Well, it’s September. A chill is in the air, kids are going back to school, and spooky stories are starting to come up in conversation. In that spirit, we’re jumping into one of my all-time favorite film scores because nothing says “fall” quite like Vertigo…
PIECE: Vertigo Suite
COMPOSER: Bernard Herrmann
ERA/GENRE: 20th century, film music
GOOD FOR: Creeping yourself out, creating dramatic irony, obsessing about bad relationships
Bernard Herrmann was born in New York City in 1911. He studied violin as a child and eventually made his way into composition and conducting, studying at both NYU and Juilliard. Nice.
He joined CBS as their orchestra conductor in 1934, back when TV stations were cool and had live orchestras on staff. He had his own radio drama series where he programmed unusual music, both old and new, including the strange and wonderful music of Charles Ives (click here for an Ives experience of your own) who was a total unknown at that point but is now firmly in the classical music canon. He’s best known today for his film and television scores (including Citizen Kane, Psycho, and The Twilight Zone, among others).
Herrmann was a stubborn and somewhat rigidly opinionated guy and his music philosophy is filled with contradictions. For example, he didn’t actually love writing film music.
Well, Jimmy, you might be right but that’s what Herrmann professed anyway. He would have preferred to be a composer of concert music or a conductor on the very distinguished international symphony track. Unfortunately for him, he was flippin’ amazing at writing film music. He stepped away from the scores that were filled with lush, long melodies (like this) and instead used short motifs (five notes or less), chords, and even single notes to develop a score that gets deep inside your head and messes with your expectations and feelings. In short, he was a perfect combo for Hitchcock’s slow-building psychoanalytic, subconscious-obsessed style.
The other thing that made Herrmann and Hitchcock a great pairing was that Herrmann would only write film scores if he had nearly complete control over the entire score with minimal input from the director, and Hitchcock totally granted him that freedom. In fact, the only time he tried to influence the score, requesting something “jazzier,” Herrmann shouted, “Look, Hitch, you can’t outjump your own shadow. You don’t make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don’t write pop music!” and then the two of them never worked together again.
But thankfully we still have gems like Vertigo, so let’s dive in! Today we’re walking through the Vertigo Suite rather than the full soundtrack* itself.
The suite is divided up into three movements: Prelude, The Nightmare, and Scène d’amour, all of which are pulled directly from the original score rather than some sort of post-production medley of Vertigo tunes.
Throughout the piece, we’re going to hear some of Herrmann’s trademark not-motif-motifs (we’re calling them “motifs” anyway, sorry B.H.) so it’s good to get acquainted with them…because you will, even if you aren’t doing it consciously. Hermann genuinely designed this piece for audiences listening with only “half an ear,” in his own words, and has planted motifs just easy enough for your subconscious to notice and get really freaked out by. Fight the power! Learn the motifs!
Vertigo, sexy ghosts and love. Ain’t that what life’s all about?
Let’s briefly talk through what these motifs are all about.
“Vertigo” motif: This motif is one the most recognizable moments and yet it almost never reappears after the title sequence. It outlines a minor-major 7th chord, also known as the “Hitchcock” chord because Herrmann used it ALL the time in his scores and it is pretty damn effective at being creepy and otherworldly.
“Carlotta” motif: …Have you seen this movie? If you haven’t, stop everything. Close this browser and go watch this movie immediately. Come back when you’re done. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Right, so now you remember that Carlotta is the dead woman who is “possessing” “Madeleine” and you also know why both of those words are in quotation marks. Because she is a ghost who is Spanish, sexy, and definitely scary, she gets a motif that reflects all of those things. She has a one-note motif in the habanera rhythm which composers love to use for sexy Spanish ladies.
“Love” motif: You guys this motif is only FOUR notes long and manages to be super symbolically loaded. It is genuinely designed to mess with your subconscious, so let’s all talk through this together. Herrmann borrows heavily from the prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. In the opera, the chord is part of a leitmotif (a musical phrase associated with a person/place/idea) which represents represent DOOMED LOVE. Like, doomed in a death way, not in a “petty squabbles about who said they were going to pick up half-and-half on the way home” way. This foreshadowing obviously also applies to Vertigo.
I need to just quote Alex Ross here for a minute because he sums it up so nicely.
