Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

The greatest director-composer teams of all time were at their highest point during the turbulent decade—the 1960s. Their disagreements or stumbling blocks encountered when creating some of the most memorable moments in film were the kinds of tests that earmarked this era. Bernard Hermann‘s composing was prolific and memorable through the late 50’s, some say due to his relationship with Alfred Hitchcock. However, Hermann did not see himself or his work as an extension of the director and stated that he disliked the term “film composer,” since music for film was only one part of a musician’s output. His dedication, or some say stubbornness, had culminated in a moment where he would challenge the supremely exacting Hitchcock on musical details for the shower that will forever live in the collective unconscious.

Hermann used only strings for the entire Psycho soundtrack, since the budget did not allow for a full orchestra. He was not enthusiastic about the project at first, viewing it as cheap exploitation. While going over Hitchcock’s extensively detailed script notes, he noticed that Hitchcock specifically indicated that there should be no music for the scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is killed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in the shower. Hitchcock had planned to do a neatly timed montage of swift stabbing movements and the victim’s reactions, and wanted silence to highlight the horror of the moment. Herrmann simply ignored the note, as he was wont to do when he disagreed with a director and resurrected a theme of screeching

string sounds from a 1935 concerto he composed entitled Sinfonietta for String Orchestra. When Hitchcock heard the theme he was surprised, but relented because he liked Herrmann’s addition. However, the next time Hermann decided to ignore Hitchcock’s notes, he was not so agreeable. In Torn Curtain (1966), Herrmann again decided to accompany a murder scene that was slated to be silent. Only this time he brought an entirely new orchestra including 12 flutes, 16 horns, and 9 trombones into the studio without Hitchcock’s consent. The director’s reaction was to immediately fire him and hire British composer John Addison to create an entirely new score for the film, and thus an intense collaboration was sadly ended forever.

Director Blake Edwards and composer Henry Mancini‘s collaborations on The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s characterized the lighter, more sentimental side of the 1960s. Audrey Hepburn and Henry Mancini were good friends, and when Mancini composed “Moon River” for her, he ecstatically presented the idea to Edwards. His first reaction was less than enthusiastic. He thought that it was not only irrelevant to the plot, but that it would be inappropriate for her character to break into song. After much stonewalling on the part of Ms. Hepburn, the unforgettable scene of Holly Golightly strumming a guitar on the fire escape, while singing of a time in the future when she would find the rainbow’s end was added to the movie. Not only is it an indispensable peek into the vulnerability of the character, but also one of the greatest film music moments of all time. Mancini had become a strong personality in the music world by this time and also proved himself a master of character subjectivity. However, this did not spark a trend of composers’ opinions resting on equal footing with those of directors.

One of the more bizarre film scores of the 1960s was Mancini’s score for the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, which also starred Audrey Hepburn. This eerie score, which includes two pianos tuned a quartertone apart, has never been issued commercially as a soundtrack album. Near the end of the decade an avalanche of experimentation was unleashed, inaugurated by Quincy Jones‘ avant-jazz score for In Cold Blood (1967).

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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