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Bernard Herrmann: The composer behind best-loved films

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service

image captionBernard Herrmann died in 1975

The new critics poll from the British Film Institute has declared Hitchcock's Vertigo the best film ever, dislodging Orson Welles' Citizen Kane after half a century. Film fans may argue about their relative merits but enthusiasts for the music of Bernard Herrmann may not care much either way: he wrote the scores for both.

People sometimes wonder how to say Bernard Herrmann's first name. Did the composer, American but anglophile, prefer the US or the British pronunciation?

His widow Norma, who's from Sheffield, says the answer is simple: almost everyone called him Benny.

"We got married in 1967 when I was 27 and we had eight brilliant, wonderful years together before he died. And he was always Benny."

When she met the charming and dynamic composer in London, almost 30 years her senior, Herrmann had already written most of the music for which he is admired.

Citizen Kane had made his name in 1941, when he was 30, and he had later contributed hugely to the success of Alfred Hitchcock films such as Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

Even an otherwise ordinary film such as The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) was made memorable by his music. Many believe him the best of all film composers, as adept at the yearningly romantic as he was at the outright terror of Psycho.

Norma Herrmann says her husband would have been delighted at all the publicity Vertigo is now getting.

Passion and improbability

"Probably it was his favourite score. Although he's often remembered for the chilling, frightening stuff Benny was really a huge romantic. He loved Vertigo in a big way: it gave him a chance to do his big romantic bit."

Vertigo has a plot of almost operatic passion and improbability: the James Stewart character creates his perfect woman to replace someone he thinks he has lost.

Norma Herrmann said the storyline appealed to her husband: "He loved beautiful women. He loved them as a work of art in the way he'd love a great painting or a poem."

"Benny always said it didn't matter what was on the screen - his music would tell you what you were thinking deep down. And that's absolutely the case with Vertigo.

image captionJimmy Stewart and Kim Novak starred in Vertigo

Benny Herrmann was never a shrinking violet. Norma recalls that people sometimes found her husband impatient and even arrogant.

"Benny had an absolute belief in his own talent. He worked very hard to ensure he had done his best for a particular film - he wouldn't rest until everything was right. His judgement was spot-on and he knew it. If some people thought that arrogance, so be it."

Professor Richard Allen at New York University is a leading writer on Hitchcock's movies. He agrees Vertigo may have been the perfect vehicle for Herrmann's talents.

"When you listen to his earlier scores - both for Hitchcock and earlier such as Kane - you realise his Wagnerian impulses had been around for a while. Certainly he delighted in the vast passions of an opera like Tristan and Isolde.

"Vertigo let him explore those emotions as never before. It was a perfect collaboration of two great artists at their peak."

In all Bernard Herrmann wrote scores for eight Hitchcock films, starting with The Trouble with Harry in 1955. But a decade later the final score, for Torn Curtain, was dumped by Hitchcock and another composer brought in.

Hitchcock and Herrmann never made another film together. Of Herrmann's later work perhaps only his score for Taxi Driver (1975) is as admired as his scores for Hitchcock.

Norma Herrmann says her husband spoke to her of the terrible arguments he and Alfred Hitchcock had had, caused in part by the studio wanting music more suited to modern pop tastes.

'Terrible twins'

"In the Vertigo and Psycho years they worked together beautifully. But what happened later was a damned fierce row and it was dreadful. It was the break-up of a long-standing relationship and it caused great pain."

Benny Herrman died in 1975. In the last decade especially there's been a resurgence in interest in his prolific output. As the person in charge of his estate Norma Herrmann has encouraged that process.

"It's astonishing that it's more than 70 years since he wrote the music for Citizen Kane. He and Orson Welles were the terrible twins of RKO and they made a wonderful film together."

Norma says her late husband would not be surprised to find that the film which has now taken Kane's title as Best Film Ever contains another of his scores.

"You can't say which of those two scores is better. He didn't rate his music from 1-to-10. For Benny everything had to be best."

More on this story

  • Vertigo is named 'greatest film of all time'