Bernard Herrmann & Nino Rota

Nino Rota fotob herrmann foto

Bernard Herrmann, the dark side of innocence.

A sacred-secular interpretation of his music.

di Franco Piersanti

 International Conference proceedings

Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia Rome,

September 9/10 2011

edited by Roberto Giuliani and Sergio Miceli

Libreria Musicale Italiana


Ennio Morricone

Talking about a composer who is a colleague and friend is a little bit embarassing and exciting, to me. Telling what I think about Franco Piersanti is a practice of honesty and truth, with no concession to the profession and friendship that unite us.

A few years ago my wife and I had subscriptions to several theatre seasons.

The music I listened to did not impress me. But in some cases I was surprised by the quality and the strength of what I had listened to. Every time, Franco Piersanti surprisingly turned out to be the composer of that music.
When I personally met Franco I confessed him my thoughts. His talent has been confirmed in many movies: I have always had the impression that Piersanti escapes the obvious, always searching for his own, personal way, even under difficult circumstances, in the narrow streets a cinema composer has to travel. To me his dedication is focused on the careful and passionate research. Last year I was very interested as I listened to his Requiem marino that has confirmed, both to the audience and to me, the respect he has gained also for his absolute music.

I am glad I can repeat my impressions on this occasion, while introducing not Franco’s music but his report on Bernard Herrmann.

Franco Piersanti

Goodmoring. Basically I am twice as confused due to the words said by a person who is definitely a friend and who I feel priviledged to have as a friend, but still he is a great Maestro to me and to all musicians from my generation, even the following one, so this confuses me, therefore I would like to tell Ennio that as I have attended the Conservatory too, I used to hide down there, many of us used to do so, I used to hide when Franco Ferrara gave his direction lectures, we all used to hide, and in these rooms there was Rota too, due to his friendship with Ferrara and many other musicians from that time, basically during the happy ’60s and ’70s1. I do not want to talk about my acquaintance with Rota because, and this is not a betrayal, I have preferred to talk about Herrmann, choosing a title such as The dark side of innocence. A sacred-secular interpretation of his music.   

Bernard Herrmann, the dark side of innocence.

A sacred-secular interpretation of his music.

Franco Piersanti

I am doing my best to analyze feelings and future […] I try to look inside myself with honesty both as a man and as an artist, and I might be a failure in both cases […].

Now I know that I had many wrong ideas about myself and my work […]. I feel more and more that I have no real talent. Maybe mine is the echo of a talent and this is why I can commit myself to different music activities, but in the end it is always about far echoes, there is never a genuine voice […]. Maybe I am not a true composer, a true director, I will always stay at the margins of art […]. Most of the music I have written is not important, in the best case, and my direction, my interpretations, can hardly be considered […].

My feelings and desires are those belonging to a IX century composer […] totally unsynchronized with the present […]. I now understand that movies exhausted me, took all my strength, my energy. I do hope not to see Hollywood anymore until I am alive2.

This is what Herrmann wrote at 38 years old, between 1947 and 1948, to his wife Lucille Fletcher, from whom he was separating after almost 10 years of marriage. That was a difficult and dark part of his life, full of bitterness, «a Winters Journey»,3 as himself defines it again in a letter to his ex-wife, he felt very guilty about, both for making her life very difficult and for his not so easy character, as well as – let’s call it this way –  his betrayal with her cousin, Lucy Anderson, who he married a few years later.

This short paper is an extremely free overview about Herrmann. Now we know a lot about him and a lot has been written. Today I look at him with a composer view, a musician who, moreover, does his same work, writing movie scores.
I got to know Herrmann’s music between 1975 – 1976 watching Taxi driver and, impressed by the movie and by the music, I have rediscovered the many movies I had watched before without being aware he was the score composer. Since then I have started appreciating and understanding more and more his work in movie scores.

But let’s go back to his letters.

It is definitely striking to read such a bitter balance, considering his life events in those years. When Herrmann writes those words in 1948, he is only 38 years old, and seven years before, in 1941, he has started composing movie scores. The legendary “Citizen Kane” by Orson Welles is the first movie that introduces him to Hollywood, indeed in the same year he composes the score for The Devil and Daniel Webster4 by  William Dieterle and for this score he was awarded the only Oscar of his career. Then there are: The Magnificent Amberson, Jane Eyre, Hangover

Square, Anna and the king of Siam, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. One movie per year, all successful ones, already showing Herrmann’s whole poetics. 
It is therefore normal to wonder where all that insatisfaction came from. Why was he so pessimist?

