National Cathedral presents ‘Beyond Psycho’ tribute to Bernard Herrmann

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Beyond Psycho' at National Cathedral (Jason Fraley)

What do stained-glass windows have in common with bloody shower curtains?

It’s the concept behind the National Cathedral concert “Beyond Psycho: The Musical Genius of Bernard Herrmann,” performed by the PostClassical Ensemble this Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

“This is a tribute to Bernard Herrmann, who we know as Hollywood’s greatest composer, but he was many other things,” PCE executive director Joseph Horowitz said. “We’re starting with the music that people know the best, the music from ‘Psycho,’ which he did with Hitchcock.”

It’s one of cinema’s most iconic themes, causing screams so loud that audiences could barely hear the soundtrack at the film’s 1960 world premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

“When orchestras do ‘Psycho’ as a concert work, they typically just play excerpts from the score; people don’t realize that in 1968, Herrmann made his own ‘Psycho’ synthesis called ‘A Narrative For Orchestra,'” Horowitz said. “It’s knitted together as an integrated composition. … The first thing that’s interesting about this score is that it’s just for strings. … He had earlier written a symphonetta for strings — and parts of that turn up in the ‘Psycho’ score. The symphonetta is his only non-tonal work. He’s interested in the different colors and tambours.”

Best of all, a special guest will be on hand to provide a firsthand account.

“We’ll have with us Dorothy Herrmann, one of his daughters, who is a very remarkable recanter with many stories about daddy,” Horowitz said. “She has a story about going with daddy to see ‘Psycho.’ Herrmann was seeing the film for the first time and he hated it, then he changed his mind when he discovered that it was iconic achievement. It’s a funny story.”

In addition to the “Psycho” theme, you’ll also hear Herrmann’s “Clarinet Quintet.”

“[It] may be the most beautiful chamber music composed by an American,” Horowitz said. “The ‘Clarinet Quintet’ is very much in the style of ‘Vertigo.’ It’s very romantic. He wrote it when he was about to marry for the third time. His use of the clarinet is exceptionally beautiful.”

The program culminated with Herrmann’s early score for Norman Corwin’s radio play “Whitman” (1944), coinciding with what would have been Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday.

“Herrmann got his start as a radio composer,” Horowitz said. “He learned his craft by accompanying the spoken word writing music for radio dramas, such as the one we’ll be performing. … Norman Corwin was the genius of American radio drama. The other guy who you think of first is Orson Welles, but it’s a genre we have completely forgotten. … Before the days of TV, this was a major instrument for patriotic, artistic expression. For the homefront, these radio dramas by Herrmann and Corwin were an important instrument for morale.”

Corwin realized this importance while riding on a train the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

“He sent a telegram to Washington asking if the [government] still wanted his show,” Horowitz said. “He got a telegraph back from the president saying, ‘Now more than ever.’ When you hear this radio drama that we’re doing, ‘Whitman,’ it’s obvious that it has a double purpose. It’s celebrating Walt Whitman, who might be our greatest poet, but it’s also celebrating American democracy and using Whitman to do that. It was never intended as a concert work, but we did a big Herrmann festival about two years ago and the revelation was ‘Whitman.'”

Herrmann’s transition from radio to TV mirrored that of Welles, who hired Herrmann for his debut film score “Citizen Kane” (1941). He followed with “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), “Vertigo” (1958), “North By Northwest” (1959), “Psycho” (1960), “Cape Fear” (1962), “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), “Fahrenheit 451” (1966), “Sisters” (1972) and his final score in “Taxi Driver” (1976).

“Because he was writing for film, he could do anything he pleased,” Horowitz said. “His instrumentation is often highly idiosyncratic. He’ll do things he could never do with a concert orchestra like having three times the number of brass instruments. … He was a master composer who was disdained by his contemporaries in the Northeast. He was stigmatized as a film composer at a time when it wasn’t as fashionable to be a romantic.”

Now, all these years later, Herrmann is respected as one of the all-time greats.

“Now that all the dust has settled, I think he is easily a peer of Aaron Copland or anyone else that you can think of from that generation,” Horowitz said. “I think he is the most underrated American composer of the 20th century. His concert catalog is small, but it’s very impressive. There’s a cantata, ‘Moby Dick,’ there’s a string quartet, there’s a big World War II symphony, there’s the clarinet quintet that I mentioned, then there’s an opera, ‘Wuthering Heights.’ This is music that deserves to be heard and, for the most part, is not.”

What better space to hear it than the historic National Cathedral?

“The great nave of the Washington National Cathedral is one of the largest in the world,” Horowitz said. “It’s an inspirational space and it’s also a highly reverberant space, so it’s a terrific space acoustically for a string orchestra. We can’t wait to hear what the ‘Psycho’ score sounds like in a reverberant acoustic space like that!”

It’s the type of outside-the-box programming we’ve come to expect from the PostClassical Ensemble, founded 15 years ago by Horowitz and D.C.-based conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

“We’re like a guerrilla orchestra,” Horowitz said. “We’re subversive, we do things that are not normally done. We were invited to be the ensemble in residence of the National Cathedral a couple years ago. We’re also going to be partnering with the Phillips Collection this summer. … All of our concerts are themed, they’re not about a soloist or a brand-name concerto, we take the plunge and we take the risk of doing things that, for the most part, are not well-known.”

Find more details on the event website. Hear our full chat with Joseph Horowitz below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Joseph Horowitz (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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