Bernard Herrmann

Before there was John Williams there was Bernard Herrmann.  Anyone who does not know his name certainly knows his music: Herrmann scored some of the most celebrated films of the twentieth century.  He collaborated with the film legends Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, producing scores for classic movies such as Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Taxi Driver.  The composer also was part of the team that broadcast the infamous radio play The War of the Worlds in 1938.  His music for the 1941 The Devil and Daniel Webster (original title All that Money Can Buy) won an Academy Award, and Citizen Kane, Anna and the King of Siam, Obsession and Taxi Driver, were all nominated.


A Devoted Student of Music

Bernard Herrmann was born in New York on June 29, 1911.  His father, Abraham Dardick, was Russian Jew, and was among one of the more than two million Jewish immigrants who entered the U.S. between the 1880s and the early 1920s. Abraham was one of the first in this wave, arriving around 1880, at which time he changed his last name to Herrmann.  After some years on a plantation in Hawaii, followed by time on a whaling ship, Abraham earned a degree in optometry and moved to New York City. 

Abraham Herrmann was married twice.   His first marriage did not last long, but did produce two children.  Ultimately the couple divorced and his first wife took their two children back to Russia.  His second marriage to a young woman named Ida Gorenstein, who was from his hometown in Russia, took place when he was in his forties; Bernard Herrmann was their first child. 

He was born prematurely, and suffered from serious illness in his early childhood.  But he was bright, and passionately interested in the arts and literature, and soon displayed a precocious musical talent.  Herrmann, his brother Louis, and sister Rose all received music lessons.  Early on, he played the violin, but not particularly well, and after a rather violent confrontation with his teacher at the New York School of Music, he quit his lessons.  He had taken to the piano some time before, and soon also began to develop his fervent interest in composition. 

Throughout his adolescence, Herrmann focused his attention on music.  Around the age of thirteen, he came across Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Orchestration, a work that was extremely influential on his own unique orchestral writing.   While a high school student, much of his class time was spent surreptitiously studying scores and writing his own music, not to mention skipping classes to sneak into Philharmonic rehearsals at Carnegie Hall.

Beginning in 1927, Bernard studied composition with Gustav Heine.  Among his early efforts were an overture to The Tempest, piano and orchestral pieces, an overture for band, and a song for which he won a prize at his high school.   During these years, Herrmann also began a correspondence with composer Charles Ives. Subsequently they became friends, and Herrmann was lifelong champion of Ives’s music.  He also formed friendships with other significant figures such as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, and became acquainted with many of the up-and-coming composers active in early twentieth-century New York. 

While still in high school, he began auditing courses at Juilliard and at New York University and began studying composition and conducting at the latter.  When his conducting teacher, Albert Stoessel, was hired at Juilliard, Herrmann followed him there, but stayed only two years before failing grades seem to have forced him out.  After this event, he attended a composition course at NYU taught by Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger, whose varied curriculum and emphasis on individualism were significant influences on Herrmann.

Concerts and Radio Work

In 1932, a string quartet by Hermann was performed at a concert put on by eight colleagues, who, during the preceding year, had formed an affiliation known as the Young Composers Group.  Copland was the unofficial sponsor, though he was out of the country when the 1932 concert was organized. Reviews were not entirely favorable and the disappointing premiere led to the group’s dissolution, but Herrmann quickly moved on to create new opportunities for his work. 

In 1933 he gathered thirty unemployed musicians and created the New Chamber Orchestra.  The establishment of this ensemble allowed him to conduct performances of his own compositions.  The first concert included his Prelude to “Anathema,” as well as works by Ives and Purcell, Grainger, and by Herrmann’s close friend Jerome Moross. The concert had to be postponed due to the death of Herrmann’s father, which left his family in emotional distress and financially unstable.  However, when the performance finally occurred one week later at the New School for Social Research, it was quite successful.  In particular, Herrmann’s conducting made a strong and positive impression on critics.  Two more concerts followed (1933-4), and were also well received, despite Copland’s public disapproval of a performance of one of his own works.
Around this time, Herrmann was hired as an assistant to Johnny Green, who conducted, composed, and arranged music for a CBS radio program titled “Music in the Modern Manner.” His first important opportunity came when he composed incidental music for the dramatic reading of a Keats poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” After that, he was asked to write music for both Green’s show and for two other programs. He also conducted rehearsals of CBS musicians, including Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. 

Herrmann continued writing music outside of the studio as well, and was able to have some of these works broadcast, including the orchestral works Currier and Ives suite, and Sinfonietta for Strings (the latter included a passage later made famous in Herrmann’s score to Psycho).  In 1935, he was given more responsibility at CBS when he was promoted to staff conductor and program director for several series.

In 1937, Herrmann composed incidental music for “The Columbia Workshop” at CBS, a program featuring many exciting contemporary personalities, including writers such as W.H. Auden and Archibald MacLeish, and composers such as Marc Blitzstein.  The following year, Herrmann was assigned as the conductor and composer for CBS’s dramatic program “The Mercury Theater on the Air,” with the young Orson Welles and John Houseman.  Among his projects, though in this case mostly as conductor, was the infamous broadcast of The War of the Worlds.  He also provided the notable scores for program’s productions of A Christmas Carol and Rebecca (a production based on the Daphne DuMaurier novel, which was later adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name).

