Few film scores bear such an aura as Bernard Herrmann’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). One of Herrmann’s most ravishing pieces, Vertigo is an outstanding mix of lush quasi-Wagnerian sweep and fascinating proto-minimalist textures, all within a riot of orchestral colours.
Therefore, it was a most special occasion to hear this essential piece of the Herrmann-Hitchcock collaboration performed live at the Sibelius Hall with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anthony Gabriele.
Herrmann had the unique ability to evoke absolutely spot-on emotional landscapes with an unparalleled economy of means. Herrmann’s approach to film compositoin marked a radical departure from the leitmotive-based, operatic scores devised by Max Steiner and Franz Waxman, and perfected by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
For the American-born Herrmann, the operatic approach to film, originating in the late-romantic music drama, was somewhat alien. Herrmann’s style originated in impressionism, Charles Ives and the music of his English contemporaries, namely Ralph Vaughan Williams. In addition, the discovery of Berlioz’ Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (1844/1855) provided a starting point for Herrmann’s most unusual approach on orchestration.
Contrary to the hyper-romantic Hollywood tradition, where music flowed almost continuously throughout the entire film from opening credits to end titles, the Herrmann scores are put together of short, distinct musical numbers, always pinpointing the needs of the film’s dramaturgy.
Herrmann had the luxury of entering Hollywood with his longtime collaborator from radio days, Orson Welles, providing musical score for Citizen Kane (1941). Yet, Herrmann’s most fruitful period arose in his ten-year collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, from the dark comedy of The Trouble with Harry (1955) to the ill-fated Torn Curtain (1966), which terminated their working relationship with Hitchcock giving in to studio bosses by firing Herrmann in the middle of recording sessions for failing to deliver a more marketable soundtrack.
The peak of Herrmann-Hitchcock relatioship was a trio of classics released in 1958-1960, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. For each film, Herrmann wrote a score rooted in unique invention in terms of structure, orchestration and harmony.
In Vertigo, Herrmann uses a fairly standard symphony orchestra, albeit a large one, with two harps, a variety of percussion instruments and a hammond organ added, to evoke mystery, obsession, love and loss, to illuminate the aspects of a clever fraud woven around Scotty, a retired San Francisco police officer, portrayed by James Stewart.
As usual for Hitchcock, there is a mysterious female lead, Kim Novak, cast in the triple role of Madeline, Carlotta, and later Judy. A series of bizarre events is set in motion as Scotty meets his old-time friend Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore, who persuades Scotty to trail his wife, Madeline, whom he believes being possessed by the ghost of her dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdez.
As the story proceeds, Scotty gradually becomes convinced that Madeline is indeed haunted by the past, one way or another. After her first suicide attempt by casting herself into San Francisco Bay, only to be rescued by Scotty, the two finally meet in person. Although following a plan carefully devised by Elster, a surprise element comes at play as the two fall in love.
While trying to protect Madeleine her death wish, Scotty finally fails in his attempts, as Madeleine casts herself down from a belfry. Suffering from acrophobia, Scotty is unable to follow her to the top, leaving him a sole witness to the tragic suicide.
Following a breakdown, Scotty is hospitalized, and faithfully taken care of by his loyal friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). After a long convalescence, Scotty starts to pick up the pieces of his loss, wandering around aimlessly, until he comes across with Judy, a young woman mysteriously resembling Madeline.
Step by step, Scotty persuades Judy into a relationship with him. What started as a mere consolation, ends up a transformation game, where Judy is turned into a doppelgänger of Madeleine, involving finding identical clothing, and dying her hair.
Over the course of the transformation, the truth is gradually unveiled. Judy and Madeleine are indeed tho one and the same person, hired by Elster to play a part in a hoax for murdering his wife and framing it as a suicide. Taking advantage of both Scotty’s acrophobia, and a local legend on Carlotta Valdez, a late 19th century woman driven into madness and suicide.
In order to get the truth out of Judy, Scotty returns to the scene of the crime with her. Forcing himself to overcome his acrophobia, Scotty drags Judy to the belfry. As Judy confesses, the actual series of events and motives is finally out there in the open.
Suddenly, a dark figure enters the belfry, frightening Judy. She slips and falls off the tower, into her death. As the figure turns out to be just a nun, the film closes with Scotty standing on an overhang gazing down. He has won his guilt and acrophobia, but lost his love, yet again.
The Vertigo storyline provided Herrmann with an inspiring context for a haunting musical score. The film opens with a prelude, accompanied by Saul Bass’s famous main title images, involving spirals whirling along the music.
The Vertigo Prelude opens with a cascade arpeggios for strings, woodwinds and harps, coloured by vibraphone chords and the hammond organ pedal points. The ominous brass chords punctuate the arpeggio textures with gripping intensity.
