BERNARD HERRMANN on working with ORSON WELLES and CITIZEN KANE
People always tell me how difficult Orson Welles is. The only people I've ever met worth working for were difficult people—because they're interested in achieving something. Just spare me the charmers. Welles in every other way might be difficult, but when it comes to making artistic decisions he's like the Rock of Gibraltar.
Since Citizen Kane is once again making headlines as "the greatest American film," here are some excerpts of a lecture and Q & A session with Bernard Herrmann from his appearance at The George Eastman House Museum, in Rochester, New York in October of 1973.
One very interesting point that Herrmann makes here, is that Citizen Kane originally opened without any titles or studio logos. Since this has now become so commonplace, it's yet another inovation where Welles was many years ahead of his time. Of course, in 1973 Herrmann had no idea that his work would one day become available in high quality versions on DVD (and most of his Fox films in the fifties were recorded in stereo), so the next time you watch Citizen Kane on DVD, try skipping over the RKO logo and main title, to see how the film plays beginning with the pan up to the 'No Tresspassing' sign.
Also, be sure to check out the beautiful radio scores Herrmann did for Welles, courtesy of Store Hadji, on the Wellesnet Forum's Radio page. Especially notable are The Moat Farm Murders which predates Herrman's work on the psycho-thrillers he later became known for. Also, there is what may possibly be one of Herrmann's finest radio scores for Welles, the beautifully lyrical D-Day broadcast of June 7, 1944:
BERNARD HERRMANN: The use of music in film is completely unknown territory. The most sensitive directors can be completely ignorant about the use of music, while an inferior director can have a great instinct for it—largely because film music has a certain mystical quality. The camera can only do so much; the actors and the direction can only do so much. But the music can tell you what people are thinking and feeling—that is the real function of music.
When speaking of music in the cinema, it is also important to remember that the ear often deludes the eye. It can change time values: what appears very long may only be four seconds and vice versa. There's no rule, but once again music has this mysterious quality.
A final general comment before considering several films I scored. There is nothing in the nature of a film that requires the use of an orchestra. The "orchestra" was developed over several hundred years—an agreed representation of certain instruments to play a certain repertoire. If you wish to play Haydn at Esterhazy and then in Paris, you have to have the same kind of instruments. But music for film is a single unique entity. You are creating for one performance, for that film, and there is no law that says it has to be related to concert music. Film allows a composer the unique opportunity to shift the complete spectrum of sound within one piece—something hitherto unknown in the history of music. You can't do that in an opera house! Each film can create its own color.
Originally the very beginning of Citizen Kane had no main title. When it was first shown, there was no "RKO" or "Citizen Kane," just a black screen and the first thing you saw was the pan up to the sign "No Trespassing." At the premiere I remember people shouted, "Lights, sound, sound, projectionist! Sound!" They could not accept a film that started in complete silence! Since the studio at that point couldn't add sound, they unfortunately inserted the RKO trademark and a title instead.
Imagine the opening shots of Citizen Kane without music. That was the way it was turned over to me. I began with that sequence. I had neither the idea of a "Rosebud" theme nor a "Destiny" or "Fate" theme. But if I can accurately remember what happened so many years ago, both themes came to me rather automatically. You don't write music with the top of your head, you write it from a part you don't know anything about. At the very beginning (I was very lucky the first hour) I hit on the two sound sequences that would bear the weight of the film. The picture opens with the first, the motif of Destiny—Kane's destiny. The permutations of this theme are complex. Later in the film it becomes a can-can, jazz, all kinds of things. When Kane sees the flickering snow, we hear the second, the Rosebud motif, around which the whole picture pivots. The second theme also immediately reveals what Rosebud is, but it's soon forgotten! This opening sequence uses an orchestra of eight flutes (four alto, four bass), very deep contrabass clarinets, tubas, trombones, a vibraphone and deep lower percussion.
Now imagine the soundtrack to the opening sequence without the visuals. I think the music's too long. Of course, I had no choice about length. Sometimes you can discuss changes with a director, but certainly not in a film like this! Finally, imagine the full opening sequence, visuals and sound track together. Is the sequence still too long? I think not—and that's one of the great mysteries of the power of music in cinema. Without that music that sequence is not complete, and the time scale is skewed.
The opera sequence in Citizen Kane presented a unique set of problems. Susan, the young, hopeful singer Kane becomes involved with is partially modeled on a friend of William Randolph Hearst. The problem was to create something that would convey to the audience the feeling of the quicksand into which she is suddenly thrown (by Kane's inflated estimation of her musical talent and by his obsession with her becoming a success as an opera singer). It had to he done cinematically. It had to be done fast. We had to have the sound of an enormous orchestra pounding her. There is no opera in existence that opens that way. We had to create one. Pauline Kael has written in The Citizen Kane Book (1971), that the production wanted to use Massenet's "Thais" but could not afford the fee. But Miss Kael never wrote or approached me to ask about the music. We could easily have afforded the fee. The point is that its lovely little strings would not have served the emotional purpose of the film. I wrote the piece in a very high tessitura, so that a girl with a modest voice would be completely hopeless in it. I didn't particularly care to write an opera sequence like this, but Citizen Kane demanded it—not Welles, Citizen Kane. And it's my contention that no other approach could have solved the problem. Had we played the last scene of "Salome" we'd have gotten the same effect, but it wouldn't have shown Susan starting an opera (the beginning of "Salome" anybody can sing). The problem was: can she survive this beginning? It's very discouraging to see a well-known critic dispose of the problem by saying that we couldn't afford to use "Thais"!
