What Sets Psycho’s Iconic Score Apart

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho premiered in 1960 to an equally shocked and thrilled public, thanks to composer Bernard Herrmann’s game-changing score. Nearly 60 years later, the film and its accompanying music maintain the same rabid popularity — the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra plays it live at Powell Hall June 22. So what makes Psycho’s music endure so hardily in America’s cinema landscape?


The SLSO plays the iconic score to Psycho on June 22.

Bruce Crawford, a frequent correspondent and family friend of Herrmann near the end of the composer’s life and a film historian and documentary producer in Omaha, Nebraska, discussed Herrmann's legacy. In 1988, Crawford produced an internationally broadcast radio documentary on Herrmann entitled Bernard Herrmann: A Celebration of His Life and Music.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How did you get to know Bernard Herrmann?

Bruce Crawford: I had written him in the early 1970s. I was a kid and had loved his music since I was a small child, actually. I wrote to Decca Records in London to ask how I could contact [Herrmann]. They gave me his address in London. I did write him a pretty lengthy letter, considering I was a kid. It was six months later when he happened to be staying in his brother’s home in New York—he lived in England at this time. I was in a small town in Nebraska, Nebraska City, which had about 10,000 people. He called my mother, who answered the phone. She woke me up—it was pretty early on a Sunday morning—and said, ‘This older man wants to speak with you.’ Who could that be, you know? Lo and behold, it was him. It was quite an amazing experience for a teenage kid. It started a relationship with him, his late brother- and sister-in-law, his daughters, and his other two ex-wives.


Psycho is the source of countless tropes in slasher movies—especially musically, like the disturbing chord that opens the film or the shrieking violins in the shower scene. What does that say about the longevity of Herrmann’s work on Psycho?

Crawford: I don’t think it’s any exaggeration in the least to say that Psycho is the most recognized, most imitated, most parodied and ripped-off music score in history. It is instantly recognizable on all four corners of the Earth. [Everyone] knows Psycho, or at least the music to it, or at least the famous shower scene. He created this new vision, and 59 years later, it’s still here.


For someone who has scored works such as North by Northwest, Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver, what makes Psycho stand out in Herrmann’s musical legacy?

Crawford: It’s all string instruments, which is the only time he has ever done that for a film. This gave it kind of a monochromatic sound, which he thought fit the black and white film. Its impact is still here. His lesser works are greater than most composer’s best works, but Psycho stands out because of its impact on public consciousness on the culmination of the film and the music wedded with it. They are married together. It has become part of our culture. It’s iconic.


Most outlets consider Psycho a top-10 or top-5 film score of all time because of the groundbreaking nature of the music for its time. How did Herrmann’s musical upbringing and early career contribute to his innovation?

Crawford: He was a great admirer of Mahler. He loved music by his friend, Charles Ives, and minimalist music, which was championed by Herrmann. Those were his contemporaries, and I think that’s where it comes from. Some of his early work, like Sinfonetta for Strings, where you can hear a little Psycho in it, was kind of adapted into his film music. He came from Carnegie Hall and CBS radio before he did films. His opera work, Wuthering Heights, his Symphony No. 1, are brilliant works, and they have a Sibelius-like quality to them. It’s a rare composer who can put his own personal mark on each bar of music, and Herrmann was able to do that.


Despite its popularity today, Psycho’s score didn’t even merit an Academy Award nomination in 1960. How have musical tastes changed to account for this?

Crawford: I don’t think tastes had much to do with it as much as politics. Herrmann was not a game player. He got along, but he was independent, and sometimes he stepped up for artistic integrity. Why it didn’t get a nomination, let alone win for Best Original Musical Score is a good question. A lot has to do with the shortsightedness of the people around him and certainly a great amount of envy and jealousy.


Can you talk about the evolution and end of Herrmann’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s collaboration?

Crawford: Hitchcock was being pressured by the people at Universal to make more pop-themed scores, and, of course, Herrmann’s never were pop-themed. [For the 1966 film Torn Curtain,] Herrmann said, ‘I’ll give you a hard-driving theme,’ but it was Herrmann’s style, not what Hitchcock was looking for. When the first recording session started with Herrmann’s brilliant opening, Hitchcock got upset and fired him on the spot. I think they did speak a few times after that, but they stayed in touch, off and on. Hitchcock had that pressure to produce pop songs, but Herrmann’s last film, Taxi Driver, did go in that direction, with rhythm and blues, saxophone, and jazz fused with Herrmann’s symphonic musical style. It was all very symbiotically put together. Even after death, Herrmann had the last laugh.


What is your favorite part of Psycho’s score, and why?

Crawford: I love the scene where Marion Crane is in the bedroom and thinking about stealing the money, and Herrmann’s strings have that theme that creates tension. It makes her think, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ The music conveys that in a way that other composers would not have been able to pull off. The other theme that lingers is the sister’s when she sees Norman. Herrmann’s music has an elegiac, tragic quality that Norman is a sick and disturbed, sad and pathetic person. You can sense empathy, and it’s the only time in the score that you can hear that empathy.


The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performs the score to Psycho on Saturday, June 22. To learn more or purchase tickets, visit slso.org.

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