Herrmann's Perfume

In honor of Bernard Herrmann's centennial retrospective in New York, a note on two of his very best, and smallest, pieces of music.
Daniel Kasman

Bernard Herrmann

Above: Portrait of Bernard Herrmann circa 1966. Courtesy Photofest.

A couple weeks ago I was talking to Notebook contributor Paul Clipson, who was in town to show some of his films at the New York Film Festival's Views from the Avant-Garde, about—what else?—film soundtracks.  One of our favorite composers came up, John Barry, and the pleasure of his interstitial music for the James Bond films—not the main themes or title music, but just the little melodies and tones used to help the films express something in less direct moments.  Paul had a wonderful phrase for this, a kind of "perfume," soundtrack music that despite its brevity and perhaps simplicity casts a lingering sense, an aural sense, a flavor, a suggestive, almost secretive and sidelong tone of atmosphere and emotion.

I immediately thought of my favorite interstitial piece by Bernard Herrmann, who is getting a retrospective at New York's Film Forum in honor of the composer's centennial.  It is from François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966), a film I haven't seen since I read the book a decade ago and subsequently have no memory of—yet this short piece, titled "Pills in Bed" (which is combined abruptly with another, and mediocre, snippet on the soundtrack, "Pills in Bed - The Fireman") has always stayed with me.  In its brief seconds (it's a 27 second long piece) it strikes me as essential and essentially Herrmann: romantic, longing, full of melancholy and loss.

Fahrenheit 451 plays on November 3 in a double feature with Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which also features a beautiful interstitial piece by Herrmann, little remarked upon.  It's a little Middle Eastern motif done underneath the pre-dinner meeting scene between James Stewart, Doris Day and Daniel Gélin (as Louis Bernard).  It carries with it an opiated, exoticized feeling, relaxed but, in its drawn strings, suffuse with a dark undercurrent of vague danger, just out of reach.

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AudioAlfred HitchcockFrançois TruffautBernard HerrmannSoundtracksVideos
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