Music for Screens: Winter 2012

Just in time for the close of his centennial year, an enterprising film-music label has released a box set of all the music that composer Bernard Herrmann wrote for 20th Century Fox: 18 scores, or more than a third of his entire output as a film composer.

Varese Sarabande’s 14-CD, “Bernard Herrmann at 20th Century Fox” set is said to be the most comprehensive collection of one composer’s work for a single studio ever released. Included are such film-score classics as “Jane Eyre,” “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Some of this music has been released before, although producers Nick Redman and Robert Townson say advances in technology have enabled them to coax better fidelity than ever from the 50-to-60-year-old recordings. And four scores from the 1940s and ’50s — “Hangover Square,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “White Witch Doctor” and “5 Fingers” — make their debuts in this collection.

Herrmann, who started his career with “Citizen Kane” and ended with “Taxi Driver,” composed 50 feature scores, but some (notably such Hitchcock classics as “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) are more revered now than during the composer’s lifetime.

“No one captured emotional states — especially the extremes of desire, anxiety or loneliness — more powerfully,” says Herrmann biographer Steven Smith, “probably because he lived in those extremes and was a highly sensitive person, in both the positive and negative meaning of that word.” Smith and L.A. writer Julie Kirgo penned the essays in the 105-page hardcover book that accompanies the set.

The nearly 15 hours of music “demonstrate an astonishing range and an unparalleled drive for musical invention,” says Townson. “What you hear is an obsessively creative mind striving not only to fulfill his job but, from the sounds of it, to amuse himself.”

The scores span from 1944 (“Jane Eyre”) to 1962 (“Tender Is the Night”). According to Redman, a Fox consultant who is in charge of the studio’s music-restoration program, pre-1953 scores were recorded on optical film; transferring them to digital for release was complicated and not always successful back in the 1990s.

Improved technology now allows for cleaner, better sound, and the Herrmann box is a showcase for the Fox program, which has restored and preserved about 800 of the studio’s scores since it began in 1993.

Fox music chief Alfred Newman championed Herrmann, hiring him regularly throughout the 1940s and 1950s despite what Townson calls “his volatile and combative personality.”

The results included an entire piano concerto for the murder melodrama “Hangover Square,” a groundbreaking use of theremins and electric violins for “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” nine harps to replicate the sound of the sea in “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” and the use of medieval instruments and five different organs for “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Smith says “time has vindicated” the approach of a man vastly underrated during his lifetime.

“He said the composer’s first job was to get inside the drama,” Smith says, “and that’s exactly what he did: He created psychological portraits in music.”

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