About this Recording
8.559883 - HERRMANN, B.: Whitman (reconstructed by C. Husted, 2019) (Sharp, Horwitz, Nicely, PostClassical Ensemble, Gil-Ordóñez)
English 

Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975)
Whitman • Souvenirs de voyage • Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra

 

Why Bernard Herrmann?

With the waning of modernism, and of the high value once placed on complexity and originality, the topography of 20th-century music is rapidly changing. One of the chief American beneficiaries is certain to be Bernard Herrmann.

Everyone appreciates Herrmann for his singular achievements as a film composer. Without him, there would be no Psycho, North by Northwest, or Vertigo, and Citizen Kane would be a far lesser film. But Herrmann also produced a substantial catalog of concert works in the same style. He was as well a great figure in the forgotten history of radio. Though he clung to tonality, he created a palette of mood and sonority that is instantly recognizable and wholly his own. Defining himself in opposition to contemporary tastemakers, he once wrote: “Musically I count myself an individualist. I believe that only music which springs out of genuine personal emotion is alive and important. I hate all cults, fads, and circles.”

Bernard Herrmann was born in New York in 1911 and died in Los Angeles in 1975. He joined CBS as a radio conductor, arranger, and composer in 1933 and there promoted a remarkable variety of important music; his studio guests included Bartók and Stravinsky. As an innovative composer for radio, he was the most important musical collaborator with Orson Welles and—the most honored practitioner of American radio drama—Norman Corwin. In Hollywood, Herrmann was especially linked with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann’s movie scores—51 in all, of which The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), with its daring “Liebestod”, was his personal favorite—are among the most honored ever created. But Herrmann sought wider recognition as a conductor and concert composer.

Of the three Herrmann concert works here recorded, the Psycho symphonic narrative is not the Psycho Suite more commonly performed. That is: it is not a compendium of excerpts from Hitchcock’s 1960 film, but a concert work composed by Herrmann in 1968 in which excerpts from the film score are re-ordered and recomposed The conductor John Mauceri, who is responsible for rescuing this score from oblivion, writes: “It is not a suite, nor is it a sequence of short cues to accompany film clips; it is intended to free the music from the visual elements of the film. In this sense it is not unlike Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata and Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica—musical material from a film score had been adapted into a concert work.”

In Vertigo (1958)—arguably Herrmann’s highest achievement with Hitchcock—the musical pièce de résistance is a seven-minute Scène d’amour. “[When] we go into the love scene we should let all traffic noises fade because Mr. Herrmann may have something to say here,” reads a Hitchcock production note. Mr. Herrmann’s something, with its shuddering tremolos and tender fournote melodic turn, secures his stature as a major American composer as potently as anything could. Kindred to this cinematic love scene is the music that may be Herrmann’s supreme achievement for the concert hall—the 1967 clarinet quintet Souvenirs de voyage. It is a stubbornly inward work, suffused with nostalgia and melancholy. I cannot think of a more seductive, more finished chamber work by an American.

The long first movement is to my ears a formidable compositional achievement by any standard. It also furnishes an irresistible vehicle for the ranginess and seamless legato of the clarinet. The liquid ebb and flow of sound, the lapping waves of song, the interpolated valse triste acquire a barely perceptible cumulative momentum, an intensification of multiplying eddies and ripples. When the movement’s hypnotic Molto tranquillo beginning returns at the close, we feel we have journeyed somewhere even if that makes no ultimate difference in a world of sadness and remembrance.

The quintet’s second movement is a rocking Berceuse whose disturbing existential undertow is of course a Herrmann signature. The final Canto amoroso begins with the violins singing a love duet in thirds. Soon the thirds accelerate as romantic zephyrs. A Venetian carnival is heard across the water. From Steven Smith’s superb Herrmann biography, A Heart at Fire’s Center (2002), we learn that J.M.W. Turner’s Venetian canvases were here a point of inspiration. Equally pertinent is the quintet’s dedication to Norma Shepherd, who became Herrmann’s third wife the same year this music was composed. In the turbulent world of Bernard Herrmann, Souvenirs de voyage is a balm.

