The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Apr 08, 2011

Waiting for Wuthering Heights: Fun facts from the Minnesota Opera

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

On April 16, the Minnesota Opera will unveil its production of Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights. Until then, Patrick Dewane, vice president of advancement at the Opera, will be publishing a daily “Bernard Herrmann Fun Fact.” Knight Foundation is sponsoring the HD recording of the opera and will publish Dewane’s fun facts as excitement builds.


April 15

Tomorrow night we will open our production of Bernard Herrmann’s only opera, Wuthering Heights.  Below I have included an article about it from today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.

What is cinematic, and what is operatic?  To my ear, a lot of Puccini sounds cinematic even though he died in 1924, three years before the movie The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talking picture.  So when someone tomorrow night tells me at intermission that Wuthering Heights sounds “very cinematic” I might just respond, “yes, just like Puccini.”  Herrmann completed Wuthering Heights in 1951, a few years prior to the beginning of his great collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock.  And for his 1941 score for Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane Herrmann composed an aria to be sung by the trophy second wife of lead character John Foster Kane.  Kane pushes her to become an opera singer, a career option not suited to her lack of talent and ambition.  She sings Herrmann’s aria badly.  Here it is a link to it being sung well, by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. So is this Te Kanawa being cinematic?  Or Herrmann being operatic?  Both?  Neither? April 14

The Beatles were fans of Psycho and Bernard Herrmann’s music prior to the Fab Four’s explosion onto the music scene.  And Herrmann was a fan of the Beatles before their 1964 invasion of America. While he was recording with a symphony orchestra in London, Herrmann got wind of a sensational new rock group that was playing to wild audiences in Liverpool.  He made his way to The Cavern Club, where the Beatles played 292 engagements from 1961-1963, and caught himself a case of Beatlemania, much to the surprise of the serious musicians back in London. While in Liverpool, he met the Mop Tops backstage and they couldn’t believe the good fortune of getting to know one of their musical idols.  As I posted previously, Paul McCartney and producer George Martin later modeled the staccato cello in Eleanor Rigby on Herrmann’s strings for Psycho.

Eleanor Rigby was released in 1966 on the Beatles’ album Revolver.  Herrmann followed their meteoric career with interest and met up with them again in Hollywood, where they marveled at how far the band had traveled since Herrmann ventured from London to Liverpool circa 1961 to catch their gig. Many of Herrmann’s serious music friends still couldn’t understand what he saw in them.


April 13

The Twin Cities is where Bernard Herrmann composed much of his only opera, Wuthering Heights. His first wife, Lucille Fletcher (Lucy I), was an accomplished writer and penned the Wuthering Heights libretto.  They met in New York while both worked at CBS, Herrmann the chief conductor of the CBS Symphony, and married in 1939.  However, the marriage soured in part because of Herrmann’s relationship with Kathy Lucille Anderson (Lucy II).  And here’s where it gets complicated.  Herrmann and Fletcher divorced in 1948 and he headed for Minneapolis, where Lucy II was living.  While here, Dimitri Mitropoulos arranged for a studio at WCCO Radio where Herrmann composed Wuthering Heights, at one point saying it would be his greatest artistic achievement.  Mitropoulos and Herrmann were friends and Mitropoulos was in town as the Music Director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now Minnesota Orchestra).  So while in Minneapolis, Herrmann was setting to music Lucy I’s libretto while he was spending time with Lucy II.  Writing a gothic romance opera, Bernard Herrmann was living one himself.  Lucy II was also the cousin of Lucy I, ten years her junior. Lucy II and Herrmann married in 1949, a relationship that lasted until 1964.  His breakup with Lucy II roughly coincided with his split with Alfred Hitchcock.


April 12

According to Bernard Herrmann expert Bruce Crawford, Herrmann turned down many film score offers, including Lawrence of Arabia, 2001 Space Odyssey, and The Exorcist. Herrmann was born on the Lower East Side of New York, moved to Hollywood when Orson Welles tapped him to score Citizen Kane, and then spent his later years in England, a staunch Anglophile. Film directors would fly to London to pitch him their projects, including one who said to him, “I want you to write a score as great as Vertigo. A score as great as Psycho!” To which Herrmann is reputed to have responded, “and I want you to create a film half as good as either.”

