The first part of Bronte’s novel forms the basis of this opera, faithful to the original story. However many of Bronte’s poems and some of the poetic speeches from the second section of the novel have been interpolated. Both Wuthering Heights and the poems are of such a one-ness that the use of the poems is felt not to be an intrusion, but rather an intensification for the purposes of this musical setting.Bernard Herrmann: Wuthering Heights
In late December, 1975, Bernard Herrmann had arranged overtime pay for his studio orchestra to finish recording the jazzy, streetwise score for Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver. It was in the nature of a Hollywood comeback for the composer who had gone into self-exile in England for a decade, in protest at the new form of film scoring that centred around a theme song and ignored the sensitive and dramatic underscoring on which Herrmann's fame rests. His rejected score for Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, a box office disaster, had been, in his perception, the final blow to his professional standing, and had sent him packing for London, a natural home for a 33rd degree Anglophile such as "Benny" Herrmann.
Now came Scorsese's call to composer the score for Taxi Driver, and Herrmann returned to Hollywood to redeem his concepts of composing for films. Long after midnight the precise, split-second task of matching the music to the pictures was ended. It was Christmas Eve morning. Herrmann returned to his hotel, exhausted, and before dawn, died. He was 64.
He left a legacy of over 50 films, the major ones done in association with two producers whose work he considered on a par with his music: Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. He won an Academy Award for The Devil and Daniel Webster, but that score is considered inferior to the innovative scores for Hitchcock's Psycho or Welles' Citizen Kane, with its celebrated 12 minute opera scene that is the basis for the disaster of Mrs Kane's operatic debut. Benny was a master composer for films: music that underscores the dramatic impact of the action. That's certainly a basic requirement for one who would compose opera.
Along with Herrmann's musical legacy, he left his most important score, his opera Wuthering Heights, unproduced, largely unknown - "Perhaps," says his former wife and librettist, Lucille Fletcher, "the closest to his talent and heart."
In the New York-born Herrmann, a man to whom the words 'irascible' and 'abrasive' were often applied, the gentle love of things English remains a paradox; as does his love of the novels of the Brontë sisters. In 1944 he composed the score to Welles' Jane Eyre, and that was a turning point as he realised his emotional affinity for the romantic elements of Charlotte Brontë's novel. In listening to the recording of the film score one realises that the grandly passionate melody which represents the Jane-Rochester relationship recurs in Wuthering Heights as Cathy's aria in Act 3, "I Am Burning." Jane Eyre was only the beginning of his relationship with the wild Yorkshire moors.
Lucille Fletcher, a playwright of both Broadway and broadcast drama, is perhaps best remembered for her radio script Sorry, Wrong Number that became a successful movie starring Barbara Stanwyck. I cannot do better than to relate, in her words, the genesis of the opera she created with her husband.
Wuthering Heights was conceived in 1946. It was inspired by a visit we both made to Manchester in the fall of that year. Benny had been asked to conduct the Hallé Orchestra which was then under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli. Benny conducted for two weeks, and during that period Mr Ernest Bean, manager of the Hallé, obligingly arranged a visit for us to the wild moor country near Manchester. We stopped at the village of Haworth and visited the Brontë homestead, with its windows overlooking the churchyard. Then we were driven out to the old black stone farmhouse known as "High Withens" and believed by some to be the original Wuthering Heights. It was uninhabited, in ruins, and standing all alone in a desolate part of the moors. That grey November day Benny was moved by the place, most particularly by three dead trees standing sentinel at the farmyard gate. Benny said they reminded him of the Brontë sisters, with their sad and withered lives."
There is some confusion here. Herrmann wrote on the title page of the manuscript that he began the opera in 1943; this is still legible on the photocopy of the original orchestral score that is being used here. It may be that as he worked on Jane Eyre, he thought ahead to a possible work based on the other Brontë sister's novel.
Ernest Bean, who accompanied the Herrmanns to the Brontë house, remembers that Benny had already begun to compose Wuthering Heights.
"As he sang snatches from the opera, the wind playing mocking tricks with his preposterously unmusical voice, we had a preview against a wild setting that the genius of neither Visconti nor Zeff relli could have improved upon."
Fletcher again: "The work was finished rather rapidly. He was accustomed to working to a deadline, and he worked on Wuthering Heights with the same steady concentration he brought to all his music, whether a symphony or a sequence for Twentieth Century Fox. He brought to Wuthering Heights a special intensity and feeling for the subject matter."
