The screeching string music from the shower scene in Psycho is likely one of the most recognizable (and parodied) bits of music for film. Even without that huge hit, Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) would still be one of the top film composers of all time.
This month, Pittsburgh Filmmakers is showing four Alfred Hitchcock films with Bernard Herrmann soundtracks: The Trouble With Harry, Vertigo, The Birds, and Psycho. Kudos to Filmmakers for drawing attention to how Herrmann’s scores are an essential part of the mood of Hitchcock’s films.
And I know I keep mentioning the use of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in films (Excalibur and Step Brothers), but it’s also relevant here. In Vertigo, Herrmann composed a Scène d’amour whose resemblance to the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde is exceedingly clever. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was significant in music history because of its tense, vague tonality that climactically resolves in the transcendental “love-death” of Isolde. Herrmann’s vertiginous, tension-building music pulls the same trick, resolving into sweeping romantic bliss when [SPOILER ALERT!!] Scottie Ferguson watches red-haired Judy Barton transform back into blonde Madeleine Elster. I urge you to listen to the Scene d’Amour music side-by-side with Wagner’s Prelude & Liebestod to hear Herrmann’s effective homage. For a more elaborate elucidation of the Vertigo soundtrack, read New York Times music writer Alex Ross’s 1996 article or check out the library’s Vertigo film score handbook.
Finally, to make explicit that Herrmann and Hitchcock both knew the great significance of music and emotion in Vertigo: when Ferguson is institutionalized, his doctor and friend both recommend the therapeutic effects of Mozart. Mozart, of course, is tonally grounded without the provocative, musical uncertainty of Wagner and Herrmann.
What is absolutely certain is Bernard Herrmann’s talent as a composer, whether you’re in the movie theater, concert hall, or the library’s compact disc collection.