When Martin Scorsese was working on Taxi Driver he said he wanted the movie to have a Bernard Herrmann-like score, thinking Herrmann was dead.  Not quite, just living in England. Brian DePalma, a friend of Scorsese, had done two films with Herrmann and helped arrange a meeting in London where Herrmann’s final partnership was struck.  And just as Herrmann’s score for Citizen Kane helped lift enfant terrible Orson Welles to international film renown in 1941, his score for Taxi Driver helped Young Turk Martin Scorsese land the top prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Scorsese dedicated the film to Herrmann, who died on Christmas Eve, 1975 the day he finished the final note for his final score. April 11

Yesterday’s New York Times mentioned Bernard Herrmann in an article about the 35th Anniversary Blu Ray reissue of the movie Taxi Driver, The article says, “What could be more expansively operatic than Mr. Scoresese’s opening movement, a 10-minute montage of infernal imagery set to Bernard Herrmann’s threatening, mournful score?” That phrase has a nice ring, doesn’t it, “expansively operatic.” Stephen Sondheim was another artist influenced by Bernard Herrmann, as Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was an homage to the great composer.  A 15 year-old Sondheim saw the 1945 movie Hangover Square twice so he could memorize the Bernard Herrmann score.  He then sent Herrmann a fan letter and discovered they lived around the block from each other in New York City.  Yesterday, at an event at the Minnesota Opera Center, host Phil Gainsley told of an interview he did with Sondheim in Chicago a few years ago when the Lyric Opera of Chicago was producing Sweeney Todd.  Gainsley commented on Herrmann’s relative obscurity, noting that, “Bernard Herrmann is not exactly a household name.”  To which Sondheim quipped, “It depends on whose household.”


April 8 Composer Bernard Herrmann and film director Alfred Hitchcock had perhaps the most prolific composer-director collaboration in Hollywood history, teaming to create: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1957), North By Northwest (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964) and Tom Curtain (1966). According to Herrmann expert Bruce Crawford, Herrmann was the first composer to stand his ground with the powerhouse director, often disregarding Hitchcock’s specific instructions for the music.  For Psycho, Hitchcock had insisted the shower murder scene be done in complete silence.  Herrmann ignored the directive and composed the shrieking violins that have become emblematic of the movie.  When asked later how much of the success of Psycho was due to the music, Hitchcock replied, “33 and one third per cent,” a droll compliment to Herrmann and a reference to the RPM speed of an LP record.  The Psycho score contains only string instruments because that is all they could afford.  The total budget for the film was $800,000.  And yes, black and white film is cheaper than color. Both men had large personalities that inevitably clashed.  Still, at the heart of their relationship was a profound respect.  Their collaboration ended when Hitchcock was pressured by Hollywood to be less old-fashioned as the social changes of the 1960s unfolded.  He fired Herrmann (but paid his full fee) for not getting hip with the times, as Herrmann continued to compose for a symphony orchestra instead of a 60s pop ensemble.  In response, Herrmann chided Hitch for trying to be something he wasn’t.  So Bernard Herrmann, the friend of Paul McCartney and an innovator of electronic music, parted company with Alfred Hitchcock over aesthetics. On a more personal note, Herrmann’s second wife, Lucille Anderson (Lucy II), told Bruce Crawford the story of a dinner party she hosted that was attended by Hitchcock and his spouse.  While Lucille was trying to make Hitchcock a daiquiri her blender broke, ruining the frozen concoction for the legendary director.  She was very embarrassed and fixed him something else.  The next day a large limousine pulled into the driveway of the Herrmann Hollywood home and stopped.  Alfred Hitchcock popped out, and handed Lucille a new blender.


April 7 Bernard Herrmann wrote the original theme music for the TV show The Twilight Zone.  He also wrote music for a few episodes in the first season, music that was recycled in subsequent seasons.  Although he was a classically trained composer and symphony orchestra conductor, Herrmann’s orchestrations went far beyond what you’d normally hear in Carnegie Hall.  For instance, he is credited as the first person to include a theremin in the orchestration of a movie score.  He did so for a 1951 science fiction film, creating the convention that when you hear a theremin you think about zombies or invaders from outer space (or the Beach Boys Good Vibrations). He had a gift for expressing the creepy, which endeared him to his long-time collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock. Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, idolized radio dramatist Norman Corwyn.  Our director for Wuthering Heights, Eric Simonson, won an Oscar in 2006 for his documentary short film about Norman Corwyn’s VE Day radio broadcast On a Note of Triumph, a program heard by 60 million Americans.  And, in a The Twilight Zone-like coincidence, Bernard Herrmann wrote the music for On a Note of Triumph.


April 6 Paul McCartney and composer Bernard Herrmann were friends. In fact, the staccato cello in the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” came directly from Herrmann’s scores for the movies “Psycho” and “Fahrenheit 451.”   This is according to several interviews with McCartney and the Beatles’ producer, Sir George Martin.  Then when McCartney was asked to score a movie he called Bernard Herrmann for help.  As a thank you, Paul McCartney gave Herrmann a painting by Marc Chagall.



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