Born June 29, 1911, in New York, NY; died of a heart attack, December 24, 1975, in Los Angeles, CA. Education: Attended New York University and Juilliard Graduate School of Music, 1931-32.

Bernard Herrmann is considered by some music critics to be the most important film composer in the history of the medium. For more than three and a half decades, he crafted scores that integrated music with the action of a movie, thereby making background tracks more than just an auditory diversion. Herrmann was also one of the few film composers to have worked steadily as a composer and conductor outside of cinema, serving--among other posts--as guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic, Hall, Orchestra, and BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Herrmann is probably best known for his long association with esteemed motion picture director Alfred Hitchcock, having composed the scores to seven of his thrillers. Many of his works served as models for other film composers. In fact, Herrmann's chilling music for the shower scene in Hitchcock's legendary 1960 film Psycho may be the most imitated piece in the history of movie music; it provides an especially good example of his ability to capture the psychological and emotional intensity of movie action.

Although his parents demonstrated no particular musical talent, Herrmann revealed his at a young age. He won a prize for musical composition at 13 and after high school began training in composition and conducting. Developing his skills first at New York University and then with a fellowship at Juilliard Graduate School of Music, Herrmann studied with noteworthy teachers such as Philip James, Percy Grainger, and Albert Stoessel. While attending Juilliard, Herrmann wrote scores for ballets that were presented in the 1932 Broadway musical Americana.

Around the age of 20, Herrmann established the New Chamber Orchestra, which performed concerts in New York City and at the Library of Congress. In 1934 he began a 25-year affiliation with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS Radio), rising to the rank of chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra in 1942. On radio, Herrmann developed a reputation for airing programs of works by lesser known, progressive composers such as Charles Ives, Constant Lambert, Frederick Delius, and Arnold Bax.

As a composer, Herrmann began writing pieces that utilized just a few players and unusual mixes of instruments. This experience served him well when he first began writing music to be used in dramatic presentations. With his concert music, he displayed an aptitude for musically transmitting complex emotions and psychological states. This skill is clearly evidenced in the highly individual music he wrote for works such as Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights.

A critical juncture in Herrmann's career came in the late 1930s when he began writing scores for radio broadcasts on Orson Welles's Mercury Theater. Welles then asked the composer to score his 1941 cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane. Realizing Herrmann's genius, Welles broke Hollywood precedent by allowing him on the set to gather ideas for his music. While watching the action, the composer made musical sketches that he later incorporated into the film score. Welles even cut his movie in order to accommodate some of Herrmann's musical sequences. The result was the first of a number of Academy Award nominations. Herrmann loved working on Citizen Kane; he once said, as quoted in Listening to the Movies, that "the film was so unusual technically ... it afforded one many unique opportunities for musical experiments."

Herrmann's experience in composing radio scores served him well in the movies. One of his greatest assets was an extraordinary sense of timing that made it almost unnecessary for him to use cue marks for scoring passages in a film. Following up on his success with Citizen Kane, Herrmann proceeded to win the Academy Award for best score on his very next film, 1941's The Devil and Daniel Webster (also known as All That Money Can Buy). Before long he had gained notice for creating music that meshed ideally with film themes but was also worth listening to on its own.

Turning out yet another acclaimed score for Welles's 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons, Herrmann earned himself a spot in the highest ranks of movie composers. He was sometimes compared to other giants of movie music such as Miklos Rosza, who also had the ability to heighten the intensity of suspenseful scenes. Over the years, Herrmann became noted for his orchestral variety and short impressionistic phrases, which marked a contrast to the scores of more melodic film composers of the 1940s and 1950s, including Max Steiner and Victor Young. He often utilized shifts from major chords to minor chords in two-note themes, thereby creating a sense of foreboding.

Despite being in constant demand as a film composer, Herrmann limited his output to about one film score per year during his career. One of the few composers working in film who insisted on doing his own orchestrations, he required complete control over his music. Herrmann greatly resented any interference from both producers and directors; according to Listening to the Movies, he felt that producers "of a ... film will pander in the score to the lowest common denominator," and added, "If you were to follow the taste of most directors, the music would be awful."

