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Two Faces of Herrmann: Psycho & The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

by Jason Comerford

Lately film music enthusiasts have had plenty to be thankful for. The flood of awful scores coming from the local multiplexes has apparently stalled, with a double-barrel of solid Jerry Goldsmith scores (The Edge, L.A. Confidential), and a generous helping of other very good music (Howard Shore's The Game being the most noteworthy). Helping matters along is Varese Sarabande, whose series of restored and re-recorded classic scores is something akin to a gift from the heavens.

Recently released was Bernard Herrmann's 1947 score The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, breathtakingly restored considering the masters are 50 years old. It's interesting to listen to Mrs. Muir after spending a day camped in front of AMC, watching Vertigo to cap off a Hitchcock marathon and marveling in that score's minimalist complexity. What is so fascinating about listening to Mrs. Muir after seeing Vertigo again and also listening to the Joel McNeely/RSNO rerecording of Psycho is that the respective works, after an initial run-through, seem so very different. Yet you can hear Herrmann's distinctive voice in both Mrs. Muir and Psycho, even though in essence they're polar opposites.

I had not heard The Ghost and Mrs. Muir before I bought the Varese Fox Classics issue; frankly, I didn't really know what to expect, having been chewing on Herrmann's unsettlingly dissonant music for numerous psychological dramas and Hitchcock mindbenders. It always seemed to me that even Herrmann's love themes were infused with such disturbing darkness; listening to Herrmann do a love theme was like watching Jack Kevorkian host "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." ("All right, kids, can we all say euthanasia?") This is not to demean Herrmann's brilliant dramatic sense; it's just that Herrmann is a tough composer to listen to for pure enjoyment.

What is so delightful about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is that even though it's probably the most easy-to-take score that I've heard from Herrmann, he hasn't totally thrown himself into sentimentality. (From a purely historical perspective, Herrmann didn't really get into the darker music of his career for another decade or so.) The jauntier moments of Citizen Kane, perhaps the first part of the montage of Kane's first marriage, are in a way, a forebear to Mrs. Muir; the occasional playfulness that spices Mrs. Muir can be traced to Kane. But the delicacy of Mrs. Muir is something all its own. The score is astonishingly lyrical, even for Herrmann, and employs the leitmotif in a manner that only the best composers have attempted.

I'm in a somewhat precarious position in evaluating the score, seeing as I've not yet seen the film that it was composed for. (I'm sure AMC will run it sometime.) So I'm stuck with the liner notes by Herrmann archivist Steven C. Smith; however, I can glean enough from the plot synopsis and examples to grasp the effect of, and ideas behind, the music. The score is structured around a main theme, presumably for the Mrs. Muir of the title, and a horn-based theme, ostensibly for the ghost of the deceased Captain Gregg. The main theme itself is really something, a wistful descending theme played by the strings, high on the scale. It's part lullaby, part love ballad, a truly touching motif that is never repetitive or tiresome. And Herrmann, who was writing his Wuthering Heights opera at the time and may have been influenced by some kind of Wagnerian thinking, plays the two themes against each other with striking effect; the cue "About Ships" makes a particularly effective use of both as the Muir theme is played by the strings, with the Gregg theme played by horns in quiet counterpoint.

Herrmann's ideas about the music are so accessible, indeed, that by the time the score cranks up for its double climaxes ("The Spring Sea" and "Forever"), the music has drawn you in so well that even if you haven't seen the film, like myself, you can still understand what's happening. Perhaps this can be attributed to the leitmotivic structure; but perhaps not. In any rate, the music, as rich and emotional as it is, is a welcome surprise and a breath of fresh air.

This of course makes getting back to what Herrmann is truly famed for even more difficult, but no less rewarding. The superb rerecording of Psycho by Joel McNeely and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra makes a fascinating back-to-back listen with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, to just see how far Herrmann's brooding style evolved in the 13 years between the two. (In the interim Herrmann composed North by Northwest and Vertigo, to date my two favorite scores by him.) The McNeely recording, as Kevin Mulhall's liner notes are quick to inform you, preserves the tempi of the original recording, which the 1975 Herrmann/National Philharmonic Orchestra recording didn't even come close to achieving. The furious staccato energy of the "Prelude" to Psycho is restored to its original effect, as is the rest of the score.

Even after all these years, it's still almost scary at how brilliant the music for Psycho is. Having seen the film when I was very young (yes, it warped me for life), I can still call the ending of the film, following the revelation of Mama Bates, one of my favorite marriages of score and cinematic imagery, as Anthony Perkins goes to pieces right in front of our eyes, and Herrmann's all-string orchestra swirls downward with him, catching every horrific nuance of the spectacle and throwing the film across the finish line.

On hearing Psycho again, this time in a glorious-sounding reproduction, the genius of the composition is but magnified. What struck me the most was Herrmann's usage of repeating phrases, as opposed to fully fleshed-out themes, which by that time had become a trademark of Herrmann's style. Using the term "minimalistic" doesn't seem fair, because, as Mulhall noted in the liner notes for Vertigo, minimalism implies anti-emotionalism. It seems that Psycho's music is emotional, but in an abstract, paradoxically detached manner; the descending phrases used to identify the plights of the Janet Leigh character always seemed to be tuned right into her, yet assessing her situation at the same time: Look at this woman, she's gone and done a bad thing and she's going to get punished. Herrmann, it seems to me, doesn't really attempt anything radical with the score outside of the all-string orchestra and the now-infamous shower-murder music, but in that refinement he's sure found an awful lot of leeway --there's an unsettling subtext to the music that has made it what it is. Herrmann's music is so seductive with its quiet, "vertical" primary usage that when the energy of the score appears at the crucial moments--the murder music, the ostinato from the "Prelude"--you suddenly realize that you've been set up, then cleanly knocked down. That's Bernard Herrmann: the original audience manipulator.

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