Bernard Herrmann (and some stuff about Ray Harryhausen)—Two Maestros!

Bernnard Herrman showed an early talent for music by winning a $100 competition when he was 13 and went on to study at Julliard. His career was impressive with his scores for Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock.

But I remember him for some other works—not as “high-level” but, to me, equally impressive (given my perchance for Science Fiction and Fantasy films).

My uncle took my cousins and I to a matinee showing of a fantasy film called The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Here, I would “meet” two of my movie “loves” Ray Harryhausen and Bernard Herrmann.

Initially, it was the visual effects of animation master Ray Harryhausen who impressed me with his fantasy creatures—especially the cyclops.

(I would try to draw the cyclops dozens of times after the viewing.) But Ray’s “dynamation” creatures just blew me away. The “Snake Lady” creeped me out for years to come.  But behind it all, was Herrman’s wonderful score. His music took the viewer into a fantastic land where the impossible was possible: A giant 2 headed Roc; a massive fire-breathing dragon; and of course, my all-time favorite—the Cyclops!  (I would later build a clay version and animate it against a miniature background—fun stuff!) The scoring for the skeleton fight is a wonderful combination of percussion instruments which sounded like bones knocking together!

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the first Harryhausen movie done in color and although Ray was reluctant to go to color his last film (20 Million Miles to Earth) was in black and white, he was able to develop a way to maintain proper color balance with his “DynaMation” process. This was Harryhausen’s masterpiece and was a top grossing film for 1958. Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic said this movie was his major inspiration for getting into effects work. Many other effect animators were Inspired by Ray Harryhausen!

Harryhausen’s ability to put personality into his animated puppets was part of his genius. The intense concentration needed to move the puppet’s armature frame-by-frame and to “act” through them, even giving them an element of pathos—is a rare gift. The ultimate example of this extraordinary craftsmanship can be viewed in a scene from Jason and the Argonauts where Harryhausen must animate 7 skeletons dueling with 3 argonauts. It took Ray about 4 months to complete this scene which lasts 4 1/2 minutes on the screen. (3:35 minutes of actual animation time)! The ability to know where all 7 skeletons are and what particular action it is going through takes herculean concentration! (An interesting triva note: Ray had a small cameo in the remake of Mighty Joe Young, of which he did a good deal of the animation of Joe.)

But back to Bernard Herrman. His collaboration with producer Charles Shneer and Ray Harryhausen is a rather impressive body of work in itself. The rather British fanfare which opens The Three Worlds of Gulliver sets the tone for the rest of the movie and adds a sort of epic musical introduction to what follows. On Mysterious Island, when some shipwrecked crewmembers confront some giant bees, the whole orchestra is turned into a massive buzzing instrument! When the large, prehistoric bird menaces some British ladies, the music turns somewhat comical —matching the odd creature with the tone perfect musical accompaniment that enhances the odd awkwardness of the animal.

I’ve often wondered why a person of such preeminent stature—with credits like Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster (of which Herrmann won an Oscar) would “stoop” to do the “B” films (O.K. “B+” films) of Ray Harryhausen (sorry Ray…). But my guess is that an artist does not care about a film’s budget or genre but the artistic challenge it presents. And with such an array of musical “tools” at Herrmann’s disposal, movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is just the ticket to exercise those musical muscles. (I’m just taking a “stab-in-the-dark” on this one.)

The score for Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason and Pat Boone is also quite impressive. Late in the film Herrmann utilizes an ancient horn called “The Serpent” (if memory serves) to add an odd reptillian effect when the explorers are trying to get through the ruins of Atlantis and must confront a giant Chameleon. One particular track, entitled “The Mountain/Sunrise” became the musical accompaniment for my college project on model construction. I built a miniature of the New Jerusalem out of plexi-glass and fiber-optics. That music worked wonderfully for that too…   (Sorry for the digression!)

In the classic Robert Wise film The Day the Earth Stood Still, Mr. Herrman utilizes the electronic accompaniment of the Treble & Bass Theremins played by Dr. Samuel Hoffmann. He also used another electronic instrument called the Mixturtrautonium (spelling?) played by Oskar Sala on Hitchcock’s The Birds where Herrmann functioned as musical consultant. There was no actual musical score but more of electronic bird sounds for the soundtrack.

Bernard Herrmann creativity is also evident in his classic score for Hitchcock’s Psycho where he uses only string instruments. The “screeching” violins for the infamous “shower scene” scared my aunt half to death— She was terrified of taking showers for weeks after viewing that movie! Obviously, the soundtrack contributed greatly to the effectiveness of that scene. The various moods that Herrmann created for Hitchcock’s movies added immensely to the effect Hitchcock wanted to achieve. It is hard to image any of Hitchcock’s films without the Herrmann touch to them. They just wouldn’t be the same!

Bernard Herrmann’s work so impressed a young composer that his creativity and unique style has been the inspiration of Danny Elfman.  Danny has scored many of Tim Burton’s works and admits his great admiration for Herrmann’s body of work. Sometimes Elfman gets a bit carried away and his compositions become too complex. He shared that his orchestrator would shake his head and indicate that there was just too much going on in Elman’s composition. Still, it is high praise for Bernard Herrmann’s own creative compositions.