Herrmann was very selective in his choice of instrumentation, always trying to find the perfect match for the emotion of a given scene. He continually experimented with instruments in his scoring and made the most of recording technology to heighten the sounds of certain instruments. His use of electric violin and electric bass in the 1951 sci-fi drama The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first times electronic music was implemented in a film score; soon other composers were following his precedent. While Herrmann often returned to musical themes he had used in previous films, he would frequently incorporate new orchestrations.

Herrmann's greatest fame as a film composer resulted from his association with Alfred Hitchcock. Once brought together, the pair maintained a relationship that spanned eight films over nine years. Although both men were uncompromising in their creative visions, they shared sensibilities that solidified their alliance. Donald Spoto wrote in The Dark Side of Genius that "Hitchcock and Herrmann shared a dark, tragic sense of life, a brooding view of human relationships, and a compulsion to explore aesthetically the private world of the romantic fantasy."

Their partnership resulted in some of the most intense music ever heard in films, with Herrmann often using atonal devices to support the unique eeriness of Hitchcock's movies. He succeeded in sustaining the dream mode that pervades 1958's Vertigo and two years later crafted one of the scariest string compositions ever for Psycho. Herrmann also served as sound consultant on Hitchcock's 1963 frightfest The Birds and wrote music for the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Creative differences over the score for Marnie, released in 1964, ended the collaborative relationship between Hitchcock and Herrmann. The director complained that Herrmann had not given him a pop song that he wanted for the film, and Herrmann shot back that he did not write pop music. While Herrmann had successes scoring fantasy films such as Fahrenheit 451 in the 1960s, his inability or unwillingness to shift into the pop direction, which was gaining favor at the time, caused a decline in his appeal. He moved to London in the mid-1960s and remained a resident of England for the rest of his life, working on both recording and composing.

Herrmann's style of music made a comeback in the 1970s, when he was hired to write scores for top directors such as Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. Working relentlessly despite failing health and the warnings of doctors, Herrmann died on Christmas Eve of 1975, right after he had finished conducting the score for Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

While Herrmann was highly critical of film music in general throughout his life, he scoffed at critics who thought it unworthy of serious composers. "A film score will live longer than any other kind of music," he was quoted as saying in Listening to the Movies. Demonstrating a rare ability to capture and heighten shifts of emotion and mood in subtle yet effective ways, Bernard Herrmann may very well have been the most influential of all American film composers.

by Ed Decker

Bernard Herrmann's Career

Wrote 61 film scores as well as opera and ballet music. Composed ballet pieces for Broadway musical Americana, 1932; founded and conducted the New Chamber Orchestra; became director of educational programs for CBS Radio, 1934; appointed composer of background radio music for CBS and conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra summer radio series, 1936; composed and conducted music for the Mercury Playhouse Theater; chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, 1942-59; served as guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic, Halle Orchestra, and BBC Symphony Orchestra; composed film scores, 1955-64, most notably for director Alfred Hitchcock; served as sound consultant on The Birds, 1963; wrote music for television shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Virginian.

Bernard Herrmann's Awards

Academy Award for best film score for The Devil and Daniel Webster (also known as All That Money Can Buy), 1941.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

While there may have been creative differences over the rather traditional score for Marnie, the conflict that ended Hitchcock and Herrmann's collaborations occurred on the film Torn Curtain, from which Herrmann was fired. Herrmann had been told -- in no uncertain terms -- to write a pop-influenced score, and delivered something quite different. (Marnie did, in fact, have a "pop" song, sung to Herrmann's main theme by Nat King Cole. But this was a conceptual disaster -- given the subject matter of the film -- not a musical one.)

over 15 years ago

Excellent further reading can be found in Steven C. Smith's biography of Herrmann entitled "A Heart At Fire's Centre".