Chamber Music of Herrmann & Moross

Throughout his life, Bernard Herrmann was a passionate champion not only of film music but of all forms of music he considered significant — public opinion notwithstanding. As chief conductor of the CBS Symphony, as a guest conductor elsewhere, and in his recordings, Herrmann performed an impressive repertoire of works by the famous, the forgotten, and the unjustly neglected. The concert music of others was as central to Herrmann's life as his own composing for film — which raises the question: why is his own body of concert music so small?

Part of the answer can be found in a Herrmann quote from 1945: “[A composer] can write a film score for any musical combination and hear it immediately performed. Moreover the film gives him the largest audience in the world — an audience whose interest and appreciation should not be underestimated.” By 1951, Herrmann had written several large-scale concert works — including a symphony and a cantata — which received lavish premieres, then fell into the abyss that swallowed too much contemporary music. His opera, Wuthering Heights, would not be performed until after his death. On the other hand, Herrmann's genius for dramatic composition brought him hundreds of commissions in film, radio and television.

By 1964, however, the volatile composer had become so unpopular in Hollywood — and his music was thought so “old-fashioned” in an era of pop-music soundtracks — that his film career virtually stopped. Work was not the only casualty of that time: his wife of 17 years, Lucy Anderson, could no longer bear his emotional tirades towards her and others and left him.

Alone and unemployed, Herrmann sought solace in composition and in 1965 wrote his first concert work in 14 years — “a series of nostalgic emotional remembrances” for string quartet entitles Echoes. (Given his depression, the work's title may also recall a feeling he expressed to first wife Lucille Fletcher at the time of their separation in 1947: “More and more I feel that perhaps I am not possessed of any real great talent. It is perhaps an echo of a talent — that is why I can conduct and do all kinds of musical activities — they are all echoes — never the real voice.”)

The piece itself is bleak and confessional. While many of its memories remain private (making Echoes, in its unassuming way, Herrmann's Enigma Variations), others can be guessed by allusions to past works. Running through each of its ten sections is Herrmann's typical disregard for formal development or long melody lines, in favor of an affecting simplicity of expression. Most of Herrmann's favorite devices appear: a sad valse lente, a lyrical barcarolle, a habañera with its allure of Latin syncopation — each recalling happier occasions through the melancholy vision of the present. Some episodes deliberately seem to impart no feeling at all, like the Prelude, its “cool objectivity…the expression not of an emotional neutrality but of a state of mind in which the nerves have ceased to vibrate with their former frequency and register impulses only as remembered echoes.” (To quote Herrmann's friend Christopher Palmer).

The origins of the Allegro are unmistakable: the plucked signature of its opening is Psycho's violent prelude, the crying violin harmonics of its coda Vertigo's lost Madeleine. Soon this brief outburst of emotion gives way, inexorably, to the solemn epilogue-prelude, the dark, low tones of viola and cello forming a stepladder for the violins' climbing harmonics, abandoned at the peak of their range in a last, poignant expression of isolation. (The work's dedication “To N.S.” was not, as some believed, to the next Mrs. Herrmann, Norma Shepherd — whom he did not meet until 1966 — but to Nancy Sanderson, a friend who also had gone through a painful separation at the time of Echoes.)

The String Quartet received its premiere on December 2, 1966 in London's Great Drawing Room in St. James' Square, in a recital that also featured Edmund Rubbra's Third String Quartet. Of a subsequent recording of Echoes, Gramophone observed: “The quartet repertory…is surely badly in need of other pieces which are something other than fully serious large-scale works; here is such a piece, and it includes many passages of real beauty into the bargain.”

Bernard Herrmann's Clarinet Quintet “Souvenirs de Voyage,” written in January, 1967, was its composer's final piece of concert music. (In 1975, Herrmann began sketching an Organ Symphony “after Four Visions by John Martin” — a work he did not live to complete.) 1967 was a time of personal renewal for Herrmann. His long creative relationship with Alfred Hitchcock had ended painfully the previous year; Herrmann re-settled in London, where he began recording his concert music, composed a superb score for Truffaut's film of “Fahrenheit 451” and — on New Year's Eve, 1966 — met Norma Shepherd, who in 1967 became the third Mrs. Herrmann.