Among the pictures belonging to his personal story and often published on essays, articles or books about him, some of them do draw my attention. On the first one, his father Abraham Herrmann (Dardick was his real surname) is portrayed on the treshold of his optometrist shop in New York. I am very impressed by shop signs and billboards, in general, that at the time used to represent a category, a profession. Outside and inside the shop window there is a single big open eye, a detailed iris and a fixed pupil. They looked like images taken from an Alfred Hitchcock’s movie (actually they were to be part of it, in those dreams illustrated by Dalì for Spellbound with Rózsa’s score). Those single, abnormal eyes, with a penetrating super gaze, show with their steadiness their own peculiarity. They inspect inside who observes them and are like a premonition (the picture dates back to 1915, Bernard Herrmann was 4 years old), not in relation to his legendary collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, but as a symbolic summary of the surprising ability the composer has to go deep into characters, to the very core of stories that are often just partially shown by the cinema. This characteristic allows Herrmann to ineluctably align music and drama, finding and enhancing the hidden potential of the movie, with remarkable outcomes in  emotional, psychological and musical terms.

Let’s go back to the pictures and the expression on Herrmann’s face.
In many photographs taken during recordings, with other people or alone, on journeys and above all when he is posing, he often has a strict, intense gaze, far away from his thoughts. A bitter, sometimes irritated expression. Sometimes he looks – in my opinion – unsatisfied, detached; deadly tired and shaggy if portrayed in the recording studio, with a smiling director, but far from looking satisfied for the work they have just finished… His irritability and his rough and surly character is proverbial, just like his constant clash with the surrounding world (the name Bernard comes from the German Bernhard = strong as a bear).

I always feel like there is always another Herrmann behind or inside him, a bit prisoner, mute and judging; more complex than the movie score composer we all appreciate, and I am enchanted by the path and the encounters he is destined to, leading him, segment after segment, from New York to Hollywood and finally to London.

He was devoted to orchestra direction and to composition at the same time, since he was very young, and considered himself – as he used to say – a composer loaned to the cinema. His interest and friendship with the already mature and not famous Charles Ives, his encounter and friendship with the eclectic George Antheil, his employment as director of the CBS orchestra, then the long season with Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air that, due to their friendship, eventually made him  compose the soundtrack for Citizen Kane and other movies.

Between 1929 and 1938, as he is not 30 years old yet, and before his cinema debut in 1941, Herrmann writes several chamber music compositions, symphonies and choral symphonies with an armonic universe and a sensitiveness that seem to belong to a European composer. In his lyrical and dramatic language, eventually condensed in a remarkable synthesis in his movie scores, Herrmann character is already well established. As he was a little boy he was encouraged by his father, then his interest towards poetry and eventually his radio experience, writing every week background music for the broadcasted texts, enhanced his inspiration that strongly follows figurative suggestions and poetical sparks: program music, basically, an anticipation of the work on the moving images, a very important one for his future creativity.

Let’s quickly browse through the catalogue of compositions dating back to that decade, remembering, among the others:

The Forest: A tone poem for large orchestra (symphonical poem), 1929;

The Dancing Faun and The Bells: Two Song for medium voice and small chamber orchestra, 1929;

Twilight, for violin and piano, 1929;

November Dusk, a tone poem for large orchestra (symphonical poem), 1929;

Tempest and Storm: Furies Shrieking!, 1929.

The titles choice already shows the suggestion of a landascape painter and reminds of Turner’s paints:

Aubade (31 July 1933); reviewed and eventually entitled Silent Noon, in Idyll, in 1975;

Prelude to “Anathema”, for 15 instruments, 1933;

Cynara, Melodram for narrator and orchestra, text by Ernest Dawson from his poem

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae (before July 1935);

Sinfonietta, for strings, 1935;

Currier and Ives Suite, 1935. The latter is a sort of Paints of an exhibition, but Herrmann’s themes are inspired by Nathaniel Currier and James Merrit Ives’ etchings and lithographies, which represent moments of people’s life. Currier and Ives Suite, in his Sketches, is not unrelated to Ravel influences (La Valse) and to a harshness reminding of Prokof ’ev or Elgar’s typical Victorian taste.
Moby Dick: Cantata for male chorus, soloists, and orchestra (February 1937 – August 1938).

This is, with the Sinfonietta for arches, Herrmann’s most significant work from that decade. Moby Dick dramaturgical feature is what strikes me: both its concept and the music are fulminating. Listening to this dark and massive Cantata you cannot avoid to remind the colour and the sound world Britten is to take on stage in 1945, with his masterpieces Peter Grimes or Billy Budd, from  Melville’s novel, in 1951. Herrmann’s vision and sensitiveness are typically Anglo-Saxon ones in the way he interprets the sea, Achab’s story and his crew as well as the tragedy floating around. Well, maybe in all these hunches, in these gothic architectures one could see a slight Jewish heritage filtered through Europe. And Moby Dick, with its dense byblical symbolism, the obsession and the conflict between Good and Evil, represents very well the whole underground poetics eventually developed by Herrmann in many movie scores. His contemplation is introspective, psychological, mainly inward-oriented. Not Copland or his beloved Ives, but not even Richard Strauss. I say this because in the days after breaking up his fellowship with Alfred Hitchcock, the dullness and superficiality of the brilliant director were more than clear when he shouted at him on the phone: “I don’t need Richard Strauss!”

