14 November 1997

Horror play

With Hammer composer James Bernard

The composer-in-residence at the house of horror is back in business. Writing music to make your flesh creep is his speciality, and he is rumblingly passionate about it: “If Dracula’s approaching a victim, and there’s a lovely nubile lady in bed, and she’s tossing and turning and restless, and the window’s open, and she’s got the maid to come and take all the garlic flowers out of the room – suddenly you cut from her to the window, and there is Christopher Lee as Count Dracula… You’ve got to have a great ‘Oh-Woaaah!’ at that moment. If you try to be subtle, it simply doesn’t work – if you say I’m going to be very clever here and just have a little ‘ee-oo-wee’, it sounds terribly weak, you know…”

Resplendent in a green jogging-suit and wide-collared floral shirt, the dapper, silver-haired speaker leans back on his sofa, sips at a glass of blood-red wine, and gives a little low chuckle. This man is James Bernard, an unsung giant among film composers, who wrote the supernatural soundtracks for countless cult-classic Hammer films in the 1950s and 1960s. Now he has written a beautifully lush and brooding new score for the dark prince of horror films, FW Murnau’s silent masterpiece, Nosferatu, which had its premiere 75 years ago in 1922, and took its director and star, Max Schreck, to Hollywood.

Now the film is reborn as the 1997 Channel 4 Silent in a Royal Festival Hall performance. On Monday, the City of Prague Philharmonic will premiere Bernard’s score, with a simultaneous screening of the fabulous new print, restored (with shots that were missing for decades) by the Munchner Filmmuseum and the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, supported by the Lumiere Project. Even the original tints and tones – brooding sepia, midnight blue – have been reconstructed, and the titles for the dialogue have been translated into English and hand-lettered after the flowing, Gothic style of the German originals, that were drawn by the film’s visionary designer, Albin Grau.

Nosferatu was buried at its inception by the legal action of Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence – Murnau had not acquired rights for his “free adaptation” of Dracula, the novel, whose centenary also falls this year. The court ordered that all prints and negatives of Nosferatu be destroyed. Murdering the undead, luckily, is not so easy: a print survived, and was circulated in bootleg and mutilated versions. Now, however, is the first time that the film will be seen in its original form in Britain.

James Bernard was a cinema fan from the first time he ever went to a movie (“Tarzan, I think it was – from then I was hooked on films”), and his musical precocity was clearly set on a collision course with the world of the silver screen. Schooled at Wellington, Bernard was befriended by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who visited in his last year because Bernard’s art teacher was designing the sets for the premiere of Peter Grimes. Bernard had written a showy piece of music for piano and percussion, and there was an unused boy who wanted something to bang, so Britten invented a new instrument especially for the occasion. “We went out for a walk along the driveway, and he saw a discarded drainpipe lying by the side. He picked it up and banged it with a stone and it made a very good resonant sound, so he said: ‘I think you should use that!'”

After four years’ National Service in the RAF, during which he learned Japanese and worked at the nerve centre of the Allied code-breaking enterprise, Bletchley Park, translating intercepted Japanese war communications, Bernard went to study composition with Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. But his course of action afterwards wasn’t immediately obvious. “When I left the Royal College I was summoned before the registrar, who I think was rather a disappointed composer: a dry old stick, it seemed to me at the time. He said: ‘Now what are you going to do when you leave? I expect you’ll be teaching’ – and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to teach, I’m going to compose’, and he laughed me to scorn! He said: ‘You can’t earn a living by composing! Only people like Vaughan Williams and William Walton and Benjamin Britten can do that. So I kept quiet…”

He was saved from the graduate blues by a call from his old mentor, Benjamin Britten. After a year working as the older man’s “dogsbody” in Aldeburgh during the writing of Billy Budd (“a wonderful baptism as a working composer. It really taught me the hard work involved in writing a huge score”), Bernard moved to London. Soon he had managed, of all things, to win an Oscar (his only one), for the “motion picture story” of an atomic suspense thriller, Seven Days to Noon, that he dreamed up with his friend, the film critic and later screenwriter Paul Dehn. Meanwhile, he had fallen into writing music for radio dramas. One of his radio scores, for a production starring Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scofield of Webster’s febrile Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (“It’s a real horror play, isn’t it?”), was played to a Hammer producer who needed to replace a sick composer on a new science-fiction venture – and thus Bernard was commissioned to score his first movie feature, Quatermass and the Pit.

