Hitchcock’s Ear: Music and the Director’s Art
by David Schroeder

Reviewed by Paula Musegades


Published by Continuum, 2012   |   263 pages

Alfred Hitchcock looms large in the minds of film scholars and enthusiasts alike. Primarily associated with the visual aspects of his films, however, Hitchcock’s work in both silent and sound cinema is marked by similarly radical innovations in the use of music in film as well. As David Schroeder notes in the preface to his text, Hitchcock’s Ear, “[m]uch has been written about Hitchcock and his music in the past few decades, although a fair amount of this is fairly inaccessible to Hitchcock enthusiasts.” Working from this premise, Schroeder writes in a manner accessible to professional and amateur alike, addressing topics including music’s principle functions within Hitchcock’s films, recurring thematic musical elements therein, Hitchcock’s early musical influences, and his employment of music to further the depiction of ambiguity versus order that permeates each plot. Importantly, Schroeder does not focus solely on every film score, but rather, on “music as an underlying force in generating the type of aura [Hitchcock] wished to capture, as a way of prompting visual images, and even having a possible bearing on structure for parts or the whole of a film.”

The work proceeds roughly chronologically, and logically so, as it follows the evolution of Hitchcock’s use of music throughout his career. In the first three chapters, Schroeder focuses largely on the musical and filmic influences of Hitchcock’s early career. From the musical imagery of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, through German Expressionism of the 1920s, D.W. Griffith’s major advancements in film, and the Russian style of V.I. Pudovkin, Schroeder notes several major individuals and schools that played an important role in the stylistic development of Hitchcock’s early work. As Hitchcock explained, “film music and cutting have a great deal in common. The purpose of both is to create the tempo and mood of the scene.” Elsewhere, when discussing the clear differences between cinema and theater, he explains that by being “anti-literary and purely cinematic…cinema…becomes a truly abstract art, like music.” Schroeder’s deft incorporation of quotations from both Hitchcock and his contemporaries bear significant insights into the influence of music on Hitchcock’s filmmaking process.

Investigating the connection between Hitchcock’s shots and the idea of musical counterpoint in Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927) and F.W. Murnau’s Symphony of Horror (1922), Schroeder notes the correlations between cinematographic (“varying tones and textures, light with persons and objects clearly visible in the foreground, and fading into darker tones further back”) and symphonic orchestration. Moreover, throughout chapter two Schroeder makes especially clear the influence of German expressionists and their film’s “parallels with orchestration and rhythm” on Hitchcock’s own silent film career and understanding of cinema. Similarly, the advent of sound and the success of montage technique, as practiced by Griffith, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko and Kuleshov, were two additional events impacting Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking. Discussing Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), which was released in both silent and sound versions, Schroeder explains that montage is deployed in the film’s silent version to emotionally intensify moments of heightened drama, while Hitchcock used “the unique qualities of sound…to match the technical mastery of montage” in the film’s equally effective sound version.

Moving on to recurring visual themes within Hitchcock’s films, chapters four and five investigate the prominence of the waltz. Schroeder first discusses the waltz’s broader function within society as a symbol of both stability and disorder, noting that while some believed the waltz to be sexual, even lascivious, others saw it as a mechanism by which to “avoid dealing with reality.” The use of the waltz in film had a long tradition in Germany, and Schroeder explains that Hitchcock, while filming in Germany, “no doubt became much more aware of the significance of the waltz, and he could certainly observe it being used by Murnau.” Schroeder clearly demonstrates Hitchcock’s association of the waltz to ideas of stability and disorder. In addition, Schroeder highlights many directors who included dance numbers in their films, and notes their potential influence on Hitchcock’s own work.

At times the text seems to lose its focus on the score, concentrating instead on visual aspects of the films. For example, Schroeder notes that throughout his films, Hitchcock maintained a close involvement with the script, insisting that his writers think in visual rather than verbal terms. To demonstrate this idea, Schroeder focuses primarily on the dialogue and complex camera work of Rear Window (1954) in chapter six. Presenting an interesting analysis of Hitchcock’s manipulation of specific camera angles to create altered perceptions, Schroeder suggests that in this way Hitchcock gives form to “what [he] sees as underlying all human existence.” It is not until the end of the chapter that Schroeder discusses a perceived failing of the musical score, noting “[t]he composed music for the film… supports the notion of a comedy thriller, not a film with the depth that the camera carries.”

According to Schroeder, the piano in its many incarnations within Hitchcock’s films holds significant meaning as a representation of seduction. Beginning, as he often does, with the historical context, Schroeder notes the gendered associations of the piano, and more specifically its connections with women and beauty, before explaining Hitchcock’s adoption of this instrument as a “symbol of ambiguity or conflict” as well as “sexually loose behavior, most commonly in women.” Providing informative analyses of several films, most closely with Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), and Rope (1948), Schroeder clearly demonstrates Hitchcock’s use of the piano in moments of seduction, murder, and conflict.

Chapters eight and nine focus on Hitchcock’s use of source music within his films. Beginning with a discussion of traditional art music in chapter eight, Schroeder notes that Hitchcock relied upon classical Viennese composers including Mozart and Beethoven as representatives of order in his films, while Ravel and Wagner signified ambiguity. Following a discussion of these composers, Schroeder then investigates both Murder! (1930), and Vertigo (1958), in terms of such binaries. Particularly compelling is his connection between Vertigo and the operas Orfeo, and Tristan and Isolde, as he notes their impact on the film’s underlying structure. This discussion leads into other examples of source music within Hitchcock’s films, most predominantly jazz’s association – interestingly – with moments of torture.

In the work’s closing chapter, Going Popular, Schroeder explains the famous falling out between Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock due to the former’s refusal to comply with Hitchcock’s demand for a more ‘contemporary’ film score. Schroeder calls into question the common belief that Hitchcock was forced “to turn away from the kinds of scores he had been using, especially those by Herrmann, and adopt the new jazzy music with a beat.” Indeed, throughout this chapter Schroeder argues convincingly that Hitchcock had much more control over all aspects of the film making process, including the music, than he led others to believe.

Presenting a new approach to understanding Hitchcock’s films, Hitchcock’s Ear is a fascinating and well-executed treatment of the role of music in Hitchcock’s creative process. While Schroeder provides several compelling analyses of films through a musical lens, one may occasionally question whether Hitchcock’s musical influences were as pronounced as Schroeder argues. Further, one may also ask whether the lengthy sections dedicated strictly to visual and dialogue analysis are strictly on topic, though this latter focus may be due to a broader target audience. Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s Ear offers a fresh understanding of Hitchcock’s films. That it also opens the doors for further professional research in this complex field of study is but one more testament to its value.

Paula Musegades is a doctoral candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University, where she is currently writing her dissertation on Aaron Copland’s work in Hollywood Film. Her areas of interest are Film Music and American Music of the 20th century.

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