Not a long time after – in 1941 – Herrmann started composing movie scores, with such a new and personal way to stick to the cinematographic language that he will eventually move further and further from that open unlimited space his music root needed, just to meet what the cinema industry demanded and demands.

His music production, besides cinema, is extremely limited between 1941 and 1975. The Symphony dates back to 1941, whereas the composition of the opera Wuthering Heights, from Emily Brontë’s book, is completed 10 years later, in 1951, and has never been performed when Herrmann was alive. In 1965, 14 years later, Herrmann goes back to “pure” music with the composition Echoes for string quartet. A single piece with different internal patterns.
In Herrmann’s beautiful and intense biography, Steven Smith writes that Echoes is a compound of all the composer’s well-established mechanisms, listing the movies all the theme mentions are taken from. 5 Hitchcok’s Marnie, with its main theme paving the way to the quartet, even if in a different way, is unexpectedly not mentioned by Smith. But this is not important. In Echoes Herrmann loses himself completely, looking sorrowful and defenseless as he rarely did in other compositions. The title itself, Echoes, seems to recall the words pronounced many years before: «Mine is the echo of a talent».6 There is much desolation, much nostalgia as usual, a great tenderness as he looks at the past time, with the look of a person who is aware that something precious has gone forever.

The “pure” composition proceeds with more and more difficulty among more or less remarkable

movies titles. This is what, alongside the substance of his works, makes me consider Herrmann as the first composer who, maybe, lives the conflict between absolute music and applied music that many other musicians, after him and until nowadays, have been confronted with.

Going back to Echoes, this music really moves me, maybe also due to that strong Ravelian characteristic fully revealing how much the need to directly communicate was important to Herrmann. His music and emotional universe – I mean the “pure” music – is totally addressed to the past, whereas on the contrary with the music he conceives for the movies he is always incredibly experimenter and innovator. A brilliant musician and poet.

He has a natural aptitude, a preference for gothic, spirituality, alternation of bright and dark, an irresistible emphatic way to tell us about Life and Death, as well as constant, genuine and non-rhetorical achievements that catch listeners-watchers, as he faces the conflict between Good and Evil. Let’s think about movies such as Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster, On Dangerous

Ground, Vertigo, Cape Fear, Psycho, Marnie, La mariée était in noir, Sisters, Obsession and the last, great one, Taxi Driver.

As far as Psycho is concerned, just think about how Herrmann succeeds in enhancing those images. Consider how the sordid story of  two common lovers becomes tragic and inestricable as it meets the worst disease. A great Hitchcock and a greatest Herrmann. In this case the real intuition, in my opinion, is not the well-established “black-and-white strings” (as Herrmann himself used to say), but rather the adopted tone system, with its irrationality, and the pathology, the disease inside the movie. And it’s that armonic universe, so ill, that infiltrates the movie and the story until it fully permeates them, and not vice versa. And that tone system comes from the 1938 Sinfonietta for strings.

The alienated taxi driver Travis – with his isolated mind adventures, from Taxi Driver, is the counterpart of Norman in Psycho. Just remember the totem effect of the brass section when they violently crash onto those extremely elementary seventh and ninth minor chords ending in a C major.

In the first scene of the II Act of The Turn of a Screw by Benjamin Britten, from the beautiful novel by Henry James, the evil Quint and his lover Miss Jessel end their delusional and livid soliloquies and conversations with a sort of anathema-condemnation to the two children, Miles and Flora, their unaware victims. «The ceremony of innocence is drawned». This terrible and beautiful verse has been inserted by Britten taking it from a likewise beautiful and terrible poem by William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

These verses and the scene they belong to have always irrationally reminded me of Herrmann. I have always associated them with him due to his extraordinary, insightful ability to interpret what lies in the human nature and the struggle between light and shadow.

Ennio Morricone

Well, I would like to thank Franco for all the things he has discovered and explained about Herrmann. One of the things that has impressed me the most is the problem he has, I have and that all the dedicated movie composers have: throwing personal experiences and love into the cinematographic creativity, entering the narrow streets left by the director. I really enjoyed listening to this part.

I also have really appreciated the inner inspections you have made about Herrmann, this is very remarkable to me, because I know how hard it could be, sometimes, being understood by the director. This has happened to me many times, I knew I was composing a very difficult piece, even if sticking to the director’s instructions and requests it was very difficult to write a piece in my rage, fitting the movie. Well, sometimes, when I have dared much, I have written a score that I liked, but I  have immediately written the second version. When the director has listened to the first version he has asked if it was possible to make corrections. And I have immediately understood, removed the first version and played the second one, which worked from the beginning. This is the problem: several times I have taken the risk that my compositions were not meeting the director’s demands, maybe it has happened to you too. It is necessary to get into the director’s idea, keeping a personal aesthetic and moral, respecting one’s profession, always, as well as keeping some presumption and the will to do something in one’s range which does not belong exclusively to the movie.