Vertigo: Herrmann's Use of Forms

by Matthew Raley One of the visual abstractions we noticed in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was his evocation of famous paintings. We saw that his shot of Madeleine floating in the Bay alludes to the painting of Ophelia by Millais, and that references like this give an unconscious emotional atmosphere to the film.

Bernard Herrmann uses a similar abstraction in Vertigo's score. He refers to musical forms in a way that intensifies the cultural and psychological atmosphere. Two such references are important to the score's role as co-narrator with the camera.

First, Herrmann employs a habanera rhythm in relation to Carlotta. The habanera was a Cuban dance that made its way to Spain in the 19th century, and thence to Europe, becoming famous through Georges Bizet’s Carmen. As a cultural artifact, the dance is associated not just with Hispanic atmosphere but also with seduction.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lspRhX5Vhhg&feature=fvsr

Second, Herrmann uses ecclesiastical forms in his cues at Mission Dolores. He draws the church modes into his harmonies, employing sighing motifs, and using a pipe organ.

Both references, which David Cooper calls “extraopus intertextuality,”[1] remain at some distance from their antecedents. They are not literal. No one dances a real habanera during a café floor show. Scottie doesn’t pass an organist on his way to the graveyard. By remaining abstract, these references allow one’s imagination to play at a less conscious level, and with profoundly ironic implications.

Yet another aspect of Vertigo's intricacy.


[1] David Cooper, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook, Film Score Guides (Westport  CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 65.

Vertigo: Herrmann's Abstract Score

by Matthew Raley I've given several examples of Alfred Hitchcock's abstract visuals in Vertigo (here and here). But Hitchcock also created a sound-world to match, and he found a collaborator in Bernard Herrmann. Together, they raised the score to the level of co-narrator with the camera.

The term “Wagnerian” is often used to characterize Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, and for good reason. But the variety of composers who influenced Herrmann hints at a more complex musical imagination.

He was famous for loving English composers such as Edward Elgar[1] and Ralph Vaughan Williams.[2] Vertigo’s frequent similarity to music by Claude Debussy is mentioned by critics.[3] Less well-known is Herrmann’s study as a thirteen-year-old of Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Orchestration. The influence this Romantic maverick had on Herrmann was life-long.[4] Nor was Berlioz the only musical outsider with whom Herrmann identified. Though Herrmann spent his student years in New York close to such American icons as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, Herrmann also developed relationships with young radical composers in a group modeled on Les Six.

Most significantly, Steven Smith documents Herrmann’s long association with Charles Ives, the ultimate outsider, noting Herrmann’s early study of Ives’s 114 Songs and his habitual visits with Ives until Ives died in 1954.[5]

With such a background, there should be no surprise that Herrmann’s score is one of the more abstract elements of Vertigo.

It is not explicitly tonal—that is, the harmonies are not organized around a triad that specifies a key, but around the pitch-class structures and intervallic relationships that occur in the first bars of the prelude. Such harmonies, while not expressionistic, are at the outer reaches of the common practice era.

Herrmann, further, employs a modular phrase structure that permits the extension of a line, but is not intrinsically melodic, alluding to but not identical with the traditional eight- or sixteen-bar phrase.

Moreover, Herrmann blurs the classic distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music at various points in the score. Diegetic music comes from a source within the film, like the record-player in Midge's apartment that annoys Scottie. Nondiegetic music comes from outside the story's action: the audience hears it, but the characters don't.

As we will explore over the next posts, the abstraction of Vertigo’s music allows it to operate with subtlety, concision, and force. The score is a large part of the greatness of this film.


 [1]Bernard Herrmann, “Elgar: A Constant Source of Joy,” in Edward Johnson, Bernard Herrmann: Hollywood’s Music-Dramatist, Bibliographical Series 6 (Rickmansworth: Triad Press, 1977), 29–31.

 [2]Bernard Herrmann, “Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony,” The Musical Times 100, no. 1391 (1959): 24.

 [3]William H. Rosar, “Bernard Herrmann: The Beethoven of Film Music?,” The Journal of Film Music 1, no. 2 (2003): 137; Royal S. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal 21, no. 2 (April 1, 1982): 20.

 [4]Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 14–15.

 [5]Ibid., 21–23, 38–39.

New Series: Hitchcock's and Herrmann's Vertigo

by Matthew Raley This month, the British Film Institute's journal Sight and Sound announced the results of its poll of film critics, distributors, and academics asking, "What is the greatest film of all time?" For the last 50 years, the answer has been Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). But this year, the 846 panel members chose Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

This is one more in a series of critical reevaluations over the last couple of decades that has saved Vertigo from the cool response to its release, from relative obscurity, and even from the ravages of physical decay in Paramount's vaults.

But there is something these two films have in common, which makes this poll a vindication for one artist in particular. The scores for both of the top films were composed by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), the brilliant and belligerent composer who worked with almost all the major directors of his time.

Why did Vertigo have trouble gaining critical and popular acceptance?

One reason may be that its plot turns on a coincidence. Scottie Ferguson fails to save Madeleine Elster from suicidal obsession. After Madeleine falls to her death, the lovesick Scottie stumbles on another woman, Judy Barton, who reminds him of Madeleine. He makes Judy over to look like her, only to discover that, in fact, she is Madeleine—the fraudulent Madeleine he loved. The happenstance of seeing Judy enables him to solve the murder of the real Mrs. Elster.

In outline the scenario seems, to say the least, contrived.

In a series of posts, I will argue that Vertigo's plot is not as contrived as it may appear, and that the plot's success is due in large measure to Herrmann's status as co-narrator with the camera. Hitchcock and Herrmann, for both of whom this film was personally important, deserve the praise they are now receiving.

In the process of analyzing Vertigo, I will also be reflecting on matters of importance to Christians. Are films important spiritually, or are they just entertainment? How should a Christian interact with a film that conflicts with the biblical worldview -- as almost all films do? Should films provide us only with examples of people who "do the right thing?"

I hope this series will not only influence the way you look at films, but also the way you listen to them.