HERRMANN “Citizen Kane” Filmscore. “Hangover Square” Filmscore; Concerto Macabre

by Walter Simmons



HERRMANN “Citizen Kane” Filmscore. “Hangover Square” Filmscore; Concerto Macabre – Rumon Gamba, cond; BBC Philharmonic; Orla Boylan (sop); Martin Roscoe (pn) – CHANDOS CHAN-10577 (77:31)

I write as neither a collector of, nor an expert in, nor an enthusiast of filmscores, but rather, as one who enjoys the musical language and mode of expression employed in the filmscores of the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s—that is, autonomous works that embrace that language, rather than the scores themselves, and not necessarily the “serious” works by the composers of such scores, although there are exceptions. One such exception is the ConcertoMacabre based on Bernard Herrmann’s music for the 1945 film Hangover Square. The film concerns a composer named George Harvey Bone who is prone to mental “blackouts” during which he commits violent murders of which he has no recollection once he is back in his “normal” state. Of course, there is more to it than that, e.g., he falls in love with a sexy chanteuse, who prefers that he write popular songs for her to sing, instead of those heavy symphonic works. However, Bone, a rather driven fellow, is working on a piano concerto, which he is striving mightily to complete. Let me not pretend that the film is a masterpiece; it is filled with clichés, and the ending is one utterly predictable cliché. Nevertheless, the mood set by Herrmann’s music transcends the limitations of the film per se, and turns what might otherwise be a mediocre melodrama into something that touches upon the tragedy of being a serious artist in a world that recognizes only commercial success. No doubt many composers can identify with Bone—I myself know several who regard him as their alter ego.

For the 1941 film Dangerous Moonlight Richard Addinsell wrote a pseudo-concerto, which became immensely popular at the time, and was known as the Warsaw Concerto. Evidently its success spawned a rash of such “concertos,” e.g., Miklos Rozsa’s “Spellbound Concerto,” based on the Hitchcock film, which was released just about the same time as Hangover Square. But Herrmann’s concerto is a bit more interesting, because, although it is only 11 minutes long, it weaves into a one-movement “concertino”-type form all the motifs that accompanied various crucial moments in the drama. Toward the end of the film, while Bone performs the premiere of the concerto, his terrible deeds come flooding back to him, having been hitherto repressed from his consciousness, while he plays the very music associated with those deeds. The musical style is dark and gloomy neo-romanticism, a cut above the sentimentality that usually infects even the better filmscores. Again, I am not asserting that the Concerto Macabre is a masterpiece. But it is a real piece of music that could hold its own in the concert hall, where I have no doubt that it would provide a great deal of enjoyment for many listeners. But militating against such a desirable outcome even more than its origin as a filmscore is the absurd reality that the 10 to 12-minute piece for piano and orchestra—of which there are manyfine examples—simply has no place on today’s predictably boring, narrowly-conceived concert programs. (But thank goodness for recordings—they will long outlast the live-orchestra-concert experience, I am sure. I could go on about this, but let’s get back on track.)

Along with the Concerto Macabre is the somewhat ambiguous, “Music from ‘Hangover Square,’ arranged from the original manuscripts by Stephen Hogger.” I would like to know just what it was that Stephen Hogger did with these manuscripts? Orchestrate them? But Herrmann’s orchestration is so distinctive, that would be hard to believe. It is not any sort of “fantasy” or “symphonic suite” designed for listeners, but sounds like the various “cues” from which the original soundtrack was drawn. That is, a series of short clips of a minute or two in duration, which just sort of start and then stop, one after the other. This is why I began this review with those qualifications: I think that a film-music specialist might prefer to have just those cues, without any “doctoring.” But I prefer having the music tastefully integrated into a more coherent musical form. Nevertheless, in this case those short clips introduce the listener to the musical ideas that form the basis of the “concerto.”

Also on the CD is a 49-minute entity called, “Music from ‘Citizen Kane,’ arranged from the original manuscripts by Stephen Hogger.” My question in the previous paragraph applies here as well. Just what is it that we are listening to, and just what was Stephen Hogger’s contribution to it? I trust that most readers are aware that Herrmann’s career as a film composer began with Citizen Kane and ended with Taxi Driver (the art of cinema evolved quite a bit during that 35-year period!). But when Herrmann, not yet 30, confronted the task of creating music for Kane, he was already a relatively experienced composer, with his own distinctive, instantly recognizable “sound.” (I am struck by the number of commentators who are quick to cite “influences” on Herrmann’s style. Everyone has “influences.” But a “real” composer has a musical personality of his own that transcends whatever influences may lurk in the background. That is certainly true of Herrmann, as can be readily gleaned from the very opening music to Kane, with its ominous emphasis on lower woodwinds and brass.) Some of the music for Kane is fairly ordinary, and there isn’t much substance to some of the cues, but some is really quite striking. But certainly the most notable excerpt is the aria that Herrmann composed, from a fictitious operatic version of Flaubert’s Salammbô, to portray the dismal performance of Kane’s mistress, whose operatic aspirations Kane was promoting. To convey all this without resorting to caricature, which would be a cheap shot, was a challenge that the composer met masterfully. The point was to create a truly grand aria, one that was somewhat—but not ludicrously—beyond the grasp of the aspiring soprano. Adopting a quasi-Massenet language, he created an aria, set to a text from Racine’s Phêdre, which a) achieved its dramatic purpose, b) is a perfectly respectable aria (and an ideal selection with which to stump your friends), and c) is pure Herrmann from top to bottom. Soprano Orla Boylan does an adequate job of presenting the aria (straight, without the dramatic aspects). However, there was a recording made around 1980, conducted by Charles Gerhardt, on which the aria was performed by none other than Kiri Te Kanawa. That was a greatrendition. That recording, which also offered the Concerto Macabre in a fine performance by Joaquin Achucarro, was reissued on CD at one point, but seems to have been discontinued (although it can be purchased from such sources as Amazon.com). But Martin Roscoe, who plays the “concerto” on this recording, is equally impressive.

The BBC Philharmonic performs these selections as if they were deathless masterpieces, under the inspiring leadership of Rumon Gamba, and the sound quality of the recording is stunning.
            Before signing off, I must put in a pitch for Herrmann’s magnum opus, an operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights. There was a recording—alas, with some mediocre singing—released during the 1970s, but it is no longer available. A reissue of this recording—or better yet, a new recording with superior singing—is desperately needed, as this is a great work, I believe.