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Composer Bernard Herrmann Showcases His Range On 'PostClassical Ensemble'

Herrmann composed some of the best-known film music ever written — especially the scores he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock. Now a new CD shows another side of Herrmann that's equally memorable.


Other segments from the episode on May 4, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Tuesday, May 4, 2021: Interview with Suzanne Simard; Review of Bernard Herrmann.



This is FRESH AIR. Bernard Herrmann composed some of the best and best-known film music ever written, especially the scores he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock. But classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says a new CD shows another side of Herrmann that's equally memorable. Here's Lloyd's review.


LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: If you're a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, you'll recognize that music instantly. It's the theme you first hear under the titles of "Psycho" and later, while Janet Leigh is making her getaway in the driving rain, just about to spend her first and last night at the Bates Motel - music that makes you uneasy, suspenseful, riveting, even beautiful.


SCHWARTZ: The music you've been hearing is actually not from the soundtrack of "Psycho." It's from a CD by the PostClassical Ensemble of music that Bernard Herrmann either never intended for a film or that he adapted from a film score for concert performances. So that clip is, in fact, from a piece Herrmann called "Psycho: A Narrative For String Orchestra," a concert work composed in 1968 - eight years after the movie - discovered and reconstructed by the conductor John Mauceri from Herrmann's own notes and a demo the composer made for himself. Herrmann's original soundtrack for "Psycho" was already quite novel - all strings; even that shrieking metallic slashing in the shower scene, just strings.


SCHWARTZ: After "Psycho" was released, Herrmann cobbled together what he called a "Psycho Suite," a collection of the film's main themes. But for this later piece, he changed countless musical details and reordered the themes. It doesn't strictly follow the film's storyline, but it's a more powerful, cohesive and independent concert work that still captures the film's dark and nerve-wracking undercurrents.

Herrmann got five Academy Award nominations, including one for his very first film score, "Citizen Kane." But not one of his unforgettable scores for Hitchcock was even nominated. He won his only Oscar for the witty Americana he invented for a 1941 film called "The Devil And Daniel Webster." Hitchcock's personal favorite was the charming score he wrote for their first collaboration, the mystery comedy "The Trouble With Harry."

My own favorite Herrmann film score is his intense, almost Wagnerian music for Hitchcock's "Vertigo," which intensifies the tragedy of one of the screen's great tragic films. This CD includes Herrmann's "Souvenir De Voyage," a voluptuous, melancholy, three-movement clarinet quintet from 1967 which recaptures the haunting quality of the music in "Vertigo." The expressive clarinetist is David Jones.


SCHWARTZ: In some ways, the most fascinating addition to the Bernard Herrmann repertoire is the first recording of a piece he wrote for the radio in 1944 called "Whitman." The technical term is melodrama, a work in which music accompanies a spoken text. With its spoken recitations from Walt Whitman's epic "Leaves Of Grass," Whitman is an affirmation of the American spirit during a war whose outcome was not yet certain. Charles Laughton was the original star. Herrmann composed a lot for the radio, most famously with Orson Welles, but Whitman was one of 39 works he did with another of radio's most innovative producers, Norman Corwin.

I love Herrmann's score with harp, piano, percussion and strings, evoking both the natural landscape and passionate patriotism, though I'm sorry to say that, for me, the spoken performance sounds more like a concert singer declaiming verse than how I imagined the earthy Whitman reciting his own poems. Still, Bernard Herrmann's music for the radio, virtually unknown, clearly deserves further exploration. And the variety of music on this CD - colorful, romantic, witty, patriotic, nerve-wracking - shows how much Bernard Herrmann's concert and radio music equaled the astonishing range of his work for film.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy professor of English emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. He reviewed the PostClassical Ensemble playing radio and concert music by composer Bernard Herrmann on a Naxos American Classics CD.

On tomorrow's show, Alison Bechdel talks about her new graphic memoir, "The Secret To Superhuman Strength," about her obsession with exercise and the issues that have fed that obsession. Her graphic memoir, "Fun Home," about coming out and learning her father had secret gay affairs was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


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