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A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann - Steven C. Smith

A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann - Steven C. Smith

(1991; first paperback printing 2002)

University of California Press

Trade paperback, 429 pages

Includes photos, an appendix “The Music of Bernard Herrmann,” notes, selected bibliography, index, photos

ISBN 978-0-520-22939-6

“I’ve spent my entire career combating ignorance.”

Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was a brilliant composer, and not just of film music. He could also be a real handful. Here’s one of his more pleasant exchanges with others: During Herrmann’s first day of recording the score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Steven Spielberg (who’d just finished Jaws) told Herrmann how much he liked his music. Herrmann’s response? “Yeah? Well, if ya admire my music so much, why do ya always use Johnny Williams for your pictures?” (p. 355)


A Heart at Fire’s Center (an accurate, if not awkward title): The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith is one of those rare biographies of a difficult, multifaceted man who worked in a specialized medium in an industry that is both artistic and economic. I am assuming that anyone reading this review is at least a casual movie fan, but perhaps not an authority on music. Smith expertly gives the non-musician enough crucial information without getting too technical, yet satisfies readers who may be classically trained. This is no easy task.

We follow Herrmann’s childhood and musical development, his embrace of unheralded living composers (especially Charles Ives) as well as those from the past, names the most diehard art music connoisseurs had even then long forgotten. To understand Herrmann’s passion for both music and excellence, you have to understand many important signposts marking his life, not just one or two events. Herrmann devoured everything he read, saw, and listened to and was normally frustrated with those who couldn’t keep up with him musically or intellectually. Even those who did understand and appreciate him often bore the brunt of his indignation (justified or not), causing fractured and/or broken relationships throughout his entire life.

Herrmann’s musical world was vast. He wrote small and large-scale works: cantatas, a symphony, an opera, orchestra suites, and more. He knew conductors Sir Thomas Beecham, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, and many others (some of whom he even liked). He wrote music for radio (working with Orson Welles, among others), television (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and many others), and, of course, film.

All of the major films (and some of the minor ones) are covered here, beginning with Herrmann’s first film score in 1941, Citizen Kane (not a bad way to start) and ending with Taxi Driver. This journey alone is worth the price of the book, not only in giving the reader the nuts and bolts of how a musical score should be put together, but also the artistic and financial battles Herrmann had to wage in order to produce works both lasting and of superior quality. At times, Herrmann’s dogged dedication to excellence (as well as his insistence on being proven right in musical matters) served to frequently shoot himself in the foot. Herrmann was far from a man of tact, and often found himself either walking away from projects or outright dismissed by those who considered his undisputed talents not worth the trouble.

Smith provides a generous sampling of Herrmann’s letters, both personal and professional, which give us more than a glimpse into the conflicts that troubled the composer all his life. Herrmann was volatile, irascible, and vitriolic, yet could also be kind, generous, and loyal. Near the end of his life, as he was not getting jobs from the Hollywood establishment, he discovered that younger filmmakers such as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Larry Cohen were eager to work with him and learn from a true master. I am convinced that these projects kept Herrmann going longer than he might have without them.

A Heart at Fire’s Center is not only about a fascinating life, but also how we look at film music then and now. Herrmann had the uncanny ability to watch the rough cut of a film and know exactly what would musically convey a character’s inner thoughts, the mood the audience should feel, and the tension necessary to make an audience unbearably anxious. (Want to know why the shower scene in Psycho works so well? Read this book.) During the pre-music screening of Obsession (1976), director Brian De Palma and editor Paul Hirsch were concerned when they heard Herrmann’s laughter. Herrmann smiled and said, “I’m laughing because I can hear the music already - but you’ll have to wait.” (p. 342)

Many movie fans will no doubt pick up the book only for the sections on Welles and Hitchcock, and if that’s the case, they won’t be disappointed. But reading the entire biography will not only give you a picture of one of the undisputed masters of film music (and more), but also an in-depth look at how Hollywood understands (and usually misunderstands) the power and impact of a good musical score. A Heart at Fire’s Center is an amazingly well-constructed work that will be embraced by anyone who loves movies. It gets my highest recommendation.

Photos: BBC, IMDb, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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