The next part of Citizen Kane to consider is the little breakfast sequence in Kane's first marriage. Imagine the visuals alone, without the music. That is what I was given. The popular music of this period corresponding to the images would have been a romantic waltz. So each change in mood and each cut was written as another variation on a basic waltz theme. The structure then is very simple: a series of waltz variations in absolutely classic form, giving unity to the otherwise fragmented sequence.
The ending of Citizen Kane gave me a wonderful opportunity to arrive at a complete musical statement (it contains no dialogue with the exception of perhaps one or two lines). Because I wanted to draw all the threads of the film together, this last sequence is played by a conventional symphony orchestra. I used a full orchestra for the simple reason that, from the time the music of the final sequence begins to the end of the film, the music has effectively left the film and become an apotheosis of the entire work.
I was very fortunate that I started my cinema career with Citizen Kane. It's been a downhill run ever since! People always tell me how difficult Orson Welles is. The only people I've ever met worth working for were difficult people—because they're interested in achieving something. Just spare me the charmers. Welles in every other way might be difficult, but when it comes to making artistic decisions he's like the Rock of Gibraltar.
Q: The music in Citizen Kane seems so romantic. Could you have eliminated music entirely and used percussive or rhythmic effects instead?
BERNARD HERRMANN: Yes, of course you could, but not with this subject. This is a romantic picture. It's about something called Rosebud. A percussive effect wouldn’t work in the opening, and it wouldn't work later in the film. When Kane meets Susan in the street, he says “I was on my way to the warehouse to look at the things my mother left me." The reason that he responds to her is that she faintly resembles his mother and the orchestra faintly repeats the Rosebud theme. But nobody's ever caught it. Nobody’s ever written about it. They don’t have to; it’s there! So sometimes with a subject this romantic you must do romantic things. On the other hand, there is a great picture, Woman in the Dunes, by Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964) with the most marvelous use of electronics. Every picture is unique. I'm not saying there's only one way, there are many ways, providing imagination is used. But I doubt whether one could eliminate all music from a picture like Citizen Kane, a kaleidoscopic picture. A certain grayness would settle over it.
Q: Despite the almost universal acclaim for Citizen Kane, I have read one recurring criticism—the "waw-waw" effect at the end of the library scene. How do you feel about that now, after all these years?
BERNARD HERRMANN: I would do the same thing again.
Q: Are you aware of any other errors in the Pauline Kael book on Citizen Kane?
BERNARD HERRMANN: I happen to disagree with the premise of the whole book, because she tries to pretend that Welles is nothing and that a mediocre writer by the name of Mankiewicz was a hidden Voltaire. I'm not saying that Mankiewicz made no contribution. The titles clearly credit him. Orson says that he did make a valuable contribution. But really, without Orson, all of Mankiewicz's other pictures were nothing, before and after. With Orson, however, something happened to this wonderful man, but he could not have created Citizen Kane.
Q: Usually a composer does not have the final say on a film, the director does...
BERNARD HERRMANN: I have the final say, or I don't do the music. The reason for insisting on this is simply, compared to Orson Welles, a man of great musical culture, most other directors are just babes in the woods. If you were to follow their taste, the music would be awful. There are exceptions. I once did a film The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) with a wonderful director William Dieterle. He was also a man of great musical culture. And Hitchcock, you know, is very sensitive; he leaves me alone. It depends on the person. But if I have to take what a director says, I'd rather not do the film. I find it's impossible to work that way.
Q: You have on occasion with Hitchcock and Welles replaced whole passages of dialogue with music. Could you explain how those decisions happened?
BERNARD HERRMANN: Well, Hitchcock is very sensitive about that. He’d sometimes say, "I'm shooting this scene tomorrow, can you come down to the set?" And he'll ask, "Are you planning to have music here?" If I say I think we should, he might say, "Good, then I'll make it longer. Because, if you weren't, then I would have to contract the scene." Some directors are very considerate about things like that. Hitchcock likes people to work with him during the shooting. Welles does, Truffaut does; but there are many directors I never even meet until the picture is finished. They're not even interested enough.
Q: Can you give an example of where Hitchcock did that?
BERNARD HERRMANN: Vertigo, is the famous instance. The whole recognition scene is eight minutes of cinema without dialogue or sound effects, just music and film. He simply said to me, "Music will do better than words there."