Herrmann: Vertigo

Composing for Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s refined musical sensibility was part of his cinematic genius. His sense of what music could do for a film, and his instinct for choosing the right people to create it, gave birth to scores that played integral roles in his movies.

No composer is more closely identified with Hitchcock than Bernard Herrmann (1911-75). Their partnership lasted from 1955 until 1966, and along with Psycho it included The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest, Vertigo, The Birds (a film that included no music, but on which Herrmann served as “sound consultant”), and Marnie. (Herrmann’s score for Torn Curtain fell victim to the disagreement that ended his collaboration with Hitchcock and was never used.)

Just as Hitchcock understood music and its function on the soundtrack, Herrmann understood film. “With very few exceptions,” he said in an interview, “a film cannot come to life without the help of music of some kind.” And again: “A film is only made of segments of film that are put together. . . . It is the function of music to cement these pieces into one design [so] that the audience feels that their sequence is inevitable.” Among the directors (other than Hitchcock) who took advantage of Herrmann’s talent were Orson Welles, for whom he wrote his first film score (for Citizen Kane), François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black), and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver). (Those interested are urged to hear Herrmann’s own favorite among his scores—and to see the film it accompanies, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.)

Bernard Herrmann was Manhattan-born, bred, and educated. Early on, he championed the music of Charles Ives, and just as Ives’s work is American to its core, Herrmann’s film music, as Alex Ross has pointed out, is uniquely lean, unmistakably stateside, very different from the lush textures that a cadre of Viennese-trained composers created during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Herrmann longed to be taken seriously by the music establishment. Besides his film work, he wrote a cantata on Moby Dick, a symphony, and an opera, Wuthering Heights. Thoroughly American as he was, he also loved England and all things English, especially the music of Edward Elgar, whose Falstaff was among his favorite concert works.

Vertigo: Of Romance and Obsession
When Vertigo was released in 1958, the reception was lukewarm. Perhaps the movie needs time to make its effect. Vertigo sinks into a viewer’s consciousness and creates a kind of obsession—not as relentless as that which torments its protagonist, but persistent all the same. The film’s fans become Vertigo addicts, glossing over its occasional bursts of overacting and improbable dialogue, captivated by this dark tale of a man bent on retrieving the past, captivated also by the ghostly beauty of the film’s setting, in a San Francisco that looks so different from the one we know, and yet so like it.

Vertigo was Bernard Herrmann’s own favorite among the scores he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann’s partnership with Hitch ended badly, partly the result of the studio pressing the director for films more marketable to a younger audience, partly because of Hitchcock’s desperation to keep pace with the times, partly due to Herrmann’s irascibility (composer David Raksin, a great admirer, described him as “a virtuoso of unspecific anger”). What seems apparent in retrospect is that the relationship had run its course. But Hitchcock’s work throughout that collaboration had assumed a new dimension, for Herrmann’s music contributed what film scholar Royal S. Brown calls an “affective depth.”

Vertigo is drenched in Herrmann’s most haunting music. For listeners unfamiliar with the film and its plot, here is a brief account.

Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), a San Francisco detective, retires from the police force after suffering an attack of vertigo during a rooftop chase in which he is unable to keep a colleague from falling to his death. Scottie’s friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires him to shadow Elster’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeleine is convinced she is the reincarnation of Carlotta Valdez, a tragic figure from the days of old California who succumbed to madness and took her own life. Scottie falls in love with Madeleine and is devastated when she leaps to her death from the bell tower at Mission San Juan Bautista, his vertigo having rendered him incapable of pursuing her up the stairs and holding her back.

When Scottie meets Judy Barton, he thinks he may have found a way to distract himself from thoughts of Madeleine. Soon he perceives a strange resemblance between Judy and his dead love. Obsessed with Madeleine, he insists that Judy dress as Madeleine dressed, dye her hair the color of Madeleine’s, wear it in Madeleine’s style.

Judy is tortured by guilt. For she is Madeleine—or the woman who posed as Gavin Elster’s wife, whom Elster had killed and whose body Scottie had seen falling from the bell tower, a presumed suicide. One evening Judy makes a mistake that demolishes her cover. Scottie pieces the plot together, forces Judy/Madeleine to drive with him down the coast, and, at San Juan Bautista, drags her with him up the bell tower stairs, struggling with his fear of heights and at last reaching the top. It is night, and when a nun steps from the shadows, Madeleine sees only a dark figure. Terrified, she follows her instinct and runs—out from the bell platform and into the air, plunging to her death. Now Scottie has experienced what one of his doctors had prescribed: a trauma great enough to shock him out of his vertigo. Having reclaimed his life from the tortures of his psyche, he can look down at all he has lost.

Herrmann assembled a Vertigo concert suite from his score, and rather than roll through a frame-by-frame commentary on how music and film fit together, consider the three musical episodes in the suite, encompassing the score’s main themes.

Prelude. Saul Bass’s main title credits present us with a series of spherical figures that spiral slowly and relentlessly, one morphing into another against a background of shifting colors, lurid and quietly insistent. For this series of visuals, Herrmann creates a musical equivalent. A repeating figure in the strings, colored with chimes and celesta, circles round and round, punctuated by outbursts of brass. As this material broadens in tempo it assumes a romantically dreamy quality. The atmosphere is foreboding and complex.

The Nightmare. Madeleine has jumped to her death from the bell tower. Scottie’s sleep is haunted by distorted memories. We see the cemetery at Mission Dolores, the painting of Carlotta Valdez, then a zoom-in to Carlotta’s bouquet, which comes to life as the flowers assume grotesque shapes and begin to swirl in a motion that draws Scottie in, casting him down a long shaft. A lunging string figure gives way to a Latin rhythm, complete with tambourine and castanets, hammered out against rising strings and menacing trombones, cries that lead nowhere. High-pitched winds and brass scream a terrified dissonance as Scottie sees himself falling. He wakes to a grinding note held in the low strings, the same one we heard as we saw Madeleine’s lifeless body atop the tiled roof of the old church.

Scène d’amour. Scottie has spared no expense on Judy’s makeover, essentially turning her into Madeleine. He shops with her for the gray suit that was Madeleine’s favorite, and for shoes like the shoes Madeleine wore. He takes her to a salon to bleach her dark hair Madeleine-blonde. Back at Judy’s apartment, Scottie sees the woman he lost, standing before him now in a ghostly haze. They embrace, and we follow their kiss, starting over her shoulder and then circling them as high strings outline a figure, lovesick and yearning for completion. (“We’ll just have the camera and you,” Hitchcock told Herrmann when he outlined this scene for the composer.) Herrmann’s music could almost be mistaken for a lift from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (in fact, as Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith points out, the novel on which Vertigo was based, D’Entre les Morts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, is an updated version of the Tristan myth). From a spare opening the music is fleshed out into a full-blooded cascade, the minor mode ever more frantic in its search for resolution until, at last, Herrmann allows it to discover the way into a major chord, transforming the atmosphere in a great sigh of culmination.

—Larry Rothe

Larry Rothe, former editor of the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and at sfsymphony.org/store.

Sources, and Further Reading
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, by Patrick McGilligan (ReganBooks, 2003)  │  Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello (Dembner Books, 1990)  │  A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, by Steven C. Smith (University of California Press, 1991)  │  It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography, by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, 2005)  │  The Moment of Psycho, by David Thomson (Basic Books, 2009)│Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, by Dan Auiler (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

Bernard Herrmann conducts his music from The Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers (Polygram). Probably easier to find is a compilation of Herrmann’s film music recorded by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony).