Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-nominated film score
Music From Great Film Classics
conducted by Bernard Herrmann
CITIZEN KANE opened at the Palace Theater in New York on May 1, 1941.
Listed in a Runner-Up position in 1952, but ten years later in 1962, CITIZEN KANE was in the No. 1 position on The Best Films Of All Time List by SIGHT AND SOUND (the respected magazine from the British Film Institute). It has remained on most critics lists ever since.
In this FILM IN FOCUS article, Film music critic Roger Hall offers his personal view of this classic film and score. Following the article are two of his CD reviews of the score from 1999. He has written extensively about Herrmann's music over the years, including for Film Score Monthly and Soundtrack magazines. He also wrote the entry on Bernard Herrmann in Volume 10 of the American National Biography encyclopedia.
HERRMANN RAISES KANE!
Rather than discussing the film's many innovative elements, which have been discussed elsewhere, I want to tell my experience of watching this great classic film when it was first shown on television back in the 1950s in New York City on WOR-TV, the station which had access to all the great RKO Radio films and they called this series, "Million Dollar Movie." Included were many film classics worth at least a million, unlike many of today's empty-headed , over-budgeted blockbusters.
I was just a young kid back in the 1950s and quickly became a huge fan of these old black & white films on WOR -- this was back in the Dark Ages before color televisions were even available. The films included the classic Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers musicals, KING KONG, GUNGA DIN and many other delights.
If You Have Not Yet Seen This Film - Spoilers Ahead
One day, when I was bored at home, I watched CITIZEN KANE for the very first time. The film didn't have the status it has today as the best Hollywood film ever made. Back then it was just another film shown on "Million Dollar Movie."
I was immediately taken in by this story of Charles Foster Kane and his tumultuous life. But the ending when "Rosebud" is revealed was a tremendous surprise to me and I've never forgotten the sudden rush of surprise at that conclusion, especially with the powerful music in that final scene, quoting the Xanadu (or Kane) motif, bringing his life and the film full circle from the opening cue. The "Rosebud" sled also registered with me because I had recently lost my own beloved sled when we had moved to another location and I also identified with the young Charles Foster Kane since I had been pulled away from my dad by my overbearing mother.
Many years ago, I was in contact with the late child actor, Sonny Bupp, and asked him about his role as Charles Foster Kane's son. He said that Orson Welles was kind to him and he liked his brief role in CITIZEN KANE. Bupp also told me he greatly enjoyed his role in the 1939 western, RENEGADE TRAIL, with William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy.
I also had a personal connection to CITIZEN KANE, though it was indirect. This is where I resided for a few years...
In the "News On The March" newsreel at the beginning of the film, they show various shots of large estates and castles and one of them was where I was then going to school at Eastern Military Academy. It was originally OHEKA Castle and had been built in 1919 by a successful multi-millionaire banker, Otto Hermann Kahn, who could have been a model for Charles Foster Kane. Otto Kahn was also fond of opera and was known for being sometimes flamboyant, inviting showgirls and hangers-on to his lavish OHEKA gatherings in the 1920s, while his wife stayed at home in their New York City townhouse. His wife called these parties his "private zoo." On a more serious side, Otto Kahn helped to bring opera star Enrico Caruso to the U.S. and Kahn kept the Metropolitan Opera in New York from going bankrupt.
There were several quick shots of OHEKA in that newsreel in CITIZEN KANE and I was thrilled to see them. One view of the beautiful gardens at OHEKA is shown after the News On The March narrator says, "The biggest private zoo since Noah." That seems an appropriate place since that is what Kahn's wife called his elaborate Long Island castle.
I originally thought the "News On The March" music was also by Herrmann but have since learned that it was made up of different source cues from the RKO library, including music by Alfred Newman, Max Steiner and Roy Webb.
The film has been available in numerous formats: videotape, Laserdisc, DVD and now on a stunning new Blu-ray Ultimate Collector's Edition.
Besides the OHEKA connection in the newsreel and the Rosebud finale, the greatest impact on me in CITIZEN KANE was from...
In addition to the film itself with its superb cinematography by Gregg Toland and Oscar-winning screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz (who wrote most or all of the screenplay) and Orson Welles, let's not forget the monumental music score by Bernard Herrmann. I believe this is the best film score ever composed for a Hollywood film of the past and listed it the top position of my list of 100 Essential Film Scores.
I believe CITIZEN KANE is such a masterful film score because it incorporates so many different elements and styles in accompanying the film. What other film has so many different kinds of music and so well placed too? There are touches of ragtime, waltzes, massive orchestral passages, and even an aria for an imaginary opera ("Salammbo") which Herrmann brilliantly composed and used in several important scenes for "singer," Susan Alexander Kane.