Lucille Fletcher, in preparing Benny's libretto, used only words and dialogue from the first part of the novel, and for certain lyrical arias requiring extended poetry she again went to Emily Brontë's outpouring of loneliness captured in the verses she wrote for those who inhabited her fanciful place, Gondol. These are poems that reveal much of the spirit and repression of the Anglican Vicar's daughter who rarely left her home on the moors. Fletcher gives Emily's verse to Cathy as we first see her, arms full of heather that afternoon in mid-summer:
I have been wandering through the
And 'mid the flowery, smiling plains.
I have been listening to dark floods
To the thrush's thrilling stains.
Ah! I've seen the purple heather bell
Look out from many a storm-worn
And oh! I've seen such music swell
Such wild notes wake these passes
By using the language of the novel, the libretto captures much of the 19th century's interest in formal sentence construction and social restrictions. Fletcher uses Brontë's words to create a time, as Herrmann used his music for the storms on the moors to create a place.
"Herrmann brought in his opera and played it for us. It was a very romantic piece," Kurt Herbert Adler, the recently retired San Francisco General Director told me. "We liked it, and I thought it would be an excellent project for Leopold Stokowski, who was then on very friendly terms with us. We didn't go much further with it, because a short time later we got a call from Stokowski, pleading illness, and a desire not to travel to San Francisco. So, we decided to drop Wuthering Heights."
I asked Adler if another conductor could not have been assigned in the pre-planning, and the premiere of the work put into production. He told me that had been a long time ago, the exact date he couldn't recall, and apparently something else had come along that pushed Wuthering Heights out of the schedule.
"Was it because Herrmann had insisted his very long opera not be cut in any way?"
"I don't recall that the point came up."
One of the oft-repeated judgements about Herrmann's opera, impossible to trace, is that Wuthering Heights could not be produced during his lifetime because every note must be included. The score contains some three-and-a-half hours of music, arranged in three acts, with a prologue and epilogue. The Portland production will be cut by thirty minutes.
The music of the prologue and epilogue are the same, placing the three acts in flashback. Interludes depicting the raging storms that batter the windows are extended and contain Herrmann's finest measures, expressing the oneness of the characters and their environment. The mood of the opera and of the characters is always expressed in relationship to the weather of the moors. Herrmann's experience had been with his exploration of orchestral colour. Wuthering Heights owes its special vigour to the model of Wagner, the musical storytelling occurring in the pit, with the vocal lines of less musical interest; although the composition may be vocally a chamber work, the oversize orchestra is the major character.
In the mid-sixties, when the opera was fifteen years old, and still not produced on stage, Herrmann at his own expense conducted a recording using British singers and orchestra, the cast including Morag Beaton as Cathy and Donald Bell as Heathcliff. The recording (it takes four LP's to contain all the music) was re-issued in 1972, and received excellent notices.
The English publication, Opera, in a review by Christopher Palmer in October 1972, attempts to explain why the opera had not been heard in the theatre:
"The opera has not yet been produced, for apparently many people are intimidated by its neo-romantic tome and temper. A pity, because it would not be difficult to stage and its appeal is strong and direct."
Palmer was making judgements based on the recording, and not on the score, as to why the opera had not been accepted and produced on stage. What Herrmann had written with his great skill and technique in motion picture music was not a score that could be totally transferred to an opera house without modifications - changes that would remove some of the cinematic elements that Herrmann calls for in his instructions, and some vocal writing that is impressive on a recording, or in a close-up in a movie. Cathy, written for a lyric soprano, is required often to sing dramatic lines in a register of the voice that would not cut through the strong orchestra fabric. Hindley, Cathy's brother and the drunken nemesis of Heathcliff, is given the option throughout much of his music of either singing or declaiming his lines. Edgar Linton, who marries Cathy, doesn't escape, with much of his music in the middle voice. Only in his formal aria, "Now Art Thou Dear, My Golden June," does he have tenor music to sing, and that is a clever recreation of an early nineteenth century ballad.
Heathcliff, a baritone, often seems, especially in the final soaring duet with Cathy, to be expected to turn into a tenor. The tessitura is high, and the music has an ascending sweep that is typical of Puccini or Moseogni.
