Thursday 22 June 2017

Music to be murdered by

Edel Coffey

Music is the soundtrack to our emotions and, a lot of the time, we don't even realise it. When I'm sad, I find a corresponding album and lie down (I'm a bit of a wallower like that); when the sun is shining, I select something with a big drumbeat and bone-shaking bass and stick my head out the car window (metaphorically speaking, of course).

When watching a film, most of us are only subconsciously aware of the attendant soundtrack, as it tends to sit below the dialogue and imagery in terms of importance.

But the power of music in film cannot be underestimated. Last week, I watched Darren Aronovsky's much-hyped film Black Swan and Clint Mansell's stark interpretation of Tchaikovsky's genius feels like ice spreading through your body, creeping slowly through your veins leaving a brittle trail in its wake. I haven't heard anything quite as chilling as the segment entitled Opposites Attract and it perfectly complements the mental breakdown of Natalie Portman's ballerina character Nina.

It reminded me of just how important a soundtrack can be, whether we're aware of its influence or not, reinforcing the emotional context of the drama and guiding us in how we should feel.

Some of the most famous pieces of music are memorable because they're inextricably connected with certain iconic moments in film. Think of the two-note genius of Jaws, portraying the encroaching attack of a killer shark.

Another such iconic soundtrack is the screeching, stabbing violins of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The man behind that score and many other Hitchcock films was Bernard Herrmann and next February 9 the RTE Concert Orchestra will perform Music To Be Murdered By, a selection of Herrmann's music, to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

The concert will include music from Psycho and Vertigo, along with other pieces including Taxi Driver, Ben Hur and Airport.

Herrmann was born to Russian immigrant parents in New York in 1911. They encouraged his early musical endeavours and he studied composition at NYU. By the time he had graduated he was conducting the New Chamber Orchestra, playing his own original works.

In 1941, he met Orson Welles and went on to work with him on Citizen Kane, but the partnership didn't last long as Herrmann didn't take too kindly to his work being harshly edited.

Like most perfectionists, Herrmann was difficult to work with. He had an explosive temper and expected, often demanded, perfection from the musicians he worked with. He was grouchy and impatient, but ultimately his passion and vision led to some of the most memorable scores of the 20th century.

In the 1950s he forged his most famous film relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock, with the scores for The Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and, perhaps, most famous of all, Psycho (1960). He went on to work with François Truffaut, Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese, who dedicated Taxi Driver to him (Herrmann died the day after he finished recording the score for the film).

Herrmann's scores were known for their intensity, their suffocating bleakness and their accuracy of emotion when it came to interpreting the meaning of the dialogue or action on screen.

The partnership lasted over a decade and Herrmann was certainly as important to Hitchcock's career as he was to Hermann's. Hitchcock had originally left the motel scenes in Psycho silent until an early audience test prompted him to re-edit it. He asked Herrmann to write a score and the result was the legendary, instantly recognisable attack of the violins.

When Hitchcock tested this version on audiences, he knew he had a hit. Assistant director Hilton Green said, "When Bernard Herrmann's music started shrieking everybody came off their seats a good six inches. When even the fellows who photographed it were taken, we knew we were successful!''

The RTE Concert Orchestra will honour Herrmann's contribution to 20th century film by performing Music to be Murdered By on Wednesday, February 9, in the National Concert Hall

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