Like his earlier string quartet “Echoes,” the Clarinet Quintet is nostalgic and often melancholy, but its romanticism and tonal colors are immeasurably warmer — a change attributable to Herrmann's two key relationships of the period, this professional one with Truffaut and especially his personal life with Norma.

The quintet's more specific inspirations come from three distinct artistic sources. The first movement owes its origin to A.E. Housman's poem “On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble” (from the Shropshire Lad collections, the source of musical settings by Herrmann 23 years earlier). Unlike Vaughan Williams' song adaptation of the poem in his cycle On Wenlock Edge, Herrmann's use of Housman's verse is more suggestive than literal; it evokes (to quote Christopher Palmer) “the force which plays havoc with the minds of men, now as in the days when Wenlock Edge was part of a Roman encampment.” Herrmann alternates his tumultuous setting, filled with gusty clarinet arpeggios and fluttering string tremolos, with a lovely valse triste for violin, suggesting in the coda Housman's last stanza:

The gale, it plies, the saplings double,

It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone;

To-day the Roman and his troubles

Are ashes under Uricon.

The second movement Berceuse also carries Vaughan Williams' allusions, shifting topography to Ireland's Aron Islands, site of J.M. Synge's novel Riders to the Sea, which had inspired an opera by the English composer. In the Berceuse one can envision a cloud-drenched, autumnal sunset by the Irish coast, Herrmann's swaying, dreamlike rhythm for strings and sighing clarinet appoggiaturas rising like wave crests against their foundation.

Its dark colorations make way for a third movement contrastingly lush and romantic — not surprising, considering Turner's dazzling Venetian watercolors that served as its inspiration (in Herrmann's only “official” Turner setting, although the artist's influence can be heard throughout Herrmann's music, especially in the cantata “Moby Dick”). A gondolier-like love theme is sung by violins, its gentle ripples heard in viola and clarinet arpeggio responses; a distant trumpet summons is heard from afar, followed by a remote clarinet shanty, one of Herrmann's liveliest and most simple depictions of nature's enticement. A lively tarantella for strings suggests distant revelry, but Herrmann's lovers ignore it; their theme reappears in blissful solitude, left to recede in the tranquility of the night.

In 1927, Bernard Herrmann was a 16-year-old student at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. Bored by his instructors, Herrmann eagerly sought out other rebellious spirits among his peers, and found one — a fellow composer, no less — in his German class: 14-year-old Jerome Moross. A close friendship began, and for the next several years Herrmann and Moross explored the musical by-ways of New York together, attending concerts and seeking out such composers as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, George Gershwin and Morton Gould.

In the early 1930s, as members of the Young Composers Group — a small band of New York composers modeled after the Russian Five, and led by Copland — Herrmann and Moross gave the first public performances of their music. Both composers were inspired by the vigorous American idiom of Ives, Copland and others; but while Herrmann's music was increasingly shaped by European models, Moross was most drawn to American folk music and other popular forms.

His Sonata for Piano Duet and String Quartet, written in 1975, is prime Moross: spontaneous, energetic, accessible. Observed the composer, “I do feel that a composer should write not only what he feels, but in such a way that his audiences experience his emotions anew. Down with Obscurantism!”

The first movement Allegro utilizes the classical pattern of exposition (of two themes), development, recapitulation and coda. The second movement Allegretto is derived from a musical idea that haunted Moross as he struggled with the writing of his opera, “Sorry, Wrong Number”: a lovely theme for strings carried by a gently propulsive accompaniment in piano secundo and answered by piano. This melody is featured in the rondo-like Vivace, which also recalls the two themes of the first movement.

—Steven C. Smith

(Steven C. Smith is the author of A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press, 1991) and editor of Film Composers, the Complete Guide (Lone Eagle Press, 1990).]

Cover Design: Bates Miyamoto Design

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