Typically for Herrmann, the melodic material is very sparse. However, the teasingly belated entry of the main motive is shatteringly intense in its profound passion and yearning. After the climax, the prelude leads into the films opening sequence, dubbed simply as Rooftop in Herrmann’s autograph.
The rooftop chase is marked by furious ostinati, as Scotty and another police officer chase a suspect on the rooftops of San Francisco. In the course of the chase, Scotty nearly falls of the roof, getting a desperate grip on a chute. The policeman tries to pull him up, but ends up falling of the roof.
Here Herrmann conjures up repetitive, dissonant textures, unprecedented in Hollywood film scoring. The sheer visceral impact of the music is stunning, resulting in a breathtaking tension of the opening scene.
In contrast to the almost brutal rooftop sequence, Herrmann turns into the most sublime of means with a series of cues accompanying Scotty as he trails the wandering Madeleine, who is presumed to be possessed by the ghost of Carlotta Valdez.
With delicate scoring, Herrmann creates sequences of short repeated motives, coloured by a most imaginative orchestration. With these cues, Herrmann portrays Scotty’s puzzlement with admirable psychological accuracy.
One of the film’s key motives is introduced in Carlotta’s Portrait. While Scotty observes Madeline watching Carlotta Valdez’ portrait in a museum, Herrmann introduces his brilliant Carlotta motive, tempo di habanera.
A simple sequence of repeated Ds, first played by a harp, this eerily haunting motive is used throughout the score as a kind of Berliozian idée fixe, a musical representation of Carlotta Valdez.
The series of subtle cues comes to its end as Madeleine casts herself into San Francisco Bay. Accompanied by another violent bust of orchestral sonorities, Scotty dives in to save Madeleine. After picking her up from the bay, he drives her to his apartment to get some rest.
As Madeline awakes at Scotty’s place, the two have their first conversation over the fireplace. Herrmann underscores their encounter with a tender piece for strings, predicting a love interest in a most sublime of ways.
While Scotty and Madeleine plunge ever deeper into the eerie presence of Carlotta Valdez in her mind, Herrmann unleashes his musical imagination, resulting in some of the most wonderful moments in the score.
For example, in The Forest cue, Herrmann uses hammond organ, vibraphone and suspended symbal to create an otherworldly timbral universe evoking the sense of something utterly alien at play.
In portraying Scotty and Madeleine falling in love, Herrmann picks a quote from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Now turned into a Hermannesque motive, the love theme becomes another recurring element in the score.
As Elster plan nears its fulfillment in Madeleine’s framed suicide, the tempo di habanera takes an ever increasing presence in the score. Following Madeleine’s death it reaches a climax in The Nightmare, where Scotty’s nocturnal horrors are brought to life with an unhinged presentation of the Carlotta motive, featuring hysterical strings, brass interjections and mocking castanets
Following his hospitalization, Scotty’s gradual return to life accompanied by another sequence of subtle underscoring. Only upon his meeting with Judy, the music starts to gain momentum.
As Judy’s transformation to Madeleine reaches fulfillment, the Tristan quote is developed in full in the shattering Scène d’amour. Herrmann’s love music is filled with obsession, rooted deep in yearning.
The final scenes of Vertigo contain a fabulous sum-up of musical material. As all pieces of the puzzle start coming together, Herrmann revisits his key motives.
The Return, a cue portraying Scotty’s re-enactment of Madeleine’s death with the increasingly reluctant Judy, provides a stormy musical conclusion. The film closes with a brief Finale, a tragic postlude for full orchestra.
The marvellous Lahti Symphony Orchestra, internationally best known for its deep commitment in the works of Sibelius and Kalevi Aho, was very much at home in Herrmann’s darkly-hued sound world.
On several occasions, one could hear interesting connections between the Herrmannesque textures, and the austerity of Sibelius 4th. The Lahti players clad the Herrmann sonorities in a splendid orchestral garb, while maintaining wonderful transparency allowing the textures to stand out in full.
Under Anthony Gabriele’s inspired conducting, the tempi, phrasing and orchestral balance were all admirably taken care of, resulting in a performance that would have made Herrmann proud.
After all, Vertigo was one of the few scores Herrmann did not record himself, due Hollywood studio musicians’ strike. The score ended up being recorded in London and Vienna, conducted by the British film music veteran Muir Mathieson. While obviously ever married to the film, the original score recording lacks some of the Herrmann presence.
With all due respect to Mathieson, during Thursday’s concert performance, I felt far deeper connection with Herrmann than I’ve ever had with the original soundtrack recording. I can but express my utmost gratitude to maestro Gabriele and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra for their marvellous salute to Herrmann. A feast for film music!
Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Anthony Gabriele, conductor
Bernard Herrmann: Vertigo (1958)
Sibelius Hall, Lahti
Thursday 23 August, 7 pm
c Jari Kallio