has to do with the fact that many people don't read the blogs, they come straight to the boards so the number of blog readers is much smaller than message board readers. I was able to verify on the Moby Dick blog that scarcely 50 people might have read the blog since that was how many views the first section of the cantata got on YouTube.

Joan Hue suggested I post my blogs in a thread on the message board, but I've noticed when people post a long article styled entry, there are always comments saying the post is too long to read all of it and it should be a blog. So it's damned if you do, damned if you don't!

And I suspect threads that are generated from a blog comments get little attention as can be seen by the lower number of views. The fact that "Blog Post" is in the title of the thread seems to make it of little interest to most. Perhaps it's because it's not one of the gazillion polls, lists or speculation threads that have overtaken the boards in recent years which is what many seem to be more interested in rather than discussions of the music itself (although I've noticed just recently that there does seem to be a small swing back to more posts about the music). Who knows why really. In this case it can't be because Herrmann is not of interest to the demographics of the board as he came in 5th place in a poll thread a few months ago of who were the top 5 favorite film composers of board members.

Anyway, I'm glad you're enjoying the series which I did for 2 reasons in celebrating the Herrmann centennial: 1) To introduce Herrmann's concert works to those who may not have heard them or may be interested in learning more about them, and 2) To present excerpts from "A Heart at Fire's Center", a terrific book on Herrmann. Although the excerpts I use from the book are focused on the musical selection, the parts of the book about Herrmann the man are the most fascinating in trying to understand this tempestuous genius. Perhaps posting these excerpts may get some interested in reading the book.

Stay tuned in about 2 weeks for THE FANTASTICKS...

I have always loved this symphony ever since buying the Herrmann-conducted LP back in the 70s. I found it immediately attractive and inviting. I love the mood and color, a sort of dusky, Sibelian NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN. Mark, I don't believe your article mentions that Herrmann might have had more success with this work if he had agreed at the time to trim its length, which I recall a major conductor or two requested before agreeing to conduct it themselves (much like with WUTHERING HEIGHTS). But when Herrmann revisited his Symphony for the 1970s Unicorn recording, he did end up making cuts. I would like to hear the longer version!

Mark, thanks for bringing peoples attention to this wonderful work (I only wish Sedares had chosen another Herrmann work to pair it with), and the marvelous HEART AT FIRE'S CENTER. All devotees of film music should have these in their collections....

Heart at Fire's Center is the only composer's biography I ever borrowed from the library that I ended up buying my own copy of. It's truly that good, and enormously helpful to have while listening to Herrmann.

Mark, I don't believe your article mentions that Herrmann might have had more success with this work if he had agreed at the time to trim its length, which I recall a major conductor or two requested before agreeing to conduct it themselves (much like with WUTHERING HEIGHTS). But when Herrmann revisited his Symphony for the 1970s Unicorn recording, he did end up making cuts. I would like to hear the longer version!

Zoragoth, you're right, I did neglect to mention the different versions. According to the book, Eugene Ormandy intended to conduct it in Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Baltimore if Herrmann agreed to about 15 minutes of cuts. Of course being Herrmann he wouldn't agree to it. Too bad, because at least in its shorter form it might have found an audience and perhaps a place in the concert repertoire if someone of the stature of Ormandy programmed it a number of times. Instead it wasn't heard after its first couple of performances until 1974 when Herrmann recorded the shorter version you mentioned. I think I'll add this info to the blog. It does finish the story!

I'm with you on the Sedares pairing. I think FOR THE FALLEN or something not yet recorded would have made a better pairing, at least for us film score guys!

I'm glad to see Herrmann's hard-to-find recording of his Symphony is up on YouTube. I'd never heard this performance before, but it definitely sounds a lot more "Herrmann" to me than the Sedares version on the Koch label. Sedares just aimlessly blows through the entire piece at one ridiculous tempo, and the orchestra sounds like they'd rather be playing something else through most of it. The needed "bleak oppressiveness" just isn't there.

Heart at Fire's Center is the only composer's biography I ever borrowed from the library that I ended up buying my own copy of. It's truly that good, and enormously helpful to have while listening to Herrmann.

I enjoyed this book so much, I actually bought it twice, the second time to replace the first copy lost in a flood. Well worth keeping around!

Double post.

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