Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Composer: Bernard Herrmann

On the night of December 23rd 1975, Bernard Herrmann attended the final recording of the Taxi Driver score. He had been unwell for some time and – no doubt sensing the recording was causing him fatigue – it was suggested by his colleagues that he not be too concerned that the final cue was yet to be completed and that it could be finished at a later date. But Herrmann wanted it done. After finishing up with the recording and having dinner with his wife, he went to bed and passed away that night.

Martin Scorsese had been adamant about securing Herrmann, of whom he was a big fan, to write the Taxi Driver score from the start. The director had an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and had grown up watching the films that Herrmann had previously scored. Bernard Herrmann’s iconic scores were an integral part of classic Hollywood cinema, running the gamut of genres from sci-fi to drama, and he became well-known for his partnership with Alfred Hitchcock until the pair had a falling out in the late ‘60s. Throughout that 1960s, Herrmann’s output had slowed as more film’s began using rock ‘n’ roll and pop music on their soundtracks. When a new wave of young directors emerged in Hollywood at the end of the decade, going on to dominate the ‘70s, the legendary composer found himself put on a pedestal by this bunch of obsessive cinephiles.

Herrmann proved a difficult man to woo and initially showed little interest in scoring the film. For the soundtrack’s liner notes, Scorsese wrote:

“It wasn’t easy to get Bernard Herrmann to compose the music for Taxi Driver, but I begged and pleaded until he eventually agreed, because he was my first and only choice. You get to know what you like if you see enough films, and I though his music would create the perfect atmosphere for Taxi Driver. I know I was right – Travis Bickle was the kind of person who didn’t listen to anything besides the voices in his own head, and I was convinced that the only person who could capture this state of my mind was Bernard Herrmann…his music became integral to the experience of the movie”

After much begging, Herrmann read the script and agreed to score the film. It took being amused by a scene in which Bickle poured peach brandy into his cornflakes to win the composer over.

GOD’S LONELY MAN

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Bernard Herrmann asleep under the watch of director Alfred Hitchcock.

Herrmann had established himself as the composer to go to when it came to scoring for films that were centred on psychological subject matter. From his brooding music for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) to his jarring, all-string score for Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Herrmann’s masterly use of orchestral colour and harmonic dissonance set a standard for scoring films that deal with darker themes and characters.

It was no wonder then that Scorsese was so set on having Herrmann score his film about a deeply disturbed vigilante cab driver played by Robert De Niro. Travis’ monologues in the film convey his loneliness and alienation – the disconnect that comes from living alone in a big city like New York – but Herrmann’s music allows us to feel this in a more visceral way. Using predominantly low instrumental ranges and dissonance, and several key musical motifs, he was able to elicit a sense of doom and say much of Travis’ inner world in key points of the film. The composer also utilised a brass and percussion-heavy score in order to create the impression of strength, or perhaps a force to be reckoned with, and Scorsese noted that it “gave the impression of solidity, the unstoppable aspect of Travis’ character.”be alert

TRAVIS IN THE OPENING PRELUDE

The film’s opening “Prelude” comprises of two sections that infer from that start what Travis Bickle’s preoccupations within the film will be. The first motif centres around two descending chords that are reminiscent of the scoring of film noir in the 1940s. The brass commands our attention and, as mentioned previously, gives the impression of strength. There is harmonic tension, and a slow crescendo that builds and dies, suggