Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann) 60th Anniversary – Soundtrack Review

Bernard Herrmann’s music is as synonymous with Alfred Hitchcock‘s greatest movies  as the director himself, packed full of tension, high drama and sweeping romantic moments. From North by Northwest to Psycho, Herrmann created the scores that captured the intensity of Hitchock’s work. And Vertigo is no different.

The American Film Institute’s list of the greatest films of all-time, (The AFI 100), places Vertigo at #9, and is one of only six entries to note the importance of the film score in the film’s ranking. Along with Herrmann’s Psycho, Vertigo is simply one of the greatest pieces of film music ever recorded. Although both of these scores were so highly regarded, neither of them was nominated for an Oscar. The score was composed between January and February of 1958 in London and Vienna after a musicians’ strike prevented the score from being recorded in Los Angeles. Research conducted during the two-year-long film restoration of Vertigo uncovered the original master recordings of the music score at Paramount Pictures. These stereo masters were used on a much-expanded CD of the original soundtrack recording released by Varèse Sarabande in 1996. This vinyl re-issue consists only of the original 1958 soundtrack program.

For Vertigo’s 60th anniversary, this LP has been remastered from the analog tapes, pressed at RTI on to 180 gm vinyl, and slipped into a classic tip-on jacket from Stoughton Press.

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It’s easy to take for granted just how gorgeous Herrmann’s music is, but this release, split across two sides, is an astonishingly good score. He effortlessly blends racing, dramatic pieces with sweeping romantic overtures and perhaps more so than his work on Psycho and North by Northwest, there is a real sense of gentle passion in those softer pieces.

The score opens with a tense rise and fall of strings, heavy blast of brass mixed with chimes and soft violins. It’s atmospheric and bold and feels classic Hitchcock in style. Herrmann follows this with three minutes of intense flourish of strings, a swirling motif that almost feels uncomfortable to listen to. As the more dramatic of the two sides, the heavy and ominous beat and rumbling percussion add to the drama of the score.

But perhaps the score’s strength really lies in that beautiful, charming romantic tone that follows. The soft string movement has a somewhat melancholy edge, rising into something sweet and ethereal. Again, the bolder of the two sides, Herrmann builds tension again with the dramatic rise and fall of strings, full of sadness and intensity. When the blast of percussion builds in there is a real sense of grandeur unfolding, while the offbeat mix of percussion and strings that follow create a sense of dread.

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It’s a score perfectly encapsulating the tension of Hitchcock’s work and that is felt to the very end of side A. The repeating string beat ascends into a gorgeous, timeless, breathless piece, full of passion and grandeur, before ending with a harsh racing strings and thundering percussion that reaches an ominous, forbidding end.

Side two is somewhat less dramatic, though its soft opening with its spiralling string motif and brash percussion is full of tension. When Herrmann adds the harp to the romantic score, it feels grand and melancholy in equal measure. His work, even 60 years later, has a wonderful, timeless feel; you can feel the emotion of the piece and the drama in the dramatic racing moments teased throughout.

The ominous horn and slow, falling strings raise tension as the score builds towards the film’s climax. the repeating motif, the rise and fall of feathered strings and the slow, orchestral movement is sumptuous, as Herrmann ends the score with a brash thundering percussion and grim, ominous ending that is a heavier version of the repeating romantic motif.

Unlike some scores, Herrmann’s work for Vertigo is somewhat harder to review. It’s passion and grandeur is infamous, the tension and the romance is something a triumph but there is little that can be said that hasn’t already been discussed. What I can confirm is that this is something quite special, and recreated on vinyl it is sure to be a must-have for any fan of Herrmann’s work and great movie scores in general.

1 comment

  1. Thanks for info and well written review. Another example of how irrelevant the Oscars are. In 1959 a piece of obnoxious sacchrine,GIGI, swept the awards. Awards be damned- Long live Herrmann and Hitchcock!

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