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Bernard Herrmann: Taxi Driver (Soundtrack)

Bernard Herrmann, cond.

Arista O7822-19005-2

David Aspinall

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As Martin Scorsese tells it, he never considered any other composer but Herrmann for the score of his Hell-on-the-Hudson. However, Herrmann was ill, and would take some persuading, apparently feeling little inclined to compose music on or off the meter. What finally convinced him was a tiny detail in the scenario: when Travis Bickle poured peach brandy on his cornflakes, Herrmann knew he could do justice to this character and picture.

We can understand the composer's initial reluctance. Unlike other famous film composers of the first generation (e.g. Steiner, Rozsa and Waxman), Herrmann had never been particularly associated with film noir. The composer's typecasting as the musikaleidoscope of fantasy cinema made him an unlikely choice for the dark, Dante-esque vision of Scorsese and scenarist Paul Schrader. Yet Scorsese the film connoisseur saw another pattern in Herrmann's filmography. Call it the peach brandy factor. Why was Herrmann the perfect composer for Hitchcock? We all know Hitch's obsession with fear. Nobody in film, or perhaps in all twentieth century art, has connected us so cathartically with our primal urge to scream. But Hitch experts have noticed another obsession of the Master - with obsession itself. We needn't name titles: a naive second wife can't shake the spirit of her deceased predecessor; a photographer with a broken leg can't keep his eyes off neighbours' windows; an ex-cop is compelled to remake a hapless girl in the image of his lost love; an amateur taxidermist just has to hold on to more than a memory of mom.

In the final third of his fifty-year cinema career, Hitchcock found the ideal collaborator. For the uniqueness of Herrmann's style depends, far more than upon his celebrated colouristic skills, upon motival repetition, the musical equivalent of the idee fixee, and the perfect tool for the delineation of obsession. In fact Herrmann was just coming off the project of that title (one of Brian DePalma's many tributes to Hitchcock, a virtual remake of Vertigo) when he got the summons from Scorsese. The thematic thread of fixation was visible in Herrmann's oeuvre long before Hitchcock. He'd begun his Hollywood career with two depictions of the corrupting grip of greed, Citizen Kane and All That Money Can Buy. Still in the '40s he would score, with appropriate starkness and brooding power, Hangover Square (again, a man obsessed with an unattainable beauty) and Jane Eyre (which assignment led to Herrmann's own lifelong obsession with the Brontes, culminating in his only opera, Wuthering Heights). Therefore Scorsese was right to anticipate that Herrmann would bring both Hitchcockian menace and Wellesian penetration to Paul Schrader's story of this Lancelot among the lowlife, Travis Bickle.

Travis's world is a seething cauldron. Herrmann's palette, in contrast to a former plunge into Psycho-sis, employs a full complement of orchestral colour. However, once again the composer seems to have challenged himself by self-imposed limitation: in Psycho he gives us insanity for strings; for Taxi Driver he almost eschews the string section, but the available colourations are not exploited for splash, as in his fantasy scores (also dominated by brass and percussion), but something better described as splat. For the net effect of the scoring is to accentuate the vague nausea induced by the hallucinatory visuals. As Scorsese's restless camera prowls through these infernal precincts, winds and brass stalk on the soundtrack, the intentional brooding monotony shattered intermittently by an erupting snare. The ominous pall never lifts. Even the solo sax assigned to Travis's prostitute/princess is less sensual than sordid.

Taxi Driver is hardly Herrmann's most varied filmscore, nor certainly his most inspired, but as a match for the filmmakers' vision, it is perfect. Hear it, if possible, with the film. The new Arista CD far surpasses the score's former incarnation on LP. All the music Herrmann wrote for the film is included, even cues cut from the final mix. The sound, though at times oddly balanced, is outstanding. On the original LP more than half Herrmann's forty minutes of underscoring was dumped in favour of some echt-70s, non-Herrmann arrangements of the main themes (also included on the CD, as are highlights from Robert DeNiro's apocalyptic monologues). These popularizations would no doubt have infuriated the irascible composer . How on earth did those these arrangements end up on the Arista LP? How was it that a musician as uncompromising as Herrmann didn't veto this bastardizing of his work? Well, after Taxi Driver's last recording session, the night before Christmas Eve 1975, Bernard Herrmann returned home to dine with his wife, then retired to bed. He never woke up.

Postscript: At the 1977 Academy Awards Bernard Herrmann received two of the five nominations for Best Original Score (forTaxi Driver and Obsession). These were the first Academy acknowledgments of Herrmann in thirty years (unbelievably, none of the fantasy masterworks, not even the Hitchcock scores, garnered even a nomination). Both nominees lost, to Jerry Goldsmith's The Omen. Well, at least Rocky didn't win.

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