Benjamin Northey talks Hitchcock & Herrmann



Without a doubt, my favourite scene in movie history is one from Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo. As James Stewart kisses Kim Novak in her hotel room, a fantasy world spins around them and composer Bernard Herrmann’s tense and wildly romantic strings seem to ascend into infinity.

Herrmann scored many of Hitchcock’s films – the pairing of creative geniuses resulted in some of the most recognisable film moments of all time (think Psycho’s shower scene; the strings jabbing as violently as the knife).

Benjamin Northey will this week conduct the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus through a concert featuring scenes from Hitchcock’s classics, and he takes a moment to chat with us about all things Herrmann.


What’s your personal connection to Bernard Herrmann? 

I have always been an admirer of Herrmann’s music. After Psycho, the first score to really make an impact on me was Cape Fear which is a great example of his angular style of writing. Studying his music more deeply, I have come to realise just what an important and influential composer of film music he was.

Why is it that Herrmann’s music connects so powerfully with Hitchcock’s movie scenes?

There is a seriousness and a complexity to Herrmann’s music which suits Hitchcock’s style and the thriller genre more broadly. The scores he wrote add so much to the suspense and drama. They show a real sense of understanding of the psychology of the characters and their motivations. I think this is why the partnership worked so effectively. Hitchcock was mostly able to give Herrmann a free hand and trust that he would come up with just the right approach.

How do you go about conducting such a famous soundtrack for a live audience? Many of us are highly familiar with Hitchcock’s films. Is it your responsibility to be true to Herrmann, or is it necessary to give it your own spin?

It’s important with concerts of this kind to be faithful to the original recordings, but as always the context of a modern symphony orchestra creates many new opportunities. The obvious difference will be simply the quality of the sound of the live orchestra. The original movies were very limited in sound quality by the available technology. I think it will add another dimension immediately and enhance the experience for the listeners.

What’s your favourite Hitchcock-Herrmann moment, and why?

The famous crop dusting scene in North by Northwest is really powerful. Most composers when evaluating the musical requirements of that scene would no doubt throw a full-blown dramatic chase style cue at it. Herrmann writes absolutely nothing, leaving the scene to speak for itself. The impact is that the reality of the scene is amplified enormously and it becomes even more disturbing and terrifying. Sometimes it’s what composers don’t write which is the most powerful moment.

What impact do you feel Herrmann made on film music in a broader sense?

The genre was evolving quickly during Herrmann’s career and he was at the forefront of innovation. He was perhaps the first composer to resist constant use of a full symphony orchestra and instead experiment with unusual instrument groupings such as multiple harps and electronic instruments. His use of the spooky sounding electronic theremin in The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first use of the instrument in film. He basically invented a new genre there. I would say that every modern film score is influenced by his work, particularly drama/horror films. He was a brilliant composer, a true craftsman with a gift for story.

Herrmann was quite an early film composer – who are some of the masters that influenced his music?

Herrmann was first a conductor and creature of the standard symphony orchestra so he was constantly drawing on those influences. I hear a great deal of 20th Century modernist language, particularly the similar angular style of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, but also the chromaticism of Wagner and Debussy. Having said that, his music always comes across as non-derivative, always original. It sounds like Herrmann.


For more info on the concert, visit


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