The music of horror films

From the lullaby in Rosemary's Baby to Bernard Herrmann's final score in Taxi Driver, an unforgettable episode of BBC Radio 3's In Tune discussed music in thrillers.

New Statesman
Michael Phillips receives the Palme d'Or for the movie Taxi Driver during the closing ceremony of 1976 Cannes film festival. Image: Getty

An unforgettable episode of In Tune (weekdays, 4.30pm) discussed music in horror films and thrillers, from the curdled lullaby in Rosemary’s Baby to the Wagnerian thrum characterising the best Hammer soundtracks. The BBC’s cross-media “Sound of Cinema” season has been programmed in precisely the right way: as though by obsessives in relentless pursuit of exciting sensations. (Let’s stick on the 1933 King Kong at prime time on a Sunday on BBC4! Let’s have a foley artist snapping rhubarb near a microphone to replicate the sound of catastrophe-shattered limbs!) The composer and silent movie accompanist Neil Brand gave a burst of the “landing at Whitby” scene from Nosferatu on a piano, relishing his role as both jukebox and magician – you could hear the audience fizzing.

The Tippett Quartet played music from Psycho, so intricately full of hostile power that you found yourself wondering why its composer, Bernard Herrmann, bothered using an entire orchestra. And here was Herrmann’s widow, Norma, gossiping about her long-dead husband (whom she still dotingly called Benny) and his final score, which was for Taxi Driver. She confessed that when Martin Scorsese first asked him to consider working on the movie, the caustic Herrmann had replied: “I don’t do cabbies.”

It was a personal relief to hear this lady speak. In the brilliantly useful and contumelious 1991 Hollywood memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips describes her work as a co-producer of Taxi Driver and the inconvenient moment when Herrmann “woke up dead”, aged 64, hours after completing the score.

“His wife freaks out,” Phillips writes breezily, “not least because she literally has not a penny to her name.”

I’d often wondered what had become of this wife – in that weird way that one aside or even half an aside in a book can act like a stone in your shoe – and here she was, not dead in a ditch somewhere, but on BBC Radio 3, happy as a person sitting with a large bowl of Miracle Whip and a spoon, admitting that she really ought to get round to seeing North by Northwest one day because Benny’s music was rather good, don’t you think?

Brand played some of it and the audience went through the roof. This was the definition of euphoric radio.