This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 7, October 2011. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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Before sound came, film was a disquieting medium. The pale, spectral images were unnerving to viewers in their silence. Music, usually in the guise of live pianists, organists and the occasional cinema orchestra, transformed film and added life and warmth. ‘Ghostly shadows, as volatile as clouds, thus become trustworthy shapes,’ wrote the influential German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer in his book, Theory of Film (1960). Yet film music was always more than simple comfort for phantasmagoric illusions. Like the aphorism often attributed to Jean Cocteau, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if the music is propelling the film, or if the film is propelling the music. In film, music talks.

My love of film music began when I was eight years old. I had been at home sick from school and my mother brought out a VHS tape. It was jacketed in a jet-black cover with a patch of red, and it had been re-labelled several times as each segment of unmissable television was recorded over the last. That day, the label read ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)’. It had been recorded from late-night ABC, complete with John Hinde’s introduction. Hinde’s bald head and horn-rimmed glasses were utterly transfixing, and his cheerful introduction to the film was a gateway.

I adored Robin Hood on that first viewing. The tab was promptly snapped off the tape to preserve its valuable contents, the label never to be written over again. The film was perfect in every way: Errol Flynn’s green tights and roguish goatee as Robin; dapper Basil Rathbone as evil-doer Sir Guy of Gisbourne; Robin and his Merry Men swinging on ludicrous golden-age Hollywood vines; the iconic castles, drawbridges and moats.

What I loved most about the film was its music. Robin Hood ’s score is the type of straight-faced adventure music that is rarely heard these days: all Viennese waltzes and fanfares, comical bassoons, mawkish violins, and galloping woodwinds mickey-mousing every horse ride. It was wonderful. I’d pick out the main theme on the family piano instead of my scales; I’d hum the archery tournament flourishes to myself while doing homework. Robin Hood’s music became part of my own imaginative landscape, a richly sketched musical universe that only I inhabited.

A decade later, I was in my first year of university. The label on my copy of Robin Hood had long faded – as impermanent as the scratchy VHS tape itself. Another moment of idleness (this time aided by the internet and the lean contact hours of an Arts degree) led to an astonishing discovery: the soundtrack was widely considered to be some kind of classic. I had fooled myself into believing that I was the world’s sole appreciator of Robin Hood ’s music.

The music had been composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), an Austro-Hungarian prodigy who’d once performed for Mahler and been praised by Puccini (‘He has so much talent he could easily give half away’). Already a noted film composer in his homeland, Korngold was invited to Hollywood to write Robin Hood in 1938. The year was decisive, and while he was in America, Germany annexed Austria in the anschluss. As a Jew, it became impossible for Korngold to return home. He would later say that The Adventures of Robin Hood saved his life.

In retrospect, it was Korngold’s Robin Hood, along with the work of another Austrian Jew (Max Steiner’s score for King Kong) that established many of the traditions of film music. The two composers brought an instinctive talent and highly technical craft to their art and in the process imported the concert-hall fashions of contemporary Europe – Viennese orchestration, colour and Wagnerian leitmotif – to Hollywood. It was an odd moment of old-world/new-world smudging, an awkward and beautiful affair of high and low cultures.

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Since discovering Korngold’s Robin Hood, film music has become my obsession. It is no longer about finding familiar jingles; it has gone well beyond seeking out music to a film I’ve never seen. I will now pore over the curios of particular composers, their misses as well as their hits, searching for a more complete understanding of their oeuvre. This is because film music is not just simple sounds attachedto moving pictures: there is meaning here, too.

Perhaps the clearest example of a deeper meaning in film music comes from John Williams’s 1977 score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s film about the fractured lives of those who encounter UFOs. For all its visual flair and Spielberg pedigree, Close Encounters contains a breathtaking illustration of music, film and communication. The five-note chime used by the film’s aliens still says one thing today as clearly as it did in 1977: ‘Hello.’

Close Encounters is, in many ways, a film about communication. Characters struggle to make themselves understood – they yell, they gesticulate, and they use whatever materials are close to hand as tools with which to communicate. Even François Truffaut, the great film critic and director who was responsible for many developments in meaning and the cinema (notably auteur theory) appears in the film as a French scientist struggling to make himself understood through a translator.

In contrast to the aborted communication in Close Encounters, John Williams’s music is perfectly articulate. From the sonorous dissonance of the early alien encounters to the reverential awe of the climax, the orchestral score speaks effortlessly and fluently to the audience, as does the five-note chime of the aliens. That aliens would use music in this way seems unlikely, yet it plays into one of humanity’s longest-held fantasies: that music might be a universal language. ‘What are we saying to each other?’ asks another scientist on the first approach of the aliens. ‘It seems they’re trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,’ says another. ‘It’s the first day of school, fellas.’

Film music is, in its own way, some sort of universal language. It is at once both the most abstract of symbolisms and the most concrete of iconographies: a lingua franca where two notes from the double bass might mean ‘shark’; where shrieking, screamingly high-pitched violins might mean ‘murder’; and where the twang of a jaw harp and a lone whistle might mean ‘gunfight’.

I find difficult people easy,’ Bernard Herrmann (1911–75) told the Los Angeles Free Press in 1971. ‘Nice guys are difficult. It’s a disguise. They’re not nice. They’re vicious, vindictive people.’