Film composers are often accused of derivativeness. Their borrowings are sometimes shameless, although the time constraints of the Hollywood production schedule make certain shortcuts understandable. Herrmann’s use of Wagner, however, is a matter of deliberation and subtlety. The main melodic contour is his own; the harmony is still his idiosyncratic construction. He is jogging the memory of those who know ”Tristan” and the subconscious of those who don’t. His veiled citations indicate in their own way the unstoppable recurrence of the past. Once again, the score is not an illustration of the film but a metaphor for it.
Tl;dr…Herrmann is messing with your mind and he knows it.
Okay so…Vertigo! Carlotta! Love! Vertigo motifs assemble! Let’s do the walkthrough!
The prelude opens with the “vertigo” motif. The contemporary 1950s description from psychologists was that vertigo “[arises] from the tension between the desire to fall and the dread of falling” and both the film and the score are constantly blurring the line between fear and desire. Even our “vertigo” motif is both rising and falling up and down the chord it outlines. It’s basically doing the aural equivalent of Hitchcock’s portrayal of vertigo.
Later (0:25 in the video above), when the strings and brass back off and the motif is given to the harps and celesta, both instruments traditionally used to portray the otherworldly and magical, it feels like Herrmann is inviting us to feel curious and safe with this creepy motif…right before he slams us with a jump scare in the brass. I like to think of it as the musical equivalent of this:
We also get a big full version of the “love” motif (1:34) so we know right from the beginning of the whole story that our lovers are doomed. DOOMED I SAY.
So let’s recap: The two motifs in our prelude are “vertigo” and “love,” and remember our definition of vertigo from above? It definitely applies nicely to this romance as well: Tension between the desire to fall (in love) and the dread of falling (in love). Herrmann has basically summed up the major theme of the entire film in a prelude that’s less than three minutes long.
What’s a good psychological thriller without a dream sequence? This one’s a doozy.
It begins with tremolo (literally “trembling”) strings nervously jittering upward, pulling Scottie into this terrible dream world. As he wakes up into the dream, the “Carlotta” motif starts going strong as Scottie dreams about her. The flutes join in with a flutter-tongue technique, creating an anxious trembling similar to the one we heard in the strings at the beginning. Herrmann adds a tambourine and castanets for extra Spanish flair.
Eventually, Scottie takes a tumble out of a tower, dying in the dream and waking himself up. The chord that plays when he falls to his death in the dream is the same chord, in the same key, as the chord we hear when he falls off the roof at the beginning of this movie and gives himself vertigo, and again when “Madeleine” falls out of the tower. It’s made up of the exact same notes (in the same key again) as the “vertigo” motif, plus Herrmann builds in extra tension by adding dissonance on top of that. I told you he was playing mind games.
Ah yes, the Scène d’amour. It’s worth pointing out here that this is a truly messed-up love scene. It’s messed up to call it a love scene. Our “hero” has started to go mad, and Judy is just asking him to like her for who she is as he continues obsessively transforming her into his dead lover. The big climactic musical moment in this scene isn’t the kiss (which barely gets any notice in the score), it’s the ghostly appearance of Judy as Madeleine.
Don’t worry though; as you’ll recall, our “love” motif is also musically all messed up with doom and love and death and fear anyway, so it’s just the ticket for this kind of amour. The “love” motif is completely omnipresent in this entire movement, which clues us in to Scottie’s obsessive madness. This is the music he’s hearing in his own head, and I suspect if we could hear what was happening in Judy’s soundtrack it would be quite different (maybe like this).
It’s really worth the time to take a second and listen to Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde because this whole movement is so directly a citation of Wagner’s prelude in harmonies, melodies, structure, and orchestral colors. Also, it happens to be a great piece of music so lucky you.
The last thing to notice about this love scene is that it has a strangely cheery and confident conclusion given the inherent creepiness of the scene itself and the “love” motif that has musically dominated. Some people (myself included) think this symbolizes that in Scottie’s mind, the illusion has totally eclipsed reality and this ending shows us that Scottie is now totally divorced from reality and well entrenched in madness.
Well, that’s a pretty dark note to leave on but that’s how Herrmann would want it. You can check out the full suite in the playlist below!
Happy fall/don’t fall.
*Although…the complete soundtrack is absolutely amazing. Alex Ross called it a “symphony for orchestra and film” which is lovely and accurate—the greatest of combinations. But it’s also literally a book’s worth of information, and if you would like to dive in more deeply, David Cooper already wrote it for ya.