Daniel Moreira

CITAR: Catholic Univeristy of Porto, ESMAE-IPP

Time and memory, desire and obsession: Bernard Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock’s Vertigo

A number of studies have recognized the centrality of the theme of temporality in Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated 1958 film Vertigo (Deleuze 1983, Cohen 2005). From Scottie’s prospective desire towards Madeleine (in the first half of the film) to his retrospective obsession towards Judy-Madeleine (in the second half of the film), or to Madeleine’s uncertain temporal existence — wandering aimlessly in the present while possessed by the past of Carlotta — there are, indeed, multiple elements in the narrative that imply a complex temporality. Some authors have even linked this aspect of Vertigo to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Goodkin 1991, Criddle 2016), a canonical work of literary modernism renowned for its treatment of matters of memory and non-linear time. The importance of Bernard Herrmann’s music to this film is widely acknowledged, as shown by many detailed studies (Brown 1994, Cooper 2001, Schroeder 2003, Schneller 2005, Sullivan 2006, Blim 2013). While these studies have related Herrmann’s music to a variety of relevant aspects in the film, none of them has explicitly approached the relationship between the temporality of the music and the temporality of the narrative (even though some of them contain interesting references in this regard). This is precisely the focus of this paper: to investigate how Herrmann’s music for Vertigo helps constructing the complex temporality of the narrative. Specifically, I apply three of the most cogent existing approaches to music’s temporality (Kramer 1988, Monelle 2000, Berger 2006) in order to determine how Herrmann’s harmony, motivic design and form create a particular temporal effect that is associated, through a metaphorical cross-domain mapping (Zbikowski 2002, Cook 1998), to the temporality of the narrative. For instance, the opposition (and interaction) between Madeleine’s wandering character (in the present) and the fact that she is possessed by Carlotta (in the past) is projected musically (and partially created in the film) through the interaction between a harmonically unstable theme that progresses towards unpredictable goals (an instance of Kramer’s non-directed linearity) and a completely static, time-frozen theme (an instance of Monelle’s lyric time or Berger’s cyclic time). Within the three musical aspects identified above, this study is particularly centered in harmony. Herrmann’s harmonic language in this film is essentially chromatic and tonally ambiguous, and heavily influenced (as many authors have noted) by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (even though it also incorporates more modern — for instance, polytonal — elements). While these aspects have been recognized by virtually all authors who have approached this film, they are usually addressed quite informally in analytical terms. One of the goals of this paper is therefore to apply to Vertigo’s music two of the most recent formal models that conceptualize chromatic tonal harmony, both of them coming from the so-called Neo-Riemannian theory (Tymoczko 2011, Cohn 2012). I thus follow some recent promising attempts to apply this theory to film music (Lehman 2013, Murphy 2014), thereby revealing how Herrmann’s music relates intertextually to the late romantic (and especially to Wagner’s) musical language.

Keywords: temporality, metaphorical cross-domain mapping, Neo-Riemannian theory


Daniel Moreira holds a PhD in Music Composition (King’s College, University of London;2017), a M.A. in Music Theory and Composition (Higher School of Music, Arts and Performance, Polytechnic Institute of Porto – ESMAE/IPP; 2010) and a B.A. in Economics (Faculdade de Economia; Universidade do Porto; 2006). As a composer, his music has been commissioned, among others, by Casa da Música, Festival Musica Strasbourg, European Concert Hall Organisation, Chester&Novello and Kölner Philarmonie. As a theorist, his work (centered around issues of harmony and temporality in 20th century music) has been presented at EuroMAC (Leuven, 2014; Strasbourg, 2017), KeeleMAC (Keele, 2015) and CIATM (Rimini, 2016; 2017) and published in Revista Portuguesa da Musicologia (2016). He has been teaching analysis and composition at ESMAE/IPP (since 2009) and Universidade do Minho (since 2017), and is (since 2018) as integrated member of CITAR/Catholic University of Portugal.