Video: How Alfred Hitchcock's Films Experimented With Electronic Music

When Alfred Hitchcock moved to the US in spring 1939, his reputation preceded him. Shortly after his arrival, Life magazine called him the "greatest master of melodrama in screen history." Always an innovator, he had directed the first British talkie, Blackmail, a decade earlier. From the start, Hitchcock took a keen interest in the music in his films—and, indeed, musical motifs featured in the plotlines of two of his biggest '30s successes, The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). These three strands—melodrama, sound innovation, and music—converged in the director's first Hollywood movie, Rebecca (1940).

Rebecca was based on a 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, and its plot posed a conundrum to Franz Waxman, the composer hired to score the film. A woman marries a widower, Maxim de Winter, and goes to live in his country estate. There, the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, the titular Rebecca, pervades all. She is the dominant character, yet she never appears, an invisible fixed point around which the story revolves. Her character and history can only be revealed through the speech and actions of other characters—and Waxman's music.

The composer answered this challenge by creating a "ghost orchestra" including a Hammond organ and two Hammond Novachords.

A Hammond Novachord, sold on Reverb by NewOldSounds
A Hammond Novachord, sold on Reverb by NewOldSounds.

The Novachord was the first polyphonic electronic keyboard instrument, in limited production from 1939 to 1942. Though complex, bulky, and expensive, it was briefly popular with film composers, and its shimmering vibrato was ideal for Waxman's purposes. Conventional orchestral instrumentation accompanied the actions of the living characters, but whenever the first Mrs. de Winter is mentioned, Waxman deployed the eerie, hovering tones of his ghost orchestra to summon her presence.

Rebecca was a critical and commercial success, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Black-and-White Cinematography and earning nine further nominations, including one for Waxman's score. Five years later, the score to another Hitchcock film went one better and won the Oscar. This, too, featured an electronic instrument.

Miklós Rózsa was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1907. His mother, a classical pianist, passed on to her son a love of music. Rózsa was set on becoming a composer, and he studied in Germany, then spent most of the '30s in Paris and London, composing classical music and writing film scores. In 1940, he moved to the US and began working in Hollywood.

Hitchcock and his producer, David O. Selznick, were impressed with Rózsa's score for Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and approached him about their new movie, Spellbound. The story focuses on Dr. Constance Petersen (played by Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst at a mental hospital, and her boss, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). Petersen notices that Edwardes, who we discover is suffering from amnesia, has a phobia about sets of parallel lines against a white background.

Rózsa met Hitchcock and Selznick just twice. At the first meeting, Hitchcock made his demands: an expansive orchestral love theme for scenes involving the two leads, and a "new color" for the Edwardes character's recurring episodes of terror brought on by the phobia. Rózsa immediately suggested a Theremin for the phobia theme. Hitchcock and Selznick had never heard of it but agreed to let the composer try.

In his later autobiography, Double Life, Rózsa recounted how he had attempted to use electronic instruments on two previous occasions, with no success.

He had come across the Ondes Martenot and its inventor, Maurice Martenot, when living in Paris in the '30s. He wanted to use the instrument for the Thief Of Baghdad score, which he began in 1939, by which time he was living in London. He wrote to Martenot in Paris and asked if the inventor could bring an instrument to London. However, by the time it came to the recording sessions, in early 1940, Martenot had been called up to the armed forces, so Rózsa had to abandon his idea.

Then, when director Henry Hathaway asked for an "eerie, uncanny" sound to evoke a premonition of death in the war film Sundown (1941), Rózsa proposed a Theremin, although in the end he resorted to a musical saw. The third time he tried to use an electronic instrument, however, he got his way.

Rózsa duly composed the love and phobia themes for Spellbound, and at the second and final meeting with Hitchcock and Selznick he presented both, singing the Theremin part to piano accompaniment. The director and producer both liked the tune, but they wanted to hear the instrument it would be played on.

Clara Rockmore.

Rózsa's first choice for the job was the virtuoso Thereminist Clara Rockmore, but when she declined, he consulted the musicians' union directory in Hollywood, finding just one other Thereminist listed who could read music, one Samuel Hoffman.

Trading as Hal Hope, Hoffman had led an electronic trio playing the clubs and restaurants in New York City in the '30s, developing a modest local reputation. In 1941, Hoffman moved to Los Angeles, where he set up as a podiatrist. He considered himself a retired musician but registered with the local union on the off chance that he might pick up some work. This opened up an unexpected second career for Hoffman, who became Hollywood's go-to Theremin guy right into the '60s.

