Bernard Herrmann's
"Wuthering Heights"

by John Mucci
from OperaMusic


Wuthering Heights is an admirable subject for an opera, and there have been two notable settings of it, one by Carlisle Floyd, and one by Bernard Herrmann. Floyd's version is in a prologue and three acts, at 131 minutes.

Herrmann’s version of the story—he was an ardent Anglophile and loved English literature—has a libretto by his first wife, Lucille Fletcher, and was written and scored from the late forties to the early sixties. He worked diligently on it, trying to get a production, and failed. There was one offer, with Julius Rudel conducting, but he asked for cuts in the score, and Herrmann wouldn’t hear of it.

Finally in the early sixties (remember now is when Herrmann was writing such film scores as Hitchcock’s “Psycho”!) he personally financed a recording, with him conducting, and released it on a limited edition of four vinyl discs, and was only sporadically available.

Now it is on CD, and we can all hear the uncut version of this work. And what a work it is! You can’t really compare it to much, operatically speaking. It has overtones of Britten and Hanson, as you’d imagine, but it is characteristically Herrmann from beginning to end.

First of all the libretto comes from the first half of the book, and is written in a prologue and four acts. That is rather off-putting, as very few modern operas are in four acts even without a prologue (remember La Boheme is in four acts, but is really only 100 minutes long). However, we are told by the composer that there is to be one intermission, and that after Act II. It isn’t a particularly long opera, but it does use cinematic devices that—if you’re unprepared for them—can be thought of as longueurs.

Several themes in this opera come from films that Herrmann wrote scores to, and extracted from them what he thought was more universal than merely film-specific. Such films as "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "Hangover Square", if you listen to them with a critical ear toward Herrmann’s music, are filled with exquisite moments, superb orchestration (his real specialty), and passionate renderings of emotional tides. In Wuthering Heights you can hear moments from earlier movies such as Citizen Kane (those low flutes), and prefiguring of later works such as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Marnie.

It is as good an idea as any, to take music you might think of as ephemeral and making it more permanent. But poor Benny! the films really have more permanence for him than this, his only opera. However, Wuthering Heights is a well-kept secret that serious operaphiles can savor, as it works in a very cogent, cohesive manner to take these themes and weave them into a setting of Emily Brontë’s story.

The opening takes place as a kind of flash-forward (or, if you will, the rest of the story after the prologue is a flashback), and has nearly all the themes we’ll need to hear throughout the opera concerning Heathcliff and Catherine. A raging snowstorm is outside, and the impending doom is heralded by a tympani motif of accellerating note values and increased dynamics (curiously, we’ll hear this again in Herrmann’s last film score, Taxi Driver for Marin Scorsese). Then a repetition of the rhythm, with brass playing a minor chord with a major seventh on top. This chord is of great importance to Herrmann: in fact, I have heard it referred to as the "Hitchcock chord"—surely a facile way of calling attention to it, but Herrmann used it in Vertigo (if you remember the opening arpeggios of the same chord, in contrary motion), and most notoriously in Psycho, also the opening notes, but struck in those slashingly shocking string attacks.

In Wuthering Heights we then hear a sequence that repeats four times, but not always in an identical pattern: a two-chord octave leap for the harp in f#-minor, and a shrill three-note motive for the piccolo, descriptive of the wind outside. This is relieved by a 6/4 passage for low flute and low woodwinds (another Herrmann specialty), again with the major seventh attached to a minor chord, this time in e-flat minor. Then an angular, low string 4-note theme. Then the tympani again, the harp leap, the piccolo, then the 6/4 woodwinds, then the low strings. Little cells that repeat. Little cells that have meaning. Little cells that are recognizable. It’s all so accessible that it’s almost embarrassing to say "I get it"—nearly immediately. We are so familiar with these little themes that the flute motive in 6/4 becomes all too quickly the voice of Catherine singing "Let me in, let me in..."

But what is remarkable about this structure is that although it is made up of very small building blocks, they are like mosaic chunks that create a larger image, one that is utterly heartbreaking by the end of the piece. Truly, it is all one can do to keep from bursting into tears at the last scene, where the prelude is repeated, cell by cell, by cell. But we know what each cell means, now. And it becomes a dialogue of music, under the actual sung lyrics by Catherine and Heathcliff, and as in the best operas, the audience is completely involved on a level that could not be achieved by book or play. The music speaks with a most eloquent tongue.

One thing Herrmann was not known for was a sustained melody. While he is a superb creator of the 1-note, the 2-note, 3-note and 4-note motif, as well as a master of ostinato (pace Philip Glass! who could learn much from Benny), his idea of a sustained melodic line is nothing like a Mascagni. It’s almost as though his attention span—or his perceived audience’s!—couldn’t make the stretch. There are some set pieces in the opera, songs with lyrics by Brontë taken from her poetry, and they are very fine songs; but again, their distinct feature is that they come back again and again to motivic elements: little 4-note melismas, or a peculiar interval that becomes central to the work. It is unfair to say that Herrmann couldn’t write a melody, but rather it is fair to say that his melodies are not borne on a classically designed arch. Britten might be his mentor in this capacity, but not Elgar.

To my ear it is reminiscent of Alban Berg’s technique, where there are a very set number of motives to work with, and although they are varied to every degree, they are served up like wheels on a slot machine. A. Then B. Then C. Then B. Then D. Then A. That is how one creates the longer line, by using cohesive bits. It isn’t a choppy feel at all, but one that is confident and inexorable. And it is the genius of Bernard Herrmann’s method that it hangs together perfectly, with a build up that is altogether shattering by the end.

It’s a work that isn’t to everyone’s taste; that Hollywood element is prevalent, and the harmonies used throughout are consistent with the over-ripe romantic style of Filmdom. But it is still a work that needs to be heard as a staged work.

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©2001 John C. Mucci. All rights reserved.