We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes: Anti-Humanism and Bernard Herrmann’s Film Score for “Psycho”

In which systematic genocide stains the history of the music of the West.


To my dear reader,

It’s no surprise that the film score to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho should sound violent. It is, after all, the story of the anxious Norman Bates, who lives in a mysterious highway inn with what may or may not be his manipulative and possibly homicidal mother. With a tale filled with as much anxiety, suspense, and violence as this one, the music should undoubtedly reflect it. After reading John Borstlap’s The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century  – an angry and pessimistic attack on the academic stature of atonal music, a category of music in which the film score to Psycho fits – another aspect of the film and its score occurred to me: anti-humanism.

Atonal music – or, as Borstlap prefers to call it to make it distinct from “true” (i.e. tonal) music, sonic art – rose in popularity in musical academic circles in the wake of the World War II. The rise and fall of the Third Reich, the detonations of two atom bombs, and the casualties caused under the cruel indifference of communist dictator Joseph Stalin made wounds in the psyche of the world so deep that the essential goodness of humanity was called in question. The Third Reich championed the hugely popular operas of Richard Wagner as music of their new nation, staining Wagner’s music – and, effectively, the music of all his great and famous predecessors – with the memory of violence, bloodshed, and bigotry. Desperate to escape this horrific past, keen to distance themselves from Wagner and his ilk, and yearning to break new musical ground, the musical elite of the world turned to atonality. Atonality, effectively, became code for anti-humanism – the lack of belief in the ability of human intellect and reason to shape the world for the better.

Until reading The Classical Revolution, I had examined atonality as a logical extension of the musical lineage of the West, just as my professors, books and classes had taught me to do. I still believe this to be true to an extent, but never had I considered what a dark place in human history it had risen from. From the Renaissance until the end of the World Wars, Enlightenment ideals – the belief in the ability of human intellect and reason to shape the world for the better, and the desire for balance, precision and coherence – dominated art music. In the wake of World War II, however, Enlightenment ideals seemed far from reality. Humanity had shown exactly what its intellect and reason could do, and the result was systematic genocide and warfare. Turning from musical styles tied to those ideals and toward a new and untested musical style was a means of escaping that dark past. The use of atonality in the film score of Psycho is logical for its violent, abrupt, and foreboding musical language, but so too is it logical for the anti-humanist similarities in atonality’s history and the message of Hitchcock’s famous, bloody film.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert


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