The Masterful Music of the Master of Suspense

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When Alfred Hitchcock, who was born 113 years ago today, appeared on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs in 1959, he selected as one of his eight records to take to a hypothetical solitary archipelago (among Roussel’s Symphony No. 3, Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette) the horn call from Wagner’s Siegfried.

It’s no surprise that the Master of Suspense is also a lover of masterful music. As Jack Sullivan, author of Hitchcock’s Music, told NPR’s Scott Simon in 2007, Hitchcock was the champion of “the psychological use of music” and “saw music as the revelation of a subconscious.” At times, music could be as much a character as anyone played by Cary Grant or Kim Novak.

Music also drove the plot, much in the same way that operatic composers use the score to create a similar storyteller’s arc. Actions certainly drive plots like Puccini’s Tosca, but strip away the entrance music for Scarpia, Tosca’s subconscious inner workings in “Vissi d’arte” or the tense final moments in which Cavaradossi is shot, and you lose a great deal of the opera’s grip and pull.

Similarly, Hitchcock’s beloved Wagner (whose prelude to Tristan und Isolde occupied a memorable scene in the 1930 film Murder!) is an interesting artistic doppelgänger when considered alongside the notorious film director. Both worked with their own brand of leitmotifs, perhaps the most famous of which in the cinematic sense being Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. I’m sure just by typing that title the iconic screeches of strings have already echoed in several ears, and interestingly enough that’s a moment of film scoring that almost never was.

According to Sullivan, the making of Psycho depressed Hitchcock, who felt there was something missing from the whole of the work. He had instructed Herrmann to not score the shower scene, to leave it as a silent, musicless moment. Herrmann took advantage of Hitchcock’s Christmas vacation to compose something on the side. Upon hearing the theme, Hitchcock, in Sullivan’s words, “completely turned around and became very excited about the project again. The music really saved the film.”

Herrmann’s collaboration with Hitchcock created moments of seamless partnership between sight and sound. Such themes and motifs as you find in Psycho reinforce the madness of Norman Bates, the pointed murders and murder attempts, and the agitation of side characters like Janet Leigh’s. Unsurprisingly, all three themes are able to ebb and flow together easily: anxiety begets madness begets murder. And as such, the music often gives more clues to the plot and character than Hitchcock allows for in the script or shots.

Wagner gets a bit more explicitly referenced in Vertigo, another Herrmann score and a film that recently eclipsed Citizen Kane as the best film of all time according to British film magazine Sight & Sound (aptly enough, Herrmann also scored Kane).  Herrmann’s music becomes even more predominant as a character here, and takes on even more obsessive and voluptuous qualities than the music for Psycho. It’s hard to ignore the numerous references to the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde. Isolde’s final aria, which envisions her beloved, dead, Tristan rising again, resonates with Jimmy Stewart’s own obsession with a lost love. Sullivan describes the moment in which Kim Novak, as Judy, begins to acutely resemble Madeleine as a scene in which dialogue falls by the wayside to a score full of “Wagnerian longing,” one that contains “some of the most sensual music in the history of cinema.”

It was believed that Hitchcock had planned to also explicitly delve into the psychological world of opera with a film set to open in Covent Garden. Patrick McGilligan’s study of the director, A Life in Darkness and Light, delves into the uncompleted project—The Blind Man—which includes Hitchcock’s plan to have a soprano, potentially Maria Callas, to be singing a high note that turns into a shriek as she witnesses a man being stabbed to death in one of the opera house's boxes.

We never got that scene, but what we can look forward to in a few years is the Göteborg Opera’s premiere of Notorious in 2015. Hitchcock’s story of seduction and espionage, which starred Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, will be adapted by composer Hans Gefors to a libretto by Kerstin Perski. It’s a fitting tribute to the Swedish-born Bergman, but it will also be an interesting test of Hitchcock’s true operatic potential. Can the man who transformed cinema into opera gain another life of…well…cinema transformed into opera?