On an October night many years ago, I awoke suddenly, my heart pounding, gasping for breath, still in the grip of a terrifying nightmare. What sparked such nocturnal panic? I’d left the radio on after coming home late from a Halloween party, and the DJ had decided to broadcast composer Bernard Herrmann’s searing score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hearing the stabbing strings that accompanied the notorious shower scene, even while asleep, had triggered an overwhelming visceral reaction. Such was the power of one of history’s most important movie soundtracks. From its ominous opening notes, the rest of Herrmann’s acclaimed score is just as compelling, conjuring a dark, haunting atmosphere that seems to directly dictate viewers’ emotional responses. To commemorate the golden anniversary of Herrmann’s sonic stiletto, resident conductor Gregory Vajda will lead the Oregon Symphony in a live musical accompaniment to the film.
That iconic shower scene score was in fact a last-minute addition. Hitchcock initially insisted that the murder proceed sans music, as he’d done in several earlier films. But after the rest of the soundtrack had been recorded, he viewed the rough cut and realized that the film wasn’t working, so he called the composer in to fix it. Herrmann wrote the celebrated shower cue in a day. After seeing the sequence intensified by the skewering strings it was impossible for the director, or anyone else, to imagine another solution.
A protégé of Aaron Copland and favorite of Orson Welles, Herrmann also scored Citizen Kane, Hitch’s Vertigo and many other celebrated movies, in the process wresting film music from the imported Viennese romantics (Steiner, Korngold, Waxman, et al.) and injecting a refreshingly astringent dose of musical modernism. His Psycho score, then one of the most dissonant in Hollywood history, was a departure even for Herrmann, retaining his trademark churning motives but deftly avoiding resolution, keeping the audience off balance. Just as Hitchcock eschewed color film to give Psycho a spookier atmosphere, Herrmann termed his creepy strings-only score “black-and-white.” Together, the brilliantly austere images and music combine to create a spine chill that shocks, and awes, half a century later, and still seems capable of waking the dead, or at least the slumberers.
SEE IT: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1111 SW Broadway, 228-1353, orsymphony.org. 4 pm Sunday, Oct. 31. $14-$78.