The magnificent failures of a great film composer

The magnificent failures of a great film composer

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

August 25, 2023

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

The most original rethinker of film sound was the New York composer Bernard Herrmann. He was just 30 when he won his first Oscar for The Devil and Daniel Webster in 1941, and then he went to work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. When not composing for film he was conducting concerts on the CBS network, choosing modern symphonies of considerable obscurity by Miaskovsky, Malipiero and Edmund Rubbra. He gave the broadcast premiere of Charles Ives’s third symphony.

Fifteen years would pass before he found his true vocation…

Read on here.

And here.


  • Andrew Powell says:

    The opera was recorded complete by Pye in 1966.

  • Austin Sloper says:

    There was no score for The Birds

  • Adam Stern says:

    Bernard Herrmann was a giant of a musician, and what he brought to his film- and television-scoring assignments — particularly his unique orchestral combinations (unlike many of his colleagues, Herrmann refused to let anyone do his orchestrations for him) — indeed made him “the most original rethinker of film sound”.

    One small correction: While Herrmann had made London his permanent residence, my home town of Los Angeles actually has the dubious honor of being the locus wherein he took his last breath. Herrmann passed away at the Sheraton-Universal Hotel in North Hollywood on Christmas Eve, 1975, the night after he finished conducting the recording sessions for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”

  • Sol L Siegel says:

    Wrong. Herrmann famously died in LA in his sleep on Christmas Eve, 1975, after returning home from the final recording session for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” a dark, jazzy (yes, jazzy) score that seemed to point to a new phase in his career that he didn’t get the chance to explore further.

    As for the break with Hitchcock: There were other issues beyond writing jazz. Hitchcock was insistent that a key scene in “Torn Curtain” should be done without the music that Herrmann wrote for it. He was right, as it turned out, but in the end Herrmann’s entire score was jettisoned (there’s more to the story than that, as I understand it), and that was the end of their relationship.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Maybe the Suite is a premiere recording, but the whole opera was recorded by Herrmann. I still have my copy of the Unicorn cds. Whether or not its a good opera or not I’ll leave to the experts, but I like it.

  • Christopher Stager says:

    I think he wrote “Citizen Kane”, THEN he wrote “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” As for first recordings, “Withering Heights” was first recorded in the 1970’s on Unicorn. The complete opera, conducted by the composer. The Venzago would be the first recording of the suite.

  • Sam's Hot Car Lot says:

    One correction: Herrmann died in Hollywood, not London.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Bernard Herrmann died in Los Angeles, where he had been working on “Taxi Driver” – and not the UK. He was a remarkable composer of film music and he and Korngold were the best, IMO. His score for “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is pure gold.

  • Donald Hansen says:

    As will probably be pointed out by others, this is not the premier recording. In 1966 Pye released on 4 LPs a recording conducted by Herrmann. It was later released on CD by Unicorn but is no longer available. I have both and have listened to this latest version, which is not quite as good but is still welcome. If you want Herrmann’s recording be prepared to pay a hefty price.

  • Zarathusa says:

    “Magnificent failures…”? For any lesser composer, these would be considered “phenomenal successes”! In any case, Bernie still laughed all the way to the bank!

  • Kevin Scott says:

    Bernard Herrmann has been, and always will be, one of the greatest composers this country has produced, and though I have yet to hear the Chandos recording of Wuthering Heights, I have always revered and admired this opera. Granted, it is different from Carlisle Floyd’s more taut setting, or possibly Frederic Chaslin’s version which I have yet to hear, but Herrmann went more for glacial atmospherics and endless lyricism a la Tristan by way of Delius, as well as some of the gutsier elements of Peter Grimes (which Herrmann admired) and, to a slightly lesser extent, Wozzeck, yet in spite of some of these influences, it is Herrmann’s individual voice that speaks loud and clear throughout his four-act opus.

    The premiere recording of this large-scale suite for singers and orchestra will no doubt introduce listeners who have never heard Herrmann’s complete recording of his magnum opus which has long been out-of-print, but what is needed is a new recording to properly bring this opera to its zenith. Herrmann’s own recording is very glacial in many passages, sometimes a bit too slow, and one can understand why several conductors have suggested cuts, among them Julius Rudel who wanted to premiere it with the New York City Opera (he wound up doing Floyd’s version instead) and Stefan Minde, who premiered the opera in Portland, Oregon and not only made a half-hour’s worth of cuts, but also altered the ending, but if a new conductor and cast could come along and not only perform, but record, this work intact and bring a fresh theatrical perspective to it, maybe it can properly convince folks that it is not what they perceive it to be.

    • Nathan Fletcher says:

      There is a 2011 live recording of the complete opera (or perhaps near-complete–not sure if there are cuts). Released under the French title, Les Hauts de Hurlevent, it features Laura Aikin, Boaz Daniel and the Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon conducted by Alain Altinoglu.

      • Kevin Scott says:

        I believe it is complete, Nathan, and I should have mentioned this recording as I have heard it. I have my reservations about it and will leave it at that, but it is quite good.

        Yet I do know some conductors who wish to tackle it either in the opera house, concert hall or in the recording studio, among them William Stromberg, John Kendall Bailey, Kevin Purcell and this poster who has lived with this score for nearly fifty years.

  • Charles Rhodes says:

    There is a complete recording of the opera with Morag Beaton, Pamela Bowden, Elizabeth Bainbridge, Donald Bell, John Kitchener, Joseph Ward, Michael Rippon, David Kelly et. al. conducted by Bernard Hermann himself.

  • David Boswell says:


  • Larry says:

    Quite rightly, Hermann’s magnificent score for Taxi Driver is getting mentions. What a parting gift, and legacy. This theme might be the first to sweep me off into loving great film music. Genius.

  • Bill Ecker says:

    I worked with a number of Herrmann manuscripts for several months years ago in an appraisal project. He had the repuation of being a bastard and not nice to kids, however, I found that not to be the case, his nieces loved their Uncle Bennie and they tell me he reciprocated. The singing voice of Tiny Tim in his “Christmas Carol”, retired baritone David Benesty reveres him and talks about his kindness to him to this day. David also went on to do several other projects with Herrmann. One thing most do not know is Herrmann was an extremely high strung person under project deadlines and bit his nails to the core. Due to this habit, his blood can be found streaked on many of his manuscripts. “Wuthering Heights” and his planned opera turned cantata “Moby Dick” written for The New York Philharmonic were two of his biggest disappointments. While “Moby Dick” did receive one performance under Barbirolli in 1940 and was praised, it was rarely performed afterwards, though there are 2 recordings. “Wuthering Heights” could never get a stage no matter how hard Herrmann tried in his lifetime. You see Herrmann, much like other composers who were pigeon holed in the film, television and radio genre really wanted to break free of the stereotype. However, his best known orchestral works were the suites he cobbled together from his great film music, or the “Psycho” screech. Sadly, film composers never get their due in the pantheon of 20th Century orchestral composers.

  • Big Bong says:

    A great composer and a very prescient man: he tried to get American record companies to sign up the Beatles. He was told that sort of s**t wouldn’t sell in the US…..LOL