In Search of Bernard Herrmann: Omega Ensemble sheds light on rare concert works

In Search of Bernard Herrmann: Omega Ensemble sheds light on rare concert works

Written by Samuel Cottell for Fine Music Magazine - March Issue.

Ask any music lover “Do you know the music of Bernard Herrmann?” and their response might be:  “Ah, yes, the film composer’, to which I would reply: “Indeed, but did you know that he also wrote a great deal of music for the concert hall?' To which they generally reply: “No, I didn't know that. I've always associated Herrmann with the movies’, and rightly so.  Few recordings of his concert works exist, and they rarely get many outings. Unfortunately, this leaves little room to hear these works in the context of a live concert, until Omega Ensemble’s artistic director David Rowden went on a search to find the scores so that he could perform it for Australian audiences. 

Bernard Herrmann considered himself a “Romantic” composer. His music is indeed emotional, moody, with great depth of feeling. His greatest ambition was to be the conductor of a great orchestra, a post he never was able to find. He composed a great number of concert works including the cantata, Moby Dick and his opera Wuthering Heights. One of Herrmann’s earlier works, Sinfonietta for Strings was influenced by the twelve-tone techniques of Schoenberg. However, it is his chamber works composed towards the end of his life that have the most emotional impact.

At a time when composers like Eric Korngold and Max Steiner were the big names in the Hollywood studios and who's music utilised long, sweeping melodies (and lots of strings) capturing the feelings of drama, romance and narrative, Hermann was taking a different approach. His music would capture the psychological underpinnings and the internal workings of the characters as they appeared on-screen. His music featured repeated musical cells (ostinatos) and short melodic and thematic ideas, which inherently made his music ‘easy to cut’. He also did his own orchestrations (not many film composers did this) and as such created his own unique orchestral palette. Herrmann had great success throughout his composing career and his greatest success came with his collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock. Their greatest thriller films included Vertigo, North by Northwest and their most famous film, Psycho. 

When Herrmann composed Echoes for string quartet in 1965, it was not a good period in his life. He had recently been fired from the Hitchcock film Torn Curtain and his career as a film composer was coming to an end as the Hollywood studio system was in disarray. Trends in film scoring were moving away from his individualistic style to a preference for melodies that were commercially exploitable. Herrmann composed Echoes as a series of ‘nostalgic remembrances’. Herrmann reflects on moments from his past and you can hear hints of thematic material found in some of the film scores, as though he were looking back at more happier times. His last concert piece would be a clarinet quintet entitled Souvenirs de Voyage. It was completed in 1967, by which time he had lived in England for several years. It is also a more optimistic work in comparison to Echoes, as he had recently found new love. 

When Omega Ensemble Co-Artistic Directors David Rowden and Maria Raspopova heard Herrmann’s clarinet quintet at a friends house they were immediately drawn to the music. Rowden knew straight away that he wanted to perform this piece of music. But it wasn’t that easy. “I tried to get the score and it wasn’t available. I went through the Bernard Herrmann estate who couldn't help, and so then I approached the State Library of New York they then ordered it, but when it came to Australia I wasn’t able to take it out of the library,” David says. Finally, I was able to hire the score from this collector who had catalogued all of Bernard Herrmann’s music and we were able to perform the work in our 2016 season,” David adds.  Omega’s Co-Artistic Director Maria Raspopova adds: “The character of this music is quite stirring and I love the emotional quality of it.”

It wasn’t just the clarinet quintet that got an airing either, it was a whole program showcasing the concert music of Bernard Herrmann. “Part of what Omega does is to expose and reveal music that doesn’t get performed all that often, or is quite unusual and given the fact that there is only one recording of this work and only one score available and how hard it is, this music fits the bill,” David says. “Our performance in the Utzon room was the first performance of the clarinet quintet in Australia. He has some other incredible chamber works that are equally as beautiful and we are thrilled to be able to present this music again at the Art Gallery of NSW in March.”

Omega Ensemble presents Psycho: The Music of Bernard Herrmann
Art Gallery of NSW
5 March 8pm
Each concert is preceded by a champagne reception and a private exhibition viewing at the Gallery. Doors open at 7pm. Concert starts at 8pm.



Samuel Cottell

Samuel Cottell is a multi-verstalie musician (pianist, arranger and composer), writer, music journalist (Leader Writer -Cut Common Mag, Fine Music Magazine, Music and Literature, Jazz Australia and Australian, and biographer. Samuel is also an music educator and currently tutors music theory and analysis in the Arts Music Unit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Samuel is currently undertaking his PhD (Musicology) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he is researching the life and music of Tommy Tycho. Samuel has also been published in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and has interviewed world-acclaimed musicians Renee Flemming, Steven Isserlis, Maxim Vengerov, Stuart Skelton and local musicians Daniel Rojas,  Simon Tedeschi and Katie Noonan. As well as these activities Samuel is in demand as a program note writer (Nexas Saxophone Quartet) and gives pre-concert talks for The Grevillea Ensemble and appeared on Radio National's "RareCollections" talking about Tommy Tycho's recording career and contribution to music.