Rózsa made contact and arrived at Hoffman's house with a sketch of the Spellbound Theremin part. Hoffman sight-read and performed the part perfectly, and Rózsa hired him on the spot. Hitchcock and Selznick wanted to know how the Theremin would sound in context and suggested a trial recording of the theme with an orchestra.

Rózsa and Hoffman obliged, and a few days later Rózsa received a memo from one of Selznick's secretaries saying that he and Hitchcock approved of the Theremin and wanted it in every scene connected with mental disturbance, and also in the title sequence. According to Rózsa, this was followed by many more memos from Selznick containing instructions about how the Theremin should be used—which Rózsa ignored. Eventually, though, the score was recorded and approved.

Rózsa's Spellbound music won the 1945 Oscar for Best Original Score. The main love theme is classic romantic Hollywood. In contrast, the Theremin is the sound of distress and appears in all scenes featuring Edwardes's parallel-lines phobia, as well as a surreal dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí.

After Spellbound, Rózsa worked again for Billy Wilder. The Lost Weekend (1945) follows Don Birnam (played by Ray Milland) on a weekend binge that culminates with delirium tremens and nightmarish hallucinations. The composer used Hoffman's Theremin again, to the chagrin of Selznick, who considered it something of a trademark for Spellbound. But he couldn't stop Rózsa from using the instrument, and the score for The Lost Weekend was nominated alongside Spellbound in the '45 Oscars.

It was nearly 20 years before another Hitchcock film used electronic sound, in The Birds (1963). This, too, is a du Maurier adaptation, based on a short story of the same title. In the intervening years, the director had formed a working relationship with Bernard Herrmann, the composer with whom he is now most closely associated. Herrmann worked on The Birds, though he didn't consider the score to be music at all.

The movie features a classic Hitchcock device—the twisting of the familiar into something sinister. In this case, flocks of birds begin to attack humans. Normally harmless creatures become objects of terror, not by changes to their appearance, but by their unexplained violence. Hitchcock realized that vicious bird attacks could not be soundtracked by recordings of birdsong and tweets, and he decided against a conventional musical score. Instead, he turned to an obscure German electronic instrument called the Mixtur-Trautonium.

Oskar Sala - Live-Konzert 1991 - Mixtur-Trautonium

Friedrich Trautwein invented the Trautonium, and his first iterations did away with a keyboard in favor of a resistor wire over a metal plate, which the performer presses to create a sound. Telefunken produced these early instruments from 1933 until 1935, making 200, though few were ever sold. Trautwein's assistant, Oskar Sala, further developed the instrument into the twin-manual Mixtur-Trautonium, a more sophisticated version of the original, which retained the wire-and-plate playing action.

In April 1962, as Hitchcock and Herrmann were wondering what to do about the soundtrack for The Birds, the director received a letter from a German composer, Remi Gassmann—who worked with Sala—promoting the Mixtur-Trautonium. Later, he told author Steven C. Smith of its capacity to make "familiar sounds" and "an almost limitless supply of completely unfamiliar sounds."

Hitchcock recalled he had heard an early incarnation of the instrument on Berlin radio in the late '20s. In December 1962, he and Herrmann travelled to Berlin to meet Gassmann and Sala and hear the Mixtur-Trautonium. It is this peculiar device that generates almost the entire soundtrack of The Birds. Sala, along with Gassmann, was credited with "electronic sound production and composition" and Herrmann as "sound consultant."

The Birds soundtrack was more sound design than music, consisting of organized, stylized noise designed to evoke, rather than mimic, the sound of hundreds of seagulls and crows pecking humans to death. From layered cacophonous squawks to ominous subliminal drones, it adds a unique dimension to a strange film.

Sala continued to develop the Mixtur-Trautonium and hone his performing technique. He tended to work alone and had no pupils. Consequently the Mixtur-Trautonium—in contrast to other early electronic instruments like the Theremin and the Ondes Martenot—did not attract a nucleus of enthusiasts to sustain and develop it. When Sala died in 2002, his knowledge died with him, and today the Mixtur-Trautonium is rarely used. As for Hitchcock, after The Birds he never returned to electronic music. Many critics consider it his last great film.


About the author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info at www.minutebook.co.uk.

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