Explosive, insecure and paranoid, the New York-born Herrmann was perhaps the most brilliant film composer to ever live. Whatever problems he had communicating with people, or so-called ‘nice guys’, they never impacted on his ability to convey emotion, narrative and drama through music. For these reasons, Herrmann became my favourite composer, not just of film music but of music; and not immediately, in some revelatory moment, but over time and with discernment. For me, his appeal is different from the easy melodies of a Korngold or a Williams. It lies instead in atmosphere and complexity. Like his ‘difficult people’, Herrmann’s best is beyond the surface.

Herrmann’s career reads like a film studies handbook: Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo and Taxi Driver, to name a few. That brilliance was, however, always tempered by Herrmann’s liminal successes; he was often considered too intellectual for Hollywood and too popular for the concert hall. ‘One way or another, all American composers are invisible,’ wrote critic Alex Ross in his study of the classical music of the twentieth century, The Rest Is Noise. If this was true of even the most celebrated of American composers, the likes of Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and Duke Ellington (for whom Ross argues persuasively), then it was doubly true of Herrmann. As a film composer, his invisibility was twofold. At a lecture at Eastman College in 1973, Herrmann bemoaned the exclusion of his work from the academy and the art institutions of his day: ‘I’ve spent my entire career combating ignorance.’

Yet as a filmmaker, Herrmann understood film and dramatic narrative with a precision that rivalled many of the directors he worked with. Abandoning melody meant Herrmann created nimble scores, capable of hairpin turns to match the onscreen emotion – one minute threatening and full of bombast, the next tender and light. Unlike the music of the Korngold era, which relied on long-winded melodies that often overpowered dramatic subtleties, Herrmann’s small units of sound were bent to generate emotion.

Herrmann’s technical innovations, a product of years working at CBS radio with Orson Welles, also meant his music had a unique, inimitable sound: from soft bass f lutes mixed with cacophonous kettle drums for Mysterious Island to the strings-only score for Psycho (‘black-and-white music for a black-and-white film’) to experimental electronic instruments for The Day The Earth Stood Still. His final, unused collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, Torn Curtain, was to feature 16 French horns and 12 f lutes. ‘The sound of twelve flutes,’ said Herrmann, ‘will be terrifying.’

There was a sophisticated art behind Herrmann’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. Each film has its own musical landscape, but there is also an overall cohesion unusual for a single director– composer relationship. Across all eight films, for example, scenes of mystery and investigation are invariably scored by variations on a Ravel-like ostinato in the harp and strings. Love scenes in North By Northwest and Torn Curtain also musically reference the love theme from Vertigo, as if the scenes from all three movies are merely variations on a Hitchcock theme. Herrmann had a way of playfully pointing out the reoccurring subject matter of Hitchcock’s films, lending a sort of irony to their collaborations.

There are also other distinct moments of genius. The shower scene from Psycho (a scene Hitchcock hadn’t originally wanted scored) has now entered the pop lexicon via a thousand parodies. Then there’s the opening fandango of North By Northwest, a musical whirlwind that anticipates Cary Grant’s merry dance with the world. Herrmann’s greatest moment, however, is the scene d’amor from Vertigo, where Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) refashions Judy (Kim Novak) in the image of his dead lover Madeleine. The music is allowed complete control over the five-minute scene; there’s no dialogue to compete with, and Herrmann, by way of Liebestod (‘love death’) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, achingly transfigures Judy’s music into Madeleine’s. ‘Music,’ wrote Hitchcock in his instructions to Herrmann, ‘will be enough here.’

Vertigo was both my first Herrmann score and my first Hitchcock film, and I have never quite been able to untangle the two. The unflappable English director and the fractious American composer are never better combined than in the final seconds of the film, my favourite Herrmann moment. Vertigo ends with a literal cliff hanger, as Scotty looks out onto a chasm that has just claimed his lover. While the images are inconclusive (will he jump too?), the music is deafeningly certain, catastrophic in its desolation.

Hitchcock gave Herrmann more credit than any of his other collaborators (‘33 per cent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music,’ the notoriously reticent director admitted), and the eight films they created together between The Trouble With Harry in 1955 and Marnie in 1964 are probably Hitchcock’s best. But Hitch was not impressed with Torn Curtain’s 12 ‘terrifying’ flutes in 1965. Under pressure from studio bosses to find a trendy ‘beat score’ and a pop song, Hitchcock fired Herrmann and they never spoke again.

Herrmann maintained some critical success post-Hitchcock, with work for François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black) and Brian De Palma (Obsession and Sisters). His greatest score outside of Hitchcock, however, was also his last – Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. This was a perfect musical visualisation of the grungy, rainy world of Travis Bickle, compressed into a swirling orchestra that ebbs and f lows beneath a cold and lonely alto saxophone. After recording the final notes of the score on 23 December 1975, Herrmann returned to his hotel room where he lay down to sleep, and died.

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Speaking at Eastman College in 1973, Bernard Herrmann described film music as ‘a completely unstudied territory, like how in the old days there used to be atlases of the world with unexplored regions marked in white and labeled “unknown”’. Though more has been uncovered and codified since Herrmann’s day, film music remains relatively unexplored territory. Moreover, film music has retained the thrill of exploration: from virtuosos like Herrmann pioneering the communicative language of film music to eight-year-old boys encountering new worlds through The Adventures of Robin Hood.