Tag Archives: Bernard Herrmann

Planetary romance

To say I’m in geek heaven right now would be the most ridiculous kind of understatement. I’m delighted and then some. The reason is that for the first time in decades, I am listening to Bernard Herrmann’s early ’70s recording of Holst’s The Planets with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and finding it every bit as great as I remembered.

For a lot of people, The Planets is one of moldiest figs in the orchestral barrel, but this particular recording is one of the very first classical performances that grabbed my imagination and refused to let go. It’s certainly one of the first that I bought after getting a portable cassette player for my twelfth birthday. The very first cassette I bought with my birthday swag was the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, followed by Strauss’ Don Quixote. Having played them both to death, I went looking through the Sam Goody cassette section (which back then was still dwarfed by the vinyl LP stocks) and spotted the gray cover art of an LP that had been played by a seventh-grade  music teacher, who I knew then and now only as Mr. Paterno.

Mr. Paterno was probably getting starvation wages from the Saddle Brook school district at that time, but he took his job seriously enough to play an astonishing variety of music. I was being raised in a household where Percy Faith, Mantovani, and Sergio Mendes were the only sounds heard, aside from the occasional dash of Aaron Copland. So it was quite a thing for me to hear Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and “Mars, The Bringer of War” side by side as Mr. Paterno sought to illustrate some point about musical composition. Which is how I came to buy The Planets, which knocked my socks off as soon as I got it home. So let me say once again, thank you Mr. Paterno, wherever you are.

The CD recording comes from ReDiscovery, a boutique labor of love that issues CDR editions of long unavailable recordings of classical music. The CD sounds just fine for what it is, and it’s good enough to make me wish some larger entity would reissue the music in a remastered CD or SACD format. But no company has seen fit to do that, much to my annoyance over the years. It was particularly frustrating because virtually all of Herrmann’s superb film music has been reissued on CD, along with much of his own orchestral work, while my beloved recording of The Planets remained obscure.

The likeliest reason is that Herrmann’s recording was pretty roundly trashed by critics when it first appeared. The biggest complaint was that Herrmann slowed the tempos, particularly on “Mars,” which other conductors usually take at breakneck speed.  After years of relying on memory (and wondering if I hadn’t simply imprinted on the first version I’d heard, the way just-hatched ducklings take the first thing they see to be their mother), I can now confirm that Herrmann’s judgment was impeccable. No other version of The Planets comes close to matching the emotional power of Herrmann’s rendition. This is the recording to have if you want The Planets, as far as I’m concerned.

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Hot type

fahrenheitI’ve been hearing rumors for years now about plans for a new film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Mystery Man on Film has read a copy of Frank Darabont’s script, and while he hasn’t yet posted the whole thing, his descriptions of some of the choicer bits make me hungry to see the movie get made right away.  

His post also sent me back to re-read the Bradbury novel, which I hadn’t opened in decades. It’s still great stuff, certainly Bradbury’s finest novel, and as Mystery Man points out, far more cinematic in its imagery than the inept 1966 movie version directed by Francois Truffaut. It’s also remarkably concise and intensely imagined — particularly when compared with Bradbury’s increasingly blowsy later work. 

I have to give the movie some props, if only because it’s the reason I started reading Bradbury in the first place. Truffaut’s film cropped up on TV fairly often, and as a young reader in non-bookish circumstances I was gripped by the idea of getting by in a society than bans reading and routinely destroys books. I think I was in the sixth grade when I first read Fahrenheit 451, drawn to it because I’d seen the movie so many times by then, and it led me to The October Country, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun and the rest of Bradbury’s core titles. The funny thing is, even then I saw no attraction in becoming one of the Book People — how on earth could anyone decide on which single book to memorize and keep close?

Looking back, I think I was mainly held by the movie’s soundtrack, which was composed by Bernard Herrmann, whom Bradbury had recommended to Truffaut (not that Monsieur Auteur would have needed much encouragement to hire Alfred Hitchcock’s former right-hand man). Herrmann conceived a dreamy, mostly unfocused score that suggested a society held in a kind of permanent childhood by enforced illiteracy, yet still tormented by adult doubts and fear. It’s pretty much the only aspect of the film that still works, and it makes the final scene with the Book People one of the most rapturously beautiful sequences in film.      

For a while the rumor was that Mel Gibson wanted to play Guy Montag, the book-burning fireman who becomes consumed by the desire to read, but I think the role calls for someone like Viggo Mortensen who can suggest deep currents of thought beneath an impassive exterior. Either way, let somebody make the movie, soon. And meanwhile, you can re-read Bradbury’s novel — talk about a win-win scenario.

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Oscar and Saul


Still haven’t seen the Best Picture nominees, so my level of Oscar-interest is just about zero. Sorry about that.  If this roundup from Dennis doesn’t get you in the mood, try this dazzling Web site devoted to the work of Saul Bass, whose ingeniously designed title sequences for (among others) Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm and Casino are significant contributions to each film’s impact.

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