Good old Uncle Benny

Good old Uncle Benny

I just finished Steven C. Smith’s impressive biography on Bernard Herrmann, A Heart at Fire’s Center. I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the task of filling the vacuum of scholastic literature written on film music and film composers, and I hunted this tome down to see what little has been done to that end.

Smith’s book is exhaustive, authoritative, and a great read. It is an inspiring (and instructive) demonstration of what’s possible with such an endeavor. An interesting person who composes interesting music can easily, in the hands of a good writer, make for a very interesting book. More on that some other day.

In my reading, I developed a deeper appreciation for Herrmann’s singular music, and a stronger hunger to explore more of his work—but I was also a little shocked at the character of “Benny” Herrmann that leapt off the book’s pages. I’d read and heard comments about Herrmann’s occasional orneriness and the kind of “difficulty” characteristic of many artistic geniuses, but the overall portrayal of him in the biography was one of a moody, stormy man who had little use for social tact and would often fly off the handle at the slightest annoyance or prod.

What’s interesting is how many people remained endeared to Herrmann despite (or perhaps, in some cases, because of) his erratic personality. If you knew what you were getting into, and didn’t hold him to some kind of optimal social standard, you could likely withstand his temporary gusts and enjoy the passion and genius that lay behind the blasts.

But Herrmann certainly lost a lot of friends and potential film collaborators with his barbed opinions and mood swings. I think that his music defied his personality, and people who wanted a brilliant, dramatic score for their films chose to work with Herrmann despite the ordeal.

It was something of a joke among his peers that Herrmann couldn’t write a marketable “tune” to save his life. He specialized more in pocket-sized ostinatos, both rhythmic and melodic, and in a variety of rich colors evoked with orchestration. Herrmann didn’t think a film score’s palette should be limited to the traditional symphony, and he often used completely unorthodox combinations and bizarre instruments (the Moog and the snake come to mind).

What Herrmann did, he did extremely well. There was a time when—as film companies became more obsessed with using their movies as advertisements for the next pop hit—he fell out of favor in Hollywood. But his evergreen music, steeped in the romantic tradition but entirely his own, has more than stood the test of time. It has proven itself instrumental in elevating many classic films, from Welles to Hitchcock, and continues to provide a dark, hypnotic window into the stormy composer’s soul.