PSYCHO: LIVE – Bernard Herrmann at Glasgow City Halls


Saturday, 17th September saw the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho with live accompaniment of Bernard Herrmann’s influential score. Under the guidance of conductor John Wilson and in the red-tinged setting of the Glasgow City Halls, the strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO) earned their crust with a thrilling evening of vintage Herrmann, doing justice to the film composer’s music from the furious main titles’ opening sequence, through to the final low, unresolving dissonance of the final scene. Herrmann gave himself problems when he decided to limit himself to composing a string-only score for Psycho (the score is orchestrated for 50 performers; 14 first violins, 12 second violins, 10 violas, 8 cellos and 6 double basses). He limited himself in the amount of orchestral colouring he could call upon and he also denied himself of a lot of the conventional techniques used by others for films of the same genre as Psycho. But Herrmann’s inventiveness used the strings in ways that had not been considered up to that point. (Note: I don’t have the musical knowledge to enter into a discussion of what and how Herrmann did what he did – there has been volumes written on Herrmann’s score for Psycho. This is really only a comment on my experience of “Psycho: Live”. On the night, with Wilson and the BBC SSO tight, dynamic and animated performance, they highlighted ably how Herrmann was able to provide Hitchcock with a score of top quality.

John Wilson and members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Herrmann’s music for the shower scene is an example of a piece of music that has made the leap from the cinematic to the everyday world (who hasn’t used an imaginary knife and mimicked Herrmann’s shrieking string glissandos?) And it seemed that the orchestra knew it was a piece everyone would be expecting and looking forward to because, prior to the piece being performed, the musicians exchanged smiling glances with the conductor as if to say “here we go!” And when the shower scene arrived I have to admit that I watched Herrmann’s music pass between the various sections of the orchestra rather than watch again the scene in the film. Throughout the night it was interesting to see the orchestra performing the music, as this helped to highlight both how the music is passed between the various sections of the strings (e.g., the aforementioned shower scene and the “dialogue” between the bowed and plucked instruments in cues such as “The Package”) and also to show the level of dexterity required by the musicians to play some of the cues. It was particularly enlightening seeing the violins being used like a ukulele for the tremolo passage in “The Stairs”. [Read more…]