Even though there are many cues in the film, Herrmann used music only in places where it was needed and had the maximum effect. He had learned this technique from his days working with the CBS Orchestra on radio and he was the conductor for the famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast with the Mercury Theater, led by Orson Welles. That's why Herrmann was brought to Hollywood -- he had worked with Welles, who recognized his musical ability.
Perhaps the best example of effective underscoring is the "Breakfast Montage" cue. This is one of the greatest montages in film history and Herrmann is up to the task of highlighting it with his music. In this key scene, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) and his wife, Emily Monroe Norton Kane (Ruth Warrick) progress through the years of their marriage in a matter of minutes of film time. For that sequence, Herrmann used a graceful waltz theme with a series of variations which grow darker as Charles Foster Kane grows harsher and more arrogant and his marriage is breaking up. This is a short but masterful music cue.
Fortunately, Herrrmann's great score has been available on LP and CD for many decades [see reviews below]. In my collection I even have an old Mark 56 LP with the complete dialogue and music from the film.
The "Aria from Salammbo" has been performed by some of the greatest opera singers, especially Kiri Te Kanawa's terrific performance on the RCA recording with Charles Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra in1974, now available on a re-mastered CD (Best of the Month - March 2011).
Back in 1991, for the 50th anniversary of the film, I was fortunate to present a radio tribute to Herrmann's score for CITIZEN KANE. This radio program is available on the CD, Bernard Herrmann 1941.
Orson Welles, who was co-writer, actor, and director of CITIZEN KANE, has said that Bernard Herrmann's film score was a very important element and accounted for 50% of the success of the film.
In the final analysis, CITIZEN KANE is really like a Greek tragedy where the hero is thwarted by his own super- ego. And Herrmann makes it more powerful with his musical accompaniment.
Everyone involved -- the actors, the writers, the cinematographer and the composer worked together to help raise KANE to be the best of them all!
-- Roger Hall, May 2011/May 2016
CITIZEN KANE (Best of the Month - March 2011)
Retro CD Reviews
Two reviews originally posted
on Film Music Review
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Total Time = 52:41
Music by Bernard Herrmann. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely and Tony Bremner. Janice Watson, soprano. Produced by Robert Townson.
Varese Sarabande 302 065 806 2
1. Prelude (2:59)/ 2. Rain (1:27)/ 3. Litany (1:15)/ 4. Manuscript Reading and Snow Picture (1:36)/ 5. Mother's Sacrifice (0:50)/ 6. Charles Meets Thatcher (0:45)/ 7. Galop (0:46)/ 8. Dissolve (0:14)/ 9. Second Manuscript (0:58)/10. Thanks (0:08)/ 11. Bernstein's Narration (0:37)/ 12. Kane's New Office (0:48)/ 13. Hornpipe Polka (0:45)/ 14. Carter's Exit (0:39)/ 15. Chronicle Scherzo (1:03)/ 16. Bernstein's Presto (0:19)/ 17. Kane's Return (0:26)/ 18. Valse Presentation (0:55)/ 19. Sunset Narration (2:47)/ 20. Theme and Variations (3:02)/ 21. Kane and Susan (0:28)/ 22. Susan's Room (2:14)/ 23. Mother memory (0:31)/ 24. The Trip (1:13)/ 25. Getty's Departure (0:32)/ 26. Kane Marries (0:55)/ 27. Salaambo's Aria ( Janice Watson, soprano)(4:10)/ 28. LeLand's Dismissal (0:58)/ 29. New Dawn Music (0:47)/ 30. Xanadu (1:36)/ 31. Jigsaw (1:59)/ 32. Second Xanadu (1:14)/ 33. Kane's Picnic (0:35)/ 34. Susan leaves (1:06)/ 35. El Rancho (0:30)/ 36. The Glass Ball (1:32)/ 37. Finale (2:33).
BONUS CUTS: 38. The Night (3:06)/ 39. Xanadu Music (2:27)/ 40. Dawn (0:57).
When talking about what many believe is the greatest American film ever made, it's not wise to treat the score with any less consideration. This first score by Herrmann for a Hollywood film is simply superb in every respect and I've named it as my No. 1 choice on the list of 100 essential film scores of the 20th century.
There are actually three CITIZEN KANE CDs to consider at this time: the first is a suite, conducted by Charles Gerhardt on RCA/BMG, the second is the full score, conducted by Tony Bremner on Preamble/Laser Light, and the third one is this new one conducted by Joel McNeely. How does this new one measure up against the other two? Not as well, I'm afraid.
