Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann

Few would disagree that Bernard Herrmann bears more responsibility than anyone else for the gradual revival in Raff's fortunes over the last thirty years. The renowned American conductor and composer of such classic movie scores as "Citizen Kane" and "Psycho" was a staunch advocate of Raff's fallen star throughout his career and if one event can be identified as the point at which Raff's fortunes turned, then it must be Herrmann's pioneering issue on LP of a performance of the Lenore Symphony.

Born in New York in 1911, the eldest child of an immigrant Jewish optometrist, "Benny" Herrmann was prodigiously talented and was clear from early on that he intended to be a composer and conductor. He had the luck to be employed by the fledgling CBS radio network, which in turn led to an association with Orson Welles, writing and performing incidental music for Welles' radio plays - including the infamous "War of the Worlds". He reached Hollywood in 1939 through his Welles connection and there began his 35 year career in film music with the revolutionary scores for Welles' "Citizen Kane" and "The magnificent Ambersons". Whilst re-inventing the art of film music, he continued his "serious" composing and conducting roles. He was conductor of the prestigious CBS Symphony Orchestra until it was disbanded in 1951. Herrmann died in 1975 in Hollywood.

His fascination with Raff began early in his career and continued through his life. It was fuelled by his rebelliousness, his deep musicology and his keen appreciation of injustice and support for the underdog. His third wife said "It was as if Raff was an old friend who had been done an injury. When he got upset over it he was upset in the most noble way... [He said] Raff was important". He shared many of Raff's character traits: they both could be irascible and gratuitously argumentative, but they hid warm hearts beneath crusty exteriors and made enduring friendships from unpromising beginnings. Coincidentally, they both died in their 60s from heart attacks suffered whilst they slept.

As the CBS Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor, Herrmann programmed both Raff's Symphony No.3 Im Walde (2 October 1949) and the Symphony No.5 Lenore (24 July 1949) in their regular network radio concert broadcasts. In 1950 he followed this up with "Treasury Bandstand" broadcasts of the "Mill" movement from the String Quartet No.7 (21 March) and further excerpts from the Symphony No.3 (2nd. and 3rd. movements) and Symphony No.8 Frühlingsklänge (3rd. movement) on 30 August.

Herrmann's greatest service to Raff, though, was his groundbreaking LP recording of the Lenore Symphony. Having conceived the project "He was terribly excited over that" his wife said, "more excited than anything I ever saw him do". After an initially fruitless search amongst disinterested recording companies, Herrmann found the small UK label Unicorn Records who would record the work if Herrmann covered most of the cost. The recording was made in May 1970 at Barking Town Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Herrmann. The orchestra itself was disinterested in the music but Herrmann himself was greatly enthusiastic over the resulting LP. He'd also had a hand in the liner notes and the cover design. Whilst sales were predictably slow, he felt that he had at last done Raff justice. As if to prove his point, within a few days of the recording Herrmann received a much-delayed royalty cheque almost equalling what he had paid out for the Lenore recording. He felt that this was Raff's doing: "You see? I told you so. I did something for him, and he did something for me".

The recording eventually became a classic. It was issued in the USA under the Nonesuch label in 1973, by which time it had been joined by a couple of LPs of Raff's music from other labels and more followed. It became the common starting point for a whole generation of Raff enthusiasts and it is difficult to think how his music could have been better served. Even today, over 30 years since it was made and with five other recordings of the work competing with its CD transfer (Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2031 - now withdrawn) it remains the benchmark not only for the Symphony No.5, but for Raff interpretation generally.

[Steven C Smith's engaging and extensive biography of Herrmann, A Heart at Fire's Center - the Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press, 1991 - paperback, 2002) is a lively and rewarding read. The use of some quotations from that volume is gratefully acknowledged. For online information about the life and music of this fascinating man, the Bernard Herrmann Society website is also a comprehensive and authoritative resource.]  

© 1999-2017 Mark Thomas. All rights reserved.