Sans Celluloid: Bernard Herrmann As A Radio Artist

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Verses by Walt Whitman are the basis of Bernard Herrmann’s score for a 1944 radio play.

Bernard Herrmann: Whitman; Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra; Souvenirs de voyage. PostClassical Ensemble; Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conductor; William Sharp, narrator; David Jones, clarinet; Natanel Draiblate and Eva Cappelletti Chao, violins; Philippe Chao, viola; Benjamin Capps, cello. Naxos 8.559883. Total time: 1:11.

DIGITAL REVIEW – Bernard Herrmann’s Whitman, a stirring radio drama from 1944, has been resurrected in a world premiere recording by the PostClassical Ensemble on an all-Herrmann Naxos disc that includes the exquisite Clarinet Quintet Souvenirs de voyage and a symphonic reconstruction of the music for the film Psycho. This is the kind of interdisciplinary project that the PostClassical Ensemble is noted for; they perform these highly varied works with a refinement we don’t often associate with Herrmann recordings. (Esa Pekka-Salonen’s all-Herrmann CD on Sony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a notable exception.)  

As executive producer Joseph Horowitz states in his provocative program notes, Whitman is a “big discovery” fully worthy of resurrection as a concert work. It is one of 21 radio pieces for actors and orchestra created for CBS by Herrmann and his script writer, Norman Corwin. This is a lost art, but in the 1940s it was enormously popular and influential, with President Roosevelt on board as its biggest cheerleader. A multi-talented producer and director, Corwin headed The Columbia Workshop, originating, writing, casting, and producing an original radio play every seven days. He shrewdly chose Herrmann, who was conducting and writing for the CBS Symphony Orchestra, as composer for the series.

Herrmann’s music for Whitman, scored for strings, piano, harp, and percussion, operates in a sonic dimension of its own even as it comments on the text. The nuanced recitation on this recording narrated by baritone William Sharp emphasizes the musicality of Whitman’s verse (from “Drum Taps,” “Song of Myself,” and other sections of Leaves of Grass) as it interacts with Herrmann’s score and with wartime radio sounds. Christopher Husted’s meticulous reconstruction of the piece, a crystalline performance by conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and a resonant recording allow us to hear every layer.

Whitman is a unique addition to a huge, ever-growing body of Whitman settings, from the high Victorianism of Hubert Parry during Whitman’s lifetime to the bluesy hipness of Leonard Bernstein in the mid-20th century. The flexibility of Whitman’s rhythm, the intimacy of his first-person voice, and the universality of his content have always been a draw for composers even though he was once denounced as profoundly unmusical (a “ninth-rate poet,” in the words of Ezra Pound). Whitman assumed his connection to music to be self- evident. He was an opera critic for the Brooklyn Eagle before he was a poet, and his poems are packed with musical references: in “Inscriptions” he defined his work as hearing the “varied carols” of “America singing.” He regarded music as the “truest,” most organic, and most inspiring art.

Seizing upon Whitman’s rarified late poems as often as his robust early ones, musicians from all eras have used him for an astonishing variety of occasions, often as a force of healing and catharsis. What other poet could seamlessly adapt to such an array of scenarios — bloody battlegrounds in two world wars, a Brooklyn neighborhood of the 1930s in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, a passionate heterosexual love scene in Delius’ Idyll, a passionate gay love scene in Michael Tilson Thomas’ “We Two Boys Together Clinging,” an AIDS hospital in John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (surely Adams’ most moving vocal work). During the period of the Herrmann-Corwin collaborations, Whitman, the pro-immigrant  “poet of Democracy,” was a potent emblem for Weill and other composers in flight from the Nazis, a means of establishing a new American identity. Hindemith actually presented his setting of “Sing on There, In the Swamp” to the judge at his American citizenship hearing.

Bernard Herrmann

Whitman was written as a war effort piece to rally the home front, but it expands into a Whitmanian celebration of the life cycle. It is full of simple, obsessively repeating motifs, a Herrmann signature, the musical equivalent of Whitman’s “simple, separate person,” but it has surpassingly lyrical passages. (We should not forget that Elgar was Herrmann’s favorite composer.)  The section explicating the meaning of “leaves of grass” is brought to life by singing violins, sparkling percussion, and a silken harp. Patriotic tunes appear, as we would expect, but these pastiche moments are rare and often subtle: “America, the Beautiful,” for example, is a far-away echo, like the nostalgic moments in Ives, a composer Herrmann championed as conductor. 

Herrmann’s originality is on full display, and how he comments on the text is never predictable: “all goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,” a climactic affirmation, is enclosed in a sighing suspension rather than a soaring climax, a strangely poignant counterpoint. At other times, sound and sense are completely together, as in the delicate percussion glissandos evoking the “stars so quiet and bright” or the relentless thudding drums and dissonances “chanting the chant of battle,” refusing “dainty rhymes” and “sentimental love verses.”

As the piece crescendos into depictions of war, snippets of radio announcements interrupt to chronicle Nazi mobs, Japanese atrocities, and the growing strength of the allies. At the end, swirling stings and ecstatic chimes bring on a stirring coda affirming a universal solidarity of races and nations with America as a beacon of hope, “humanity forming en masse” in “a new era.” Whitman looks forward to a reaffirmation of American ideals in the wake of Fascism, a world where “tyrants tremble” rather than bully.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann

If the other works on this CD aren’t as surprising and timely, they are nonetheless significant contributions to the Herrmann discography. Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra,  is Herrmann’s rare 1968 rearrangement of his riveting film score, an attempt to unmoor it from Hitchcock’s luridly powerful images. Given how iconic the movie has become, this is not easy to do, but the attempt is oddly appropriate: Hitchcock originally wanted the film to be largely music-free, including the notorious shower scene, which Herrmann wrote on his own against the master’s wishes. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano told me in a 2006 interview that Herrmann gradually, persistently, talked Hitchcock into more and more music,  eventually “turning the picture into an opera.” In this case it becomes a symphony, reinforced by the PostClassical Ensemble’s pristine, measured reading, a contrast to Herrmann’s relentless, driving performance in the film. The music is allowed to breath more, which in the slow sections increases its dark power.

A far more tranquil world is presented in Souvenirs de voyage, a clarinet quintet full of aching suspensions and sighs from the film Vertigo’s love music. The performance by members of the PostClassical Ensemble communicates a special tenderness undergirded in the second movement by Herrmann’s characteristic turbulence. According to Steven Smith’s authoritative Herrmann biography, A Heart at Fire’s Center, the dreamlike ambiance in the final Canto amoroso was inspired in part by Turner’s Venetian paintings, but the piece never loses its identity as a love song.

Herrmann was discouraged by the obscurity of his concert music compared to his film scores. This sensuous Quintet, which resurrects the music for lost heroine Madeleine in Vertigo, indicates he had every reason to be. (Two years earlier his somber string quartet Echoes also had resuscitated her.)

Souvenirs de voyage is chamber music of the highest order by a major American composer who, though famed for his film music, is still stubbornly undervalued for his total achievement. This superb release brings us a bit closer to an accurate assessment.