Vertigo – Bernard Herrmann
Structured around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair, Herrmann’s score penetrates to the heart of obsession.
Published on November 29, 2012 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film

This month’s installment of Audiodrome is brought to you in association with Paracinema’s Hitchcock Appreciation Month. Based on the novel D’entre les morts (The Living and the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo (1958) tells of a retired acrophobic detective investigating the strange activities of a friend’s young wife. As he becomes completely bewitched by her, the film becomes a haunting rumination on the concept of obsession. This is Hitchcock though, so of course, all is not as it seems…

As layered and multifaceted as the film itself, is Bernard Herrmann’s masterful score. From its opening notes (Prelude and Rooftop) it gives a tremendous sense of the epic scope of the story yet to unfold, as various themes and motifs – including the now instantly recognisable love theme – are introduced in a cyclically structured piece that hints at the nature of the narrative. Intimidating brass notes boom over mesmeric rhythms, and frenzied strings and woodwind effortlessly invoke the disorientating horror of Scottie’s (James Stewart) affliction. If it’s possible for music to create a sense of height, Herrmann’s score for Vertigo will never be beaten, as it constantly swirls the listener up into the air, holds them for a moment, then plunges back down again with blasting horns and dizzying brass. What becomes evident is how it has a way of rippling out and circling back on itself, highlighting the idea of history repeating and the purgatorial despair of Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) and Scottie – two lonely wandering souls who momentarily converge, but are ultimately cursed to never unite because of their own inherent flaws. Martin Scorsese commented on this aspect of the music, noting: “Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again … And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.”

Herrmann’s music not only heightens the scenes of tension and drama, but also enhances the haunting and tragic aspects of the story. Apparently he was inspired by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, specifically the Liebestod aria, tinges of which can be heard in various melodies throughout his score for Vertigo. ‘Liebestod’ literally translates from German as ‘Love Death’, and fits perfectly with Vertigo’s central theme of a man doomed to love an unattainable woman and helplessly relive her death over and over again (this aspect of Hitchcock’s film had an overwhelming influence on David Lynch’s Lost Highway). The use of San Francisco as the backdrop of the story also works its way into the score too, evident in the two-note motif it opens with: apparently an imitation of the fog horns on the Golden Gate Bridge. The score simmers cautiously along as the central relationship is established while Scottie follows Madeleine, observing her strange and melancholy behaviour from afar, becoming completely obsessed with her. An air of tragedy also lingers throughout, accentuating the doomed romance at the heart of proceedings. The sweeping romanticism of Madeleine’s First Appearance introduces us to Kim Novak’s mysterious character as she sits in elegant poise in Ernie’s restaurant; resplendent in a green gown in a red room full of darkly attired people. Herrmann’s music, coupled with the framing and lighting of this scene, shroud the character in a beautiful, painterly mystery, elevate her, and suggest her unattainable nature. Elsewhere sustained strings and organ notes heighten tension in tracks such as The Forest and The Necklace, The Return and Finale, while Carlotta’s Portrait and The Dream boast quivering strings, tip-toeing harp and hesitant woodwind. Brief, almost joyous respite comes courtesy of Goodnight and The Park, as Scottie and Judy look set to rekindle their relationship, while The Nightmare and Dawn ventures into abstract horror territory, with its epileptic strings eventually calming enough to briefly reprise the love theme.

The professional relationship between Hitchcock and Herrmann was one based firmly on mutual respect and trust. Herrmann insisted on complete creative control when scoring his films, and from The Trouble with Harry (1955) through to Marnie (1964), Hitchcock was content to leave the musician alone and trust that his work would be appropriate. Herrmann’s scores for the director are now revered as some of the finest in cinema. With Torn Curtain however, their professional relationship, and friendship, came to an end when Hitch, bowing to studio pressure, rejected Herrmann’s score, insisting it wasn’t contemporary-sounding enough. Composed in just less than two months, the score for Vertigo was actually conducted and recorded by Muir Mathieson in London and Vienna due to a musicians’ strike in the States. Herrmann later admitted to deeply regretting this, as he always liked to conduct his own work.

The score for Vertigo was released in 1958 with around half an hour of music on the LP; this version was released on CD in 1990. In 1995 a new recording was made, with Joel McNeely conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In 1996 the restoration of Vertigo uncovered original master tapes of the score which were used in the newly restored version of the film and released on CD as an expanded edition.

For your listening pleasure I present the astounding opening track, Prelude and Rooftop. Enjoy. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t look down.

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey

  • Christine

    This is amazing. I had no idea this month’s installment would be Herrmann. I’m floored. So excited, in fact, that I have nothing to say except how happy this made me.

    I adore Herrmann. I know it’s cliche, but I think my favorite score is Psycho. I might even enjoy it more than the film itself!

    • James

      Hee hee. I also had no idea this month’s instalment would be Herrmann; but your Hitchcock Appreciation Month inspired me to watch, and rewatch, a few of his titles. As soon as I started watching Vertigo though, I knew it was the one for this month’s Audiodrome. So thank you! You’ve reignited my passion for Hitch.