First, the tempos seem sometimes too slow and other times too fast. Second, the recording sounds somewhat distant and shrill, and some of the lower instruments are not easily heard. Third, why was is felt necessary to include all the cues separately, many lasting less than a minute? It makes for a rather unsettling listening experience, as if hearing a bunch of unrelated motifs. Herrmann himself arranged parts of CITIZEN KANE into a suite to make it more appealing.
Having mentioned the general things I didn't like, let me talk about a few things I did like.
The classic "Theme and Variations" (track 20) was handled very well, as were several of the dance cues, "Galop" (track 7) and "Hornpipe Polka" (track 13). The 5 pages of notes by Christopher Husted, manager of Bernard Herrmann Music, make fascinating reading about how Herrmann came to work in Hollywood. Sound quality is generally good.
The famous "Salammbo's Aria" is sung by Janice Watson and she sings it well enough, except when she's swallowed up by the loud orchestral passages. The champ for this magnificent opera aria is still Kiri Te Kanawa on the RCA CD.
The extra three bonus cuts, lasting nearly 6 minutes, don't really add anything important to the score. The cover art work is very unappealing with a shadowy Susan Alexander in the foreground and Charles Foster Kane standing in silhouette off in the distance - why does he look so short and pudgy? At least there is a nice (though small) photo of Herrmann on the back cover.
If I were to choose only one CD to get of the complete score, I'd go with the Tony Bremner one on Laser Light, available at a very attractive bargain price.
This Varese release just doesn't measure up to that one. Maybe that's because it was recorded over two years time between February 26,1997 and September 23, 1999. Unfortunately, after all that time they still couldn't get it quite right. Worth having in your collection if you're a die-hard Herrmann fan who needs to have it all.
-- Roger Hall, December 1999
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Total Time = 43:26
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by Bernard Herrmann. Australian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Tony Bremner.
Laser Light Digital 21 232
This is a noble effort to recreate Bernard Herrmann's first and greatest film score, based on his original manuscripts. It's fascinating to hear this brilliant score and in digital stereo too. Still, there are some problems with this recording.
The famous opening "Prelude" is recorded too fast. The result is unsatisfying, especially when compared to Charles Gerhardt's wonderful conducting on the Herrmann Classic Film Scores compilation CD. Gerhardt's version of the dark and somber Prelude (3:26) and sudden shift to the exhilarating Snow Sequence are magically handled. In Tony Bremner's interpretation of the Prelude (2:22), the cue is faster and less clearly defined. The same is true for two other well-known cues from the classic film.
The first one is the superbly written "Theme and Variations (Breakfast Montage)." Gerhardt handles this extremely subtle cue in grand style. Bremner's version sounds uncertain of its intent and runs out of steam before the last dramatic variation.
Another well-known cue is the "Salammbo's Aria." After the superb singing of Kiri Te Kanawa on the Gerhardt version, it's difficult to imagine anyone topping it. Rosamund Illing gives it a good try and sings it well, but without the dramatic intensity and soaring high notes of Te Kanawa. The Australian Philharmonic is fine but is no match to the National Philharmonic's glorious playing in the Gerhardt version, whose sound was spectacular.
Isn't it unfair to compare Gerhardt's short KANE suite to Bremner's complete score? Not really. It's the interpretation that is being evaluated here, not the score length. And I believe that the Gerhardt recording is superior. Interpretation is very important when dealing with the greatest film score to the greatest Hollywood film ever made. If you're a serious fan of this Orson Welles classic, the entire soundtrack (including dialogue) was released on a double LP on Mark 56 Records in 1978. I don't think it has been released yet on CD.
The notes on the Laser Light CD by John Lasher are quite informative. He mentions that the sequence of cues were put together by Herrmann himself before his death in 1975. Unfortunately, the 7 musical examples mentioned in Lasher's notes are not found in the booklet. They were included in the original release by Fifth Continent Music (Preamble Records) in 1991 for the 50th anniversary of CITIZEN KANE. Lasher also adds several other distinctions, especially when he explains that "our compact disc includes not only the complete Herrmann score, but also several cues for but not retained (or dubbed so low as to be inaudible) in the final release print of the film."
These additional cues and the complete score itself are what make this a recommended soundtrack to get, especially if you're a Herrmann fan. The Laser Light budget price is another incentive to consider. A very good value.
-- Roger Hall, May 1999
Read more about Bernard Herrmann on this
multimedia computer DVD...
A GUIDE TO FILM MUSIC (6th edition)