More Than Hitchcock’s Handmaiden

There’s more to Bernard Herrmann’s career than his celebrated scores for Hitchcock films.

Bernard Herrmann rehearsing a radio drama in 1941.
Bernard Herrmann rehearsing a radio drama in 1941. PHOTO: CBS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Washington

In many ways, it’s remarkable that the composer Bernard Herrmann, who died at age 64 in 1975, is as well known as he is. His scores to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) and “Psycho” (1960) remain inseparable from those seminal pictures. Yet a significant number of Herrmann aficionados feel such recognition is insufficient, that much of this composer’s music is not just neglected but sorely underappreciated. And a good many of them gathered here recently, at Georgetown University and the National Gallery of Art, to make their case in a series of programs that examined not just Herrmann’s well-established achievements (like his nine-film collaboration with Hitchcock), but also the radio dramas he scored during his 16-year association with the CBS Symphony Orchestra and the still largely ignored music he wrote for the concert hall.

Joseph Horowitz—an author, music educator and impresario—was the moving force behind this gathering, which convened from April 15 through 17 under the banner “Bernard Herrmann: Screen, Stage, and Radio.” The conference began at Georgetown with a live re-creation of the last of 22 radio programs Herrmann scored for Norman Corwin, who became a lifelong friend of the prickly composer. Corwin is little remembered today (despite an Oscar-winning documentary short about him released in 2005), but in the 1930s and ’40s he was a probing and respected writer and producer of programs for the then-dominant medium of radio. The drama, “Untitled” (1944), used student actors and musicians to impressive effect, amplifying the earnestness of the material, in which an unnamed solider is recalled by those who knew him, from his small-town birth to his battlefield death. Herrmann’s music—spare, ardent, edgy and elegiac—complemented Corwin’s plain-spoken but stirring prose. Portions of the score without text were repeated on the evening’s program, which also included lectures by Herrmann scholars on his film work and relationship with the forward-looking CBS Symphony.

Dorothy Herrmann, one of the composer’s daughters, spoke in between, injecting robust humor into her unvarnished reminiscences of life with father. She mentioned that he initially loathed “Psycho,” “until it became a cult classic. Then, he couldn’t say enough good things about it.” She also discussed his one opera, “Wuthering Heights,” a passion project that went unstaged in his lifetime and was recorded only at his own expense. (Its belated premiere came in 1982, in Portland, Ore.; its most recent U.S. revival was in 2011, in Minneapolis.)

The following day brought what turned out to be the gathering’s highlight, another live re-creation of a Corwin-Herrmann radio drama, this one titled “Whitman” (1944), reconstructed by Christopher Husted. The live music was provided by PostClassical Ensemble, a local group conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez and run by Mr. Horowitz. The original broadcast, in which Corwin repurposed portions of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as anti-Axis propaganda, featured Charles Laughton as the poet, but a winning young actor, Sean Craig, brought fresh ardor to the words, backed by a score for strings, piano, harp and percussion that effectively combined nostalgic American tropes with lilting Impressionist motifs and tumescent motoric cells.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Sunday-afternoon performances of Herrmann’s “Souvenirs de Voyage,” “Sinfonietta for Strings” and “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra” in the National Gallery’s sumptuous West Garden Court concluded the festivities on a purely musical note. The first piece, a clarinet quintet, is a charming work in the manner of Debussy and Ravel, albeit with more than a hint of Herrmann’s moody “Vertigo” score, but its 1967 composition date markedly distances it from contemporary works. Conversely, the 1935 “Sinfonietta” is very much in step with, if not somewhat ahead of, that era’s cutting-edge. And for all the attempts to distance Herrmann’s “Psycho” music from its inspiration, it’s next to impossible for anyone who knows the movie to suppress its images on hearing the violins’ stabbing attacks.

Some Herrmann partisans blanch at the thought that his fame rests on the film music alone—a sentiment that the notoriously restless composer himself shared. But why? His efforts were essential to these pictures’ success. What may be needed is a reminder that Herrmann produced great scores not just for Hitchcock, but also for other gifted directors. The movies—whether William Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), Joseph Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), Nicholas Ray’s “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) or Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976)—are out there. People just need to see and hear them.

Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on classical music and film.