waging the peace' - bernard herrmann and 'the day the earth stood still

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Bernard Herrmann set the standard in for suspenseful film scoring


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    "Waging the Peace: Bernard Herrmann and "The Day the Earth Stood Still"" Author(s): Anthony Bushard Source: College Music Symposium, Vol. 49/50 (2009/2010), pp. 314-326Published by: College Music SocietyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41225258Accessed: 20-10-2015 02:12 UTC

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  • "Waging the Peace: Bernard Herrmann and The Day the Earth Stood StilF

    Anthony Bushard

    movie that gave us the phrase, "Klaatu! Barada! Nikto!" is not only an important science-fiction film, but also arguably one of the most significant films of the 1950s.

    Furthermore, it elevated the emerging genre of cinematic science-fiction above "junk or kiddy fare"1 and addressed more mature themes than one would normally encounter at a Saturday matinee. Producer Julian Blaustein, while in the early stages of creating The Day the Earth Stood Still (195 1), recalled reading about a government-led "Peace Offensive." To him, the plan seemed to be contradictory: How could peace be obtained through a military offensive? The 1950s were dominated by such conflicting ideolo- gies. U.S. foreign policy fought for freedom across the globe in the hopes of halting the spread of Communism. Conversely, in battling domestic Communism, liberties were sacrificed, loyalties called into question, and promising careers extinguished. The portrayal of the suburban lifestyle as the ideal place to raise a family lured many people from the cities to increased security in the suburbs. However, the homogeneity of race and social class, the repressive expectations of gender roles, and the cultural isolation left many suburbanites still searching for domestic utopia. When these social and political dualities converged, the results reflected what are often cited as side effects of U.S. foreign and domestic policy during the 1950s: fear, paranoia, and alienation. Hollywood experienced an equally transitional era in its history following World War II. The competition with television, destabilization of the studio system, and the specter of House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations in 1947 and 1951 produced a sense of negativity and skepticism throughout the film industry. Consequently, several filmmakers produced movies that reexamined important social issues and confronted the aforementioned conflicting ideologies. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was such a film that became renowned for both its critical success as well as its controversial socio-political message.

    As the spaceship lands, the first instinct of humans is to panic and act irrationally. Director Robert Wise captures this in the man running down the street screaming, "They're here! They've landed on the Mall!"2 One does not know specifically who "they" are, let alone what "their" intentions might be. Because of this frightening event, there are no certainties, only ambiguities. The composer for the film, Bernard Herrmann, echoes this feeling through virtual harmonic stasis in "Danger" (Example 1).

    'Von Gunden and Stock, Twenty, 38. 2Ibid.,41.

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    Example 1. The Day the Earth Stood Still, "Danger," mm. 1-8.3

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    Through the use of chromaticism, Herrmann disrupts any sense of a home key. The vibraphones begin and end on an F-sharp major chord, but there is no movement away from nor strong pull towards that chord. The trombones play a two-measure repeated chromatic pattern in which the chord on beat two of the first two-measure phrase occurs

    3Unless otherwise noted, all examples are either transcribed or reprinted from Herrmann's original score in the Bernard Herrmann Collection at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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    on beat one of the subsequent two-measure phrase. This pattern continues throughout the cue.

    Not only is the chromaticism effective, but the way Herrmann varies the same material in each measure underlines the sense of unpredictability in the face of this "invader." To complete the effect, Herrmann employs chromatic tritone movement in the bass instruments. This tritone bass progression reinforces in the listener's ear a sense of nervousness, which enhances the fear felt by the individuals in the film. Jay Rahn points out that the tritone is the only interval in which the chromatic size does not identify a specific diatonic size. For instance, ten semitones is a seventh, four semitones is a third, and eight semitones is a sixth. However, a tritone can be either an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, but they are both six semitones. Rahn calls this phenomenon an "ambiguity."4 It is this sort of tonal and intervallic ambiguity that makes the tritone so effective in helping to comment upon dramatic uncertainty.

    Finally, the moment comes when the ramp to the ship extends and the audience can finally see what fate awaits them. As expected, humans do not exactly roll out the red carpet. All present seem to be frozen in anticipation. To further suggest this state of suspended animation, Herrmann composed an equally static cue. As if to evoke a brilliant shaft of light, a high D-natural sounds in the theremin, organs, vibraphones, and electric violin (Example 2). Answering this crystalline unison in the Hammond organs and muted trumpets is an A-flat major chord in second inversion. By doing this, Herrmann reinforces the clash between D-natural and E-flat (displayed throughout the score) witnessed here in the root movement of this opening. The figure is resolved on a D-natural in the bass of the second theremin, electric cello and bass, and studio organ. Herrmann reinforces the dissonant tension between the D-natural sonority and the A-flat major chord and creates aural unease, which enhances the sense of nervous anticipation in the drama.

    4Rahn, "Coordination," 36.

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    Example 2. The Day the Earth Stood Still. "Klaatu," mm. 1-4.

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    Before those surrounding the alien vessel can comprehend what has happened to Klaatu, a large robot exits the ship. Citizens and military recoil in fear at the sight of the great metallic figure. The unison blast in the organs, tubas, pianos, and the ornamented figure in the bass drum of "Gort," provides a striking contrast in range and dynamics with the softer, more ethereal sound of the theremin at the end of "Klaatu" (Ex. 3). Herrmann enhances Gort's lumbering movement in the slow, quadruple meter and pre- dominance of half-notes. Beginning with the first figure in the theremins, Herrmann also colors the cue with frequent tritone movement, but phrased differently throughout the orchestra. One finds movement on the strong beats in the organs and pianos. Herrmann staggers the same material in the trombones and tubas and doubles it in the theremins. This pattern in the theremins contains glissandos between leaps, generating a wailing sound between the two instruments that seems to suggest Gort's voice and lends much to our auditory perception of Gort as something to fear.

    Example 3 . The Day the Earth Stood Still, "Gort." Passage colored by tritone movement and glissandos in the theremins, mm. 1-4.


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