In the prologue to the opera we find Mr Lockwood, the neighbour, stranded by a snowstorm, and seeking to spend the night at Wuthering Heights. In his attic room he discovers Cathy's book, and has the chilling moment when he hears her voice crying at the window for entrance. Heathcliff, aged, shabby and disgruntled, pushes him away, and flings open the window calling for Cathy. The lights dim, and we see only the silhouette of Heathcliff set against the snowstorm outside.
The stage directions are explicit: a brief pause and then the opera begins, the warm summer sun beams outside the drawing room of the house, and the youthful Heathcliff and Cathy enter with their arms filled with flowers. So a major scene change is required, and a major costume and makeup change for Heathcliff.
Fletcher seems more concerned in her libretto with the emotions of the two principal characters than with strict story telling of Brontë's novel. Heathcliff's youth, his loss of parents and his discovery by Mr Earnshaw on the streets of Liverpool are barely referred to in her script. Unlike Carlisle Floyd in his 1959 version of the novel, premiered by Santa Fe Opera and later heard at the New York City Center, Herrmann keeps the Cathy-Heathcliff love affair on a spiritual plane. Floyd, who wrote his own libretto, suggests a seduction of Cathy, and ends a scene as she loosens her hair and opens her arms. Floyd includes the arrival of Heathcliff and Mr Earnshaw in his libretto, and utilises a full sized chorus for a party at Thrushcross Grange, Cathy's home after her marriage to Edgar. Herrmann contents himself with carollers offstage during the bleak Christmas at Wuthering Heights.
Time after time a would-be producer in the opera house is called upon to provide both visual and audible effects that would seem to be beyond the theatrical capabilities of all but major companies.
But what a musical film it would make!
The recording that Herrmann financed in England in the mid-sixties found its way to Portland to Arthur Guenther, a Herrmann buff, the major record collector of the area and a long time supporter of Portland Opera, then headed by the late Herbert Weiskopf. Weiskopf, while admiring the recording that Guenther played for him, felt that the emerging company was not ready for a world premiere. When Weiskopf died in 1970 he was succeeded by Stefan Minde. Four years were to pass before Minde got his board to even consider a new opera that was so far removed from the standard repertory. Minde had insisted on a mid-seventies production of Krenek's Life of Oreste, and while it drew some critical acclaim, the board blamed subsequent falling box-office takings on Minde's preoccupations with the off-beat. Four years is a long time to plead, but Minde's desire to produce Wuthering Heights won out, and it was announced for the 1980-82 season. Postponed, it will receive its world premiere on November sixth, 1982, thirty-one years from the time Benny scrawled on his score that he completed it at 3:45 p.m. on June thirtieth, 1951. Even Wagner didn't have to wait that long between completion and performance.
Once the production was approved, it was Minde's plan to offer the staging to Orson Welles; after all, Benny had been with Welles from the beginnings of their Hollywood careers. Actually before, remembering that Herrmann had been the musical director of the old Mercury Theatre of the Air radio successes. On Halloween 1938, it had been Benny conducting the dance band that was constantly interrupted by the news flashes that the Martians had invaded Earth, Welles' history-making spoof. Welles declined Minde's offer to direct. There was a fleeting interest in videotaping the premiere for later airing on Public Television, but this was abandoned when it was discovered that due to reduced federal budgets for P.B.S., private funds would have to be obtained. Even a new recording was considered. Again, costs were prohibitive. So Minde turned to his resident staff to mount the world premiere, with guest director Malcolm Fraser being added.
Bernard Herrmann's place in a small list of major film composers is secure. A few evenings spent with the film scores available on recordings reveal a man with a high degree of skill in orchestration, who adapted to many different styles as dictated by the flickering images he had to accompany. Here and there in his romantic offerings one hears echoes of Wuthering Heights, perhaps unconscious, perhaps from the musical response to dramatic situations. Most composers share this.
In this grand tone poem that celebrates his love of England, the weather of Yorkshire and his identification with the Brontës, we will hear a Bernard Herrmann not bound by film dramatics not of his own making. Even if his opera, his love token, had never been staged, it stretched his talent, it allowed him as a musician to speak of what was dear to his soul. But it is being produced, thirty-one years after it was finished and sixteen years after it was first suggested to this opera company. It's about time.
But the last words belong to Benny:
"I believe that for an opera to have validity or interest one must be able to achieve its own unique theatrical atmosphere, and I truly hope that in some measure I have been successful in recreating in musical expression the passionate elemental beings who inhabit "Wuthering Heights".
© 1982 Frank Kinkaid