Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bernard Herrmann would have turned 100 today

Music snob Bernard Herrmann probably ain't no fan of 'Que Sera Sera.'
Because today marks the centennial of influential composer Bernard Herrmann, CBS News recently assembled a lengthy slideshow/audio clip gallery that's a pretty good overview of Herrmann's career. It's fitting that CBS would be the one to give Herrmann such a thorough and reverent centennial tribute because Herrmann had a long association with the network, from the days when radio was a more dominant medium (Herrmann served as conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra and composed score music for countless CBS radio dramas, including Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast) to the period when CBS conquered TV in addition to radio (Herrmann provided music for several Twilight Zone episodes and composed the anthology show's somber and lesser-known first-season opening title theme).

As David Letterman once said, look out! It's that creepy eye!
These days, Herrmann is best known for his brilliant work with Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Harryhausen, which probably would have irked Herrmann because the famously testy maestro hated being labeled a film composer and wrote for more than just the screen (for instance, he composed an opera based on Wuthering Heights). His final film score, is, to me, his most stunning achievement. Herrmann initially had no interest in working on Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the ultimate vision of '70s New York-as-hell, but then he changed his mind because he liked the part of Paul Schrader's script where Travis Bickle poured peach brandy on his Corn Flakes.

Perhaps because Herrmann knew he wasn't long for this world at the time he wrote it (he finished recording it only a few hours before he died in his sleep on December 24, 1975), the Taxi Driver score sounds like the last few gasps of a dying man, with its thunderous, apocalyptic-sounding percussion, a melancholy theme for alto sax that was performed by an uncredited Ronny Lang and a final cue where the last few notes quote at a funereal pace a previous Herrmann theme, the ominous three-note motif that concludes Psycho.

Be sure to check out the mp3 clips of the Taxi Driver title themes and other Herrmann compositions that CBS News has posted--or enjoy Herrmann's cues from Taxi Driver, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, Jason and the Argonauts and Marnie whenever they're streamed during the "Assorted Fistful" block on A Fistful of Soundtracks.

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