There began a working relationship that spanned more than 20 films: music by James Bernard provides the aural thrills for such Hammer classics as Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Devil Rides Out. “I got to do some of my favourite boyhood books,” he smiles, although his close relationship with a film house whose output was seen in those days to be grotesquely shocking and lewd meant he was not asked to do many other, non-genre features, and the Hollywood Academy consistently overlooked his work. “Here’s my theory: people were terribly shocked by those films – they’re far too gory, and far too horrific, and the accent on sex, you know – Dracula’s victims always had heaving bosoms and were pulling their nighties down, hoping he’d come…” He tails off in a suggestive reverie.

For all his expertise in suggesting the welling forces of inhumanity, indeed, Bernard is always keen to latch on to notes of passion and romance. The score for Nosferatu demonstrates this wonderfully. The rat-faced vampire is represented by a four-note theme on low-register brass that echoes rhythmically his horrible name – “Does this word not sound like the midnight call of the Bird of Death?” wonder the film’s introductory titles, and they have their growling answer. Meanwhile, Ellen, the heroine, is shadowed by a gorgeous, yearning theme on massed strings (Bernard had the luxury of a 72-piece symphony orchestra), whose harmonic resolution is endlessly deferred until she sacrifices herself to save her plague-ridden town. Bernard has a decidedly Manichean perspective on the world – “I do believe most sincerely in God and transcendental powers of good and evil” – and this is illustrated powerfully at the film’s climax, when the evil Nosferatu theme, invoked by a last shot of the Count’s ruined castle, is subsumed by the forces of good, dragged into place as a concordant bass note in the final blissful major cadence.

Bernard’s orchestration, though instrumental, also cleverly suggests vocal effects: in a scene where the mad estate agent Knock (the film’s version of Stoker’s character Renfield) is locked up in the town asylum: breathless scraps of the Nosferatu theme are interspersed with squawking trumpets and ponticello glissandi on the violins, impersonating his disturbing, mad laughter. Elsewhere the weird, high-speed stop-motion action of the vampire’s carriage racing through the moonlit forest, and a set-piece where Knock is chased by angry villagers, are scored with galloping snare and fragmented, skittering scales that hover deliberately on the fringes of musical chaos. Bernard admits that he found the work a challenge: he had not scored a film for 10 years, and since Nosferatu is a silent movie, there was no let-up; it had to be filled with music: “There’s no horses’ hooves or claps of thunder – so it’s all up to you!”

Bernard single-handedly invented many of the musical mainstays of horror-movie scoring, yet his latest work remains fresh and intelligently sensitive to Murnau’s unsurpassed imagery. And he is not shy about reclaiming the influence that his early work had. “In recent years, several people have pointed out to me that I was way ahead of Bernard Herrman in these early science-fiction films for Hammer.” He digs out a CD (“Composers always love to play their music to victims who ask for it”), brimming with enthusiasm for his cute new Bose hi-fi, and puts it on. And beside his 15-minute strings-and-percussion Quatermass Suite, with its Stravinskian rhythmic savagery, weird Bartokian counterpoint and lushly angular melodies, the famous screeching violins of Herrmann’s Psycho score seem vulgar and second-hand.

So what does the future hold in store for James Bernard? Eyes glinting, he confides that there are a couple of potential new movie projects “in the wind”, and he is reconsidering an alternative form of dramatic music. “People always say to me I should write an opera, and I say: ‘Well, it would take the rest of my life.’ But then I’m aiming to live to 120, so maybe I’ll write three operas! I’m getting younger each year now, it’s my new scheme.” Lesser men would need to drink the blood of virgins – but then, I never checked exactly what was in that wine glass.