The Story of the Composer Who Wrote Suspenseful Music for Alfred Hitchcock's Films

Aug 13, 2019

Alfred Hitchcock created films filled with mystery, danger, and suspense—with music playing a major role. 

Bernard Herrmann, the prolific Academy Award-winning composer and conductor, collaborated with Hitchcock on seven of his films written between 1955 and 1964, including The Man who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Marnie, The Wrong Man, The Trouble with Harry, and Psycho.

Herrmann's novel orchestrations included using screeching violins during the shower scene in Psycho, the soundtrack of which used a string orchestra. Originally, Hitchcock wasn't in favor of including music in this scene. Herrmann persuaded him otherwise.

He forshadowed drama with musical themes. In Vertigo, a sinister two-note motif opens the suite, mimicking fog horns that will be later heard during a pivotal scene. 

Herrmann's collaboration with Hitchcock ended with a creative dispute over the music for Torn Curtain. That music, never used in the Hitchcock film, was recorded after his death and later made into a concert suite, recorded by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 

Herrmann came to film and TV scoring with a classical background in music and composition. Born in 1911, he grew up in New York, where he studied at NYU and Juilliard. By his early 20s, he had joined a Young Composers Group led by Aaron Copland.

He formed and conducted The New Chamber Orchestra of New York, where he conducted his own works, as well as those of Charles Ives, Milhaud, and other composers whose works were lesser known at the time. In the 1940s, he became Chief Conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, where he led many broadcast premieres. Over the course of his career, Herrmann composed music for dozens of films, from Citizen Kane in 1941 to Taxi Driver, released posthumously in 1976.

His works included a symphony, several tone poems, a contata, Moby Dick—dedicated to Charles Ives—a number of chamber works, and the opera, Wuthering Heights.