When PostClassical Ensemble produced a monthlong Herrmann festival in 2016, the big discovery—thanks to the Herrmann authority Christopher Husted—was a 1944 radio play he scored for Norman Corwin. This was Whitman. Like so many of Corwin’s radio plays, its wartime purpose was to rally the home front. The text comprises verbatim Whitman, selected and choreographed by Corwin. The music is scored for strings, harp, piano, and percussion. The combination is hypnotic. The present world premiere recording is undertaken in the conviction that this 25-minute radio drama—a genre now long forgotten—deserves revival as an American concert work for actors and orchestra.

Walt Whitman was one of three writers who most influenced Corwin’s distinctive free-verse style, the others being Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe. That the Whitman idiom anchored the once-famous radio dramas of the Forties is an aspect of his influence insufficiently known.

Joseph Horowitz

 

Norman Corwin and Bernard Herrmann: A Partnership in Sound

While both Norman Corwin and Bernard Herrmann had experienced significant triumphs in their radio careers prior to working together, and would both go on to do great things with others, their respective gifts truly bloomed when they began collaborating in 1939.

Herrmann was hired by CBS in 1933 as a staff conductor, a role in which he thrived. He eventually became chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra and programed innovative concert series such as Invitation to Music and Exploring Music. In 1934, he took over the task of composing for David Ross’ weekly series in which poetry was set to music. He coined a unique term to describe these programs of poetry and music— “melodrams.”

One of Herrmann’s many tasks at CBS was music director of the Columbia Workshop—CBS’s weekly anthology of experimental radio works, which debuted in 1936 under the guidance of Irving Reis. Alas, what began as an exciting experiment was in danger of becoming ordinary by 1939. The series needed a new leader, someone who could provide the Workshop with a valid reason for its continued existence, and the possibility of recapturing some of its former experimental panache. All these qualities, and more, were found in Norman Corwin.

Corwin began working at CBS in the spring of 1938, hired away from a local New York station where he had produced and directed a weekly poetry program. CBS engaged him to recreate his poetry program for a national audience as Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music. He was also asked to produce and/or direct many other programs, from soap operas to the prestigious Columbia Workshop—for which he was tasked with adapting such works as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

Although he had not been hired as a writer, beginning in late 1938 Corwin began authoring original scripts, starting with a rhymed fantasy called The Plot to Overthrow Christmas. It became a huge success and was repeated each Christmas for several years on CBS. Next came They Fly Through the Air, an angry reaction to atrocities committed by Italian fascists when they bombed Ethiopia. It, too, was a success, and led to CBS commissioning Corwin to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Marconi’s first radio transmission. For this, Corwin asked for the first time to use music (his previous two plays had employed sound effects only). And he specifically requested the services of CBS’s premier composer and conductor, Bernard Herrmann.

The two men had much in common. Both were in their late 20s, descended from Eastern European Jews. Though one was raised in New York (Herrmann) and one in Boston (Corwin), they shared a passion for music and an unquenchable thirst for learning more about it. Corwin himself aspired to be a composer. Unlike Herrmann, who studied at both New York University and The Juilliard School, Corwin never attended college and had little formal musical instruction. But he did take violin lessons in his youth and was musically literate.

In all his radio plays, Corwin treated both the words he wrote and the sound effects he designed as musical elements—the words like poetic lyrics, the sound effects like percussion. In Whitman, he produced an amalgam of these elements that I believe attain the threshold of great art music. Indeed, Corwin wrote the libretti for several operas, oratorios, and cantatas over the course of his long career, collaborating with the likes of Roy Harris, Bernard Rogers, his CBS colleague Lyn Murray, and another gifted film composer, Franz Waxman. And in the published script of one of their foremost collaborations, the VE Day ode On a Note of Triumph, Corwin had this to say about Herrmann’s crucial contribution: “It is inaccurate to call Herrmann’s scores ‘background music,’ for they play a far more active part in the productions for which he chooses to compose.”

I think one can say with absolute impunity that the 21 original radio plays on which Corwin and Herrmann collaborated represent a high-water mark for both artists in terms of the fusion of words, sounds, and music.

Dan Gediman
Dan Gediman is a radio producer who worked with Norman Corwin.


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