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June 29, 2010

A grateful nod to Bernard Herrmann and his Wagnerian 'Vertigo' score

Just noticed that June 29 is the anniversary of Bernard Herrmann's birth in 1911. Next year, obviously, there should be major retrospectives of the composer's music -- the cinema scores, the concert works. And the opera. I'm glad to see that Herrmann's neglected "Wuthering Heights" will get a production next season from Minnesota Opera in observance of his centennial.

Most associated with Alfred Hitchcock films, Herrmann, who died in 1975, was a true genius in the highly specialized world of film scores. It's impossible to imagine the movies he scored for Hitchcock being as great without the musical soundtrack; Herrmann's scores were really as crucial to a film project as characters or plot.

Heck, his best scores became characters in the movie, nowhere more so than in "Vertigo," his most Wagnerian creation. I fondly remember doing a little "Vertigo" tour in San Francisco some years ago, checking out all the sites I could get to where the movie was made. The whole time, the rich music floated through my memory, especially when I walked around the Mission Dolores cemetery and Palace of the Legion of Honor, where indelible scenes were filmed.

I wish orchestras would embrace Herrmann's movie music in regular concerts, not just on Hollywood-theme pops nights. (The practice of playing live soundtracks, which the Baltimore Symphony did with "Psycho," for example, is a great way to honor the composer, too.) How cool it would be to sit in a concert hall and hear a great orchestra play the haunting themes from "Vertigo." . Here's an idea of what that can be like -- the "Scene d'amour," performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting:

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:41 PM | | Comments (5)


Thanks for reminding us of this great talent!

I was pleasantly surprised to find yet another Hermann score when I recently watched an old Burt Lancaster movie, "The Kentuckian" (also distinguished by being Walter Matthau's first screen appearance). Check out what Hermann does with a long, slow shot of father and son waking up to dawn in the forest. I also love his score for "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir", which practically becomes an opera in Hermann's hands. Is that music, perhaps, a taste of "Wuthering Heights"? (The Vertigo tour must have been fascinating. Hope you didn't get dizzy.)

Thanks for the tip about "The Kentuckian," which I haven't seen, and for reminding me about "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," which I need to see again. TIM

Also, don't forget Hermann's great score for Citizen Kane, which included an aria from a fictional opera.
Interestingly, this score was nominated for an Oscar, but Hermann won the same year for another movie.

By the way, there is an excellent CD of Salonen conducting Hermann film music on Sony with the LAPO (mostly Hitchcock, but includes Taxi Driver, his best late score).

I love that "Citizen Kane" score, too, especially the delicious aria. And thanks for mentioning that fine LA Phil CD. TIM

I totally agree that we need to hear more Hermann in the concert halls. The BSO performing the score to Psycho live a few years ago with the film playing on a screen above the stage was a revelation (scored for a strings-only orchestra; who knew?) Thanks, TIm!

I am performing the Scene d'Amour from Vertigo with the Orchestra of St. Luke's at Caramoor on July 4th on theremin. First time it's been done this way as far as I know--I think it sounds terrific with the theremin...

Very cool. I wish I could hear it. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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