The Descent of Psycho

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

I don’t know very much about Charles Darwin, but have always been fascinated by the profound reverberations set off in my head by the title The Descent of Man.  I am not a naturalist.  I understood that Darwin meant “descent” in the same way that I might speak of genealogy and my own descent within my family, speaking of the people (or animals) from whom I am descended.  I can’t help but wonder whether he also meant that second sense that inevitably resulted from dethroning humankind?  I don’t know whether he recognized that his work seemed to necessitate our descent from our throne from whence we rule over nature & the animal kingdom, to a place much more equal to that of other creatures on this planet: but that’s what the title’s “descent” first suggested to me and still suggestsPerhaps I am not the only one, considering Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man…?

So even as I continue this digressive preamble, I should mention that when I speak of Psycho I am speaking neither of family relationships nor evolutionary ones.  As so often happens in criticism, I am employing a metaphor borrowed from the sciences to lend a certain credibility to the analysis.

Bernard Herrmann

Composer Bernard Herrmann

And any film scholar coming to this essay expecting a discussion about Hitchcock will be surprised that he’s completely absent from this essay, because I am concerned with the real star of Psycho, namely composer Bernard Herrmann.  Can it be disputed at this point?  Without those strident strings Psycho would never have been so powerful.  I believe the effect is mutual, by the way; if one listens to the score without any accompanying visuals, the dissonance cannot move you in quite the same way, even as one involuntarily remembers imagery from the film.  Herrmann & Hitchcock were a magical partnership in several films (such as North by Northwest and Vertigo), and never quite as good when they went their separate ways.

As I look at the lineage of Herrmann’s score for Psycho I can’t help thinking about the family relationships in the most literal sense.  Would the grandparents be proud of the young rebel?  And how does the upstart view the generation that came before?  This latter question –really a question about Herrmann himself—is also a question of influence and inter-textuality.  I can’t help wondering whether Herrmann wanted someone to notice family resemblances, because they offer additional ways of decoding the film.

I suppose I should apologize for this introduction which promises more than I can deliver.  I am not really proposing to unpack all of Herrmann’s influences: which would be a huge job.  But I did think it might be fun to point out some prominent influences in one small part of Psycho.

First, let’s listen to the introduction to the film, as a reminder of what Herrmann’s music sounds like.  The film is  scored entirely for string orchestra, but in this brief sample you can hear the quality of the writing in a transcription for string quartet.

This corresponds to the music in the titles.

Herrmann’s next cue is very different.  Where the “prologue” is a fast composition full of repeated figures, the following passage is much slower, and more lyrical.

While there is less urgency, I’m hesitant about how to describe this passage.  Instead, perhaps I should play the music that it always suggests to me, music so similar –to parts of Herrmann’s score—that I can’t help but think that the American film composer was consciously emulating this influence, one of two.

Notice that this composition–much longer than the passage from Psycho— is the first of Debussy’s Nocturnes titled Nuages or “clouds,” or in other words a skyscape.  Pay attention especially to the passage roughly 60 seconds into the piece, where the descending parrallel chords are almost identical to what Herrmann employs, except that the film’s music has a few extra accidentals, further clouding its harmonies.  Whereas Debussy’s sky feels like an organic portrayal of natural phenomena undulating in the wind, Herrmann is showing us the urban sky, which is neither natural nor organic.  If you go back and listen again to Herrmann’s skyscape, the contrast is quite pronounced.

In comparison, you might think the difference is so large that I’m deluded to even mention Debussy, whose clouds float without any of the troubled human energies one feels in Herrmann’s score, as if emanating from those buildings in Psycho before we see our first human being.

Let’s hear the other influence, representing not just the subtext for Herrmann, but a composer who influenced Debussy himself, namely Richard Wagner.  In the orchestral opening of the last act of Tristan und Isolde we encounter another skyscape, setting the tone for the act, in its evocation of loneliness and frustrated sexual desire. Tristan waits for death, longing for one last encounter with his beloved Isolde.  The lookout stares at the empty sea, hoping for the appearance of a sail on the horizon.

Will Isolde come back?  A shepherd looks out, and utters a line that TS Eliot quotes in The Waste Land, namely “öd und leer das meer” (barren and empty the sea), as if to sum up the human condition.

Herrmann finds something that is suggestive of the two compositions, as though Tristan’s desperation had transformed Debussy’s organic sky into one of permanent sexual frustration and futility.

Whatever their relationships, it’s remarkable how one composition transforms the experience of the other.  Remembering the two senses of “descent” –both lineage and a physical trip downwards– I believe the only relevant descent in Psycho is that of the car going into the water.  With every decade, I believe the estimation of Herrmann and his film rises ever higher.

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2 Responses to The Descent of Psycho

  1. Pingback: The Geneology of Minimalism | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Cinematic Music- How We Hear Film: a course at the Royal Conservatory | barczablog

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