Archive for August 25, 2012

A Hero of Our Time

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags on August 25, 2012 by telescoper

R.I.P. Neil Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012)

The Sound of Hammer Horror

Posted in Film, Music, Opera with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been meaning for a while to post a little tribute to British composer James Bernard, and this Bank Holiday Weekend has left me with a bit of time to do so now. Most of you are probably wondering who James Bernard is (or was; he died in 2001), but many of you will have heard his music many times without realising it, for he was the composer who wrote most of the music for the classic British horror movies made by Hammer Film Productions from the late 1950s through to the 1970s.

I’m by no means an aficionado of horror films – or films of any sort for that matter, as I rarely go to the cinema these days – but I do enjoy the opera, which is probably why I find these films so interesting. I don’t think they would have established themselves as the classics there without the unique atmosphere conjured up by James Bernard’s scores. Nor without such fine actors as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, of course. The reason for this is that’s not much in these films in terms of purely visual horror – they work so well by creating an undertone of dread and impending terror so that the viewers’ own imaginations frighten them more than what’s shown on the screen. Viewed without the music, most of these films look pretty tame although I have to say I think The Devil Rides Out would have had me hiding behind the sofa even without the music!

Here is a little taste of what is probably his most famous score, for The Horror of Dracula (1958) which starred the inimitable Christopher Lee in the title role.

I think there are two things worth mentioning about this particular piece. The first is that the main theme is built around a three-note motif inspired by the three syllables of the name “Dra-cu-la”. Even more interestingly, Bernard doubles that line in the orchestra a whole tone higher, the resulting clash of harmonies producing that jarring sound that ratchets up the psychological tension. It’s a simple device, but remarkably effective, especially when combined with the unusual percussion.

The second thing that struck me listening to this just now is how reminiscent the entry of the high strings (about 0:49) is of the orchestration of the sea interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. That’s not a surprise at all, because James Bernard was a childhood friend of Britten, and they worked together at various times in later life. Bernard’s music is often atonal and sometimes puts me in mind of Britten’s gripping opera A Turn of the Screw, based on the famous ghost story by Henry James, which also uses atonal techniques to produce an unsettling musical undercurrent. Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a performance of which I reviewed here) also springs to mind as one in which the lack of a tonal centre in the music produces an atmosphere of disorientation and inner dread.