Fahrenheit 451: Original Soundtrack


Review by Gregory S. Burkart

It's hard to describe Bernard Herrmann's music without lapsing into total adulation for one of the greatest film composers ever to walk the earth, but I'll try my best to maintain some degree of critical perspective. Seriously though, can you imagine experiencing Psycho, Taxi Driver or The Day the Earth Stood Still with someone else's music playing in the background? Come on, already!

Countless volumes have been devoted to essays on Herrmann, and I'll leave it to the musical academia to explain how and why his music just seems to creep inside your brain and live there for decades, alternately teasing and soothing your nerve endings in ways few can describe. But I knew early on this man's music had this emotional power, and when you hear a score like this one, you'll feel it too, with the first spectral notes ? progressions of strings, harp and vibraphone that simultaneously summon feelings of trepidation and longing. It is precisely this emotional ambivalence that makes music like this unforgettable.

Legendary French director Francois Truffaut was often vocal in his praise of Alfred Hitchcock, so it's only natural he would seek out Herrmann, who scored some of Hitch's greatest films (Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo to name only a few), to write the music for Truffaut's only English-language film: an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Orwellian novel about a future dystopia where books are outlawed and paramilitary ?firemen? are tasked with tracking down all printed material and burning it on sight. Truffaut passed up all the modern composers of the day (circa 1966), insisting that Herrmann would write the ?music of the 21st Century,? and it is a tribute to Herrmann's genius that he pulls this off without veering into intentionally ?futuristic? musical styles (which inevitably sound like products of their own decade), choosing instead to create truly timeless compositions which sound fresh and daring forty years after they were written.

Using for his foundation similar instruments to those used in Psycho, Herrmann then added unusual colors by incorporating harp and melodic percussion (like glockenspiel and xylophone), creating a tonal palette of every emotion. Tension infuses every note of the more action or suspense oriented passages, as in the subtly threatening tones of ?The Lamp? and the staccato string pulses of ?The Bridge.? A sense of forbidden delights infuses cuts like ?The Novel,? with its low-range strings suggesting danger while light vibraphone hints at delight within the pages. The recurring ?Fire House? motif has a cold, mechanical urgency that matches the efficient flame-spewing machinery of the book-destroying police. The motif repeated in ?Flames? and ?Flame Thrower? rises and falls slowly, then builds the pattern to breathless speed to simulate a growing inferno. A dreamlike unreality is created by the ethereal ?Prelude? motif, which is used in other cues, most notably ?TV Aerials.? For a sense of profound melancholy, listen to ?The Road,? which echoes the tearful strains of Samuel Barber's ?Adagio For Strings.?

Each theme and motif used across these 47 cues has its own distinct musical personality, which illustrates Herrmann's goal to find the humanity at the core of what is essentially a cold, allegorical drama. As a standalone work, it's important to experience the entire score as a whole ? the story arc is all there, even without Truffaut's images. By themselves, these cues are very brief (seldom more than 2 minutes), but when you hear them one at a time, you start to become aware of a modular kind of arrangement, like interchangeable blocks that the composer moves around to create moods and emotional textures, much like the way a film editor can change the feel of a scene by rearranging the order of shots. It's really a brilliant way of approaching a score when you think about it... but don't think too much. This music is best experienced by just turning off the lights and immersing yourself in its world.

This new recording from Tribute Film Classics is one of the purest versions to come out in this score's long, troubled history: since quite a few chunks of Herrmann's original music were dropped from the final version of the film (Truffaut apparently didn't like the tinkly musical percussion that much and had many of those elements removed), the producers of this CD decided to return to the original manuscript materials and piece them together as the composer had first intended, including the positioning of instruments in the studio. It is this arrangement which was performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under the baton of William Stromberg; the end result is one of the truest representations of Herrmann's ideal Fahrenheit score since the composer himself recorded a suite of music from the film in 1974. It's a must-have for devotees of film music history, as well as an essential part of any classical collection.

As if that weren't enough to coax a couple of tens out of your wallet, there's also a second mini-score on this disc. Herrmann's vast body of work included a great deal of music for CBS Television, such as the themes from the Twilight Zone episode ?Walking Distance,? re-recorded here as a bonus feature. The bittersweet melodies which accompany this nostalgia-filled episode (about a man who takes a short walk down the street and meets his own past self) are a bit more traditional than those from the film, but in these tracks you can hear the origins of the melodic progression and modular patterns that would become the composer's trademark. Details on both scores, their history, in-depth analysis and tons more are assembled in a classy insert booklet.

For a fairly small boutique label, Tribute already has soundtrack collectors in ecstasy, having previously released an awesome CD of Herrmann's Mysterious Island score, and now this. Due to the smaller distribution, supply may be limited, so pick up a copy soon.