‘No visuals needed,” says New Jersey Capital Philharmonic music director and conductor Daniel Spalding about the orchestra’s “Cinematic Classics,” Saturday, May 14, at 7:30 p.m., at the War Memorial in Trenton. “All of these mid-century film scores just strike me as masterpieces,” he says of the sounds that gave films movement and mood.
More heard than seen, the composers will score name recognition in the event that includes Miklos Roza’s “Entry of the Nobles” from the epic “El Cid” (1961); British composer William Walton’s suite from Laurence Olivier’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry the V” (1944); and Warner Brothers film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, utilizing themes used in the movies “Anthony Adverse” (1936), “Another Dawn” (1937), and “Juarez” (1939). The work will be performed by guest violinist Odin Rathnam.
While Spalding calls the Korngold work “my favorite concerto of all time,” he is also enthusiastic about another composer on the program: Bernard Herrmann.
Spalding says Herrmann’s music “Just blew me away” when — like me — he experienced the composer’s powerful his scores during Saturday matinees in the 1950s and ’60s.
And while Herrmann’s name gets little fanfare, if his music seems familiar it’s because he created some of the most famous sounds to come from a radio, television, or motion picture.
That includes the score for celebrated film “Citizen Kane,” the knife-slashing shrills for the infamous film “Psycho,” and sound of the Twilight Zone television show — and while Herrmann didn’t create the famous theme song for the latter (that was a blend of two passages by Romanian composer Mauris Constant), he created the haunting and lonely music of an internal space of uncertainty and unease.
He also composed the score for the British Film Institute’s number one film of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” That music will be played in a suite format by the NJCP.
He was “temperamental, mercurial, and very talented,” said Robert Wise, editor of “Citizen Kane” and director of the Herrmann-scored 1951 science fiction classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
“He was a great reader of all kinds of books — psychology, philosophy, and he was a very educated man. I think he had more than most composers a sense of the film, the characters, the story, the plot. He was able, through his great appreciation, to contribute more. To tie in to the story and the characters more closely,” said Wise.
It was that combination of musical artistry and feeling for literature and drama that drew directors to him. In addition to Welles, Hitchcock, and Wise, famed directors Francois Truffaut, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese sought out Herrmann’s talent.
However, major filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and William Friedkin — who wanted him to create the score for “The Exorcist” — were dismissed by the outspoken composer. Too much interference, he claimed.
Herrmann was a product of a golden age of emerging American art. He was born in New York City in 1911, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant optometrist who introduced his two sons to the arts: taking them to concerts and operas and giving them musical instruments. The future composer trained on the violin.
Herrmann’s reading tastes included classics of English literature as well as the then-current edgier works of D.H. Lawrence and Eugene O’Neill. He also liked American artist James McNeill Whistler’s series of essays, “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies,” and created a “tell it like it is!” persona before the current crop of presidential candidates.
His reading of works on music, however, tamed the savage within, with accounts noting that when Herrmann was 13 he discovered French composer Hector Berlioz’s “Treatise on Orchestration” and found his calling. It didn’t hurt, as Herrmann biographer Steven Smith notes, that “Berlioz was in many ways his 19th century counterpart — explosive, intuitive, musically and personally adventurous.”
Adventurous certainly sums up his musical tastes, with Herrmann embracing the works of the groundbreaking maverick American composer Charles Ives (who combined modern European concert music with sounds from New England churches and circuses, creating the “Concord Sonata” and “The Circus Band”), and circulating in New York musical circles. He audited classes at New York University and Juilliard and became friends with soon-to-be influential composers Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, George Gershwin, and others. He also studied with recognized British composer Percy Grainger.
The early 1930s saw Herrmann conducting his work and others with New Chamber Orchestra and taking a job as the assistant music director at CBS Radio, which began in 1928. His talents led him first to become the music director for a new weekly drama series, “the Mercury Theater on the Air,” directed by the young and ambitious Orson Welles. If Herrmann did nothing after that, he would be remembered for creating the music for the infamous 1938 Halloween Eve broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” the show that unexpectedly created a national panic and demonstrated the power of the new medium.