First Film Scores and an Opera

In October 1939, Herrmann married Lucille Fletcher, the successful screenwriter, who was then a secretary at CBS.  At the same time, his concert work was receiving increasing recognition; under the baton of John Barbirolli the New York Philharmonic performed his cantata on Melville’s Moby Dick (written in 1936).  It was also in the fall of 1939 that Orson Welles enlisted Herrmann for his debut film project, Citizen Kane (1941).  Despite his reservations about switching media, Herrmann’s experience writing music for radio drama made him a natural choice for film scoring.  Scoring this film also allowed him to at least partially realize his aspiration to write an opera; he provided the recitative and aria of a fictitious opera, Salammbô, for a scene involving the character Susan Alexander’s unfortunate operatic debut.  The film was a critical success, and Welles later stated that its triumph was at least partly due to Herrmann’s music.

In 1941, Herrmann’s Symphony was also premiered and received positive reviews.  On the very same day, Lucille gave birth to their first daughter, Dorothy.  During this time, he continued to work in both film and radio and wrote much concert music, such as the song cycle The Fantasticks (not to be confused with the off-Broadway musical). 

While he conducted and provided programming for the CBS Symphony, he used his influence to promote music by his favorite composers, including a number of British artists such as Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In terms of cinematic scoring, films including Jane Eyre (1943), Hangover Square (1945) and its accompanying piano concerto, Anna and the King of Siam (1946), and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) rounded out the 1940s for Herrmann. 

In the 1940s, he also took to writing about music, publishing articles in Modern Music and The New York Times on subjects including film music and Charles Ives’s symphonies.  In 1945, Herrmann and his wife had a second daughter, Wendy.  However, their marriage began to dissolve when Herrmann began a relationship with Lucille’s cousin, Lucy (Kathy Lucille) Anderson, and their surprisingly amicable divorce was finalized in 1948.  Anderson and Herrmann wed in 1949, but later divorced in 1964.  Herrmann subsequently married Norma Shepherd in 1967, when he was fifty-six and she was twenty-seven.

From 1943 to 1951, a single project occupied much of his time when he was not composing films.  This project was his opera Wuthering Heights.  The libretto, adapted from Emily Brontë’s novel, was entrusted to his first wife Lucille Fletcher.  Herrmann completed the work in the summer of 1951, but several attempts to produce the opera fell through.  The difficulties he faced in terms of staging the work have been attributed to Herrmann’s habitually volatile personality.  Ultimately Wuthering Heights did not debut until 1982, seven years after his death.  He did conduct a recording of it in 1966, which is now available on CD.  Though the opera itself has not truly become part of the canon of American opera, neither has it entirely vanished, as evidenced by the inclusion of its aria “I Have Dreamt” on soprano Renée Fleming’s 1998 recording I Want Magic.

The Hollywood Years

After the CBS Symphony was dissolved in 1951, Herrmann, along with his second wife, left New York for Hollywood.  There, he began a new phase in his career as a film composer, but was still grounded in film and radio.  The year he arrived he scored The Day the Earth Stood Still, notable for its use of the theremin.

One of his most significant collaborations began three years later in 1954, when Herrmann started work with Alfred Hitchcock on The Trouble With Harry (1955).  This project was followed by a series of successful films at Paramount and MGM, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964).  On these projects, Hitchcock often had very specific instructions for Herrmann, and as time passed, they began to disagree on aspects of Herrmann’s work.  When Hitchcock insisted on a popular music score for the film Torn Curtain (1966), Herrmann refused to provide it and their relationship fell apart entirely. 

Herrmann was able, however, to arrange several of his Hitchcock into suites and other pieces, for a set of recordings on Decca and London Records beginning in 1968.  For this series, over the next few years, he also conducted groups of works by other composers, in collections with titles like “Great Tone Poems” (1969) and “Music from Great Film Classics” (1970).  A 1974 recording series on RCA, “Classic Film Scores,” included an album devoted to Herrmann’s music, conducted by Charles Gerhardt.  Of special interest on this recording is soprano Kiri Te Kanawa’ s performance of the Salammbô aria from Citizen Kane.

Other work from his years in Hollywood includes composing for the first season of Rod Serling’s television show The Twilight Zone on CBS in 1959 and providing the score for François Truffaut’s film of the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451 (1966).  Additionally, Herrmann’s work in the thriller genre continued, with Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973).  The composer met Martin Scorsese in 1974 through De Palma, and the director asked Herrmann to score Taxi Driver (1976).

In the summer of 1974, while Herrmann was in London guest conducting for Gerhardt’s RCA album, a weakness he had been experiencing for months increased. After two weeks’ hospitalization for what was diagnosed as heart failure, he went back to work on the Brian De Palma film Obsession (1976).  

During this period, while completing work on Taxi Driver in Los Angeles toward the end of 1975, Herrmann was much in demand. He was scheduled to take on, among other projects, De Palma’s Carrie in the following year.  But even as he worked, his health deteriorated, and he died in his sleep on December 24, 1975.


Smith, Steven C.  A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann.  Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press, 1991.

Cooper, David: ‘Herrmann, Bernard’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 31 March 2006), <>