Welles appreciated Herrmann’s collaborative artistry and invited him to Hollywood to compose the music for the celebrated “Citizen Kane.” The break put Herrmann in the center of the entertainment world and opened the artistic floodgates. He created concert works, including “Moby Dick” (1938) and “Symphony” (1941), returned to the CBS Symphony, and composed scores for a list of notable films: Welles’ “Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), “Jane Eyre” (1943), “Anna and the King of Siam” (1946),” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), “The Snows of Kilimangaro” (1952), “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1959), and the celebrated series of films with special effects artist Ray Harryhausen: “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), “The Three Worlds of Gulliver” (1960), “Mysterious Island” (1961), and “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963).
Again, if Herrmann did little else, his part in American culture was already secure. Yet his work with Hitchcock gives him a legendary or master’s status, and includes scores for several of the most famous films in history, including “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho (1960), and “The Birds”(1963), for which Herrmann helped create an electronic soundtrack.
The start of what one film scholar called “the most significant composer-director collaboration in film” came when the composer working on Hitchcock’s 1955 “To Catch a Thief” heard the director describe the mood of his next film, the offbeat comedy “The Trouble with Harry,” and recommended Herrmann.
“Herrmann knew exactly what Hitchcock was trying to achieve, not just on a basic plot level,” says Smith. “He didn’t just decorate the film with his music the way I think some composers did, and I think that’s why Hitchcock immediately realized that he had found the collaborator that he wanted to continue working with.”
Much of this has to do with Herrmann’s aesthetics, developed first in the concert hall and then on the radio. “Cinema music is the cinema,” he said in a 1975 interview. “(The score) is part of making the picture, not something that’s put in later.”
He adds later, “The camera can only do so much; the actors and the direction can only do so much. But the music can tell you what people are thinking and feeling — that is the real function of music.”
He adds that Hitchcock was sensitive to the roll of the composer. “He’d sometimes say, ‘I’m shooting this scene tomorrow, can you come down to the set?’ And he’ll ask, ‘Are you planning to have music here?’ If I say I think we should, he might say, ‘Good, then I’ll make it longer. Because, if you weren’t, then I would have to contract the scene.’
“‘Vertigo’ is the famous instance. The whole recognition scene” — where the central male character transforms a woman to resemble a fantasy — “is eight minutes of cinema without dialogue or sound effects, just music and film. He simply said to me, ‘Music will do better than words there.’”
Film critic Roger Ebert called the scene one of the most erotic in film history.
Another famous instance of artistic collaboration and trust was in the creation of the music for the shower stabbing in “Psycho.”
Herrmann says that during the film’s post production Hitchcock felt the film wasn’t working. “He wanted to cut it down to an hour television show and get rid of it. I had an idea of what one could do with the film, so I said, ‘Why don’t you go away for your Christmas holidays, and when you come back we’ll record the score and see what you think.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘do what you like, but only one thing I ask of you: please write nothing for the murder in the shower. That must be without music.’”
Herrmann ignored the advice and wrote what is one of the most famous sounds in film history. Hitchcock responded by keeping the music, raising Herrmann’s salary, and publicly noting “33 percent of the effect of ‘Psycho’ was due to the music.”
While the collaboration between the visual Hitchcock and the aural Herrmann ended abruptly over artistic differences in 1966, they created a body of work that endures.
“I chose ‘Vertigo’ for this program mainly for the love music — which is incredibly beautiful, sensuous, and dramatic,” says Spalding. “I think it is masterful. The prelude to (Hitchcock’s 1956 film) ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is very short, but it packs a punch that is almost overwhelming. Herrmann had a knack for making a huge statement in a very short time. His music simply grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.”
New Jersey Capital Philharmonic, Cinematic Classics, War Memorial Patriots Theater, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton. Saturday, May 14, 7:30 p.m. $30 to $65. 215-893-1999 or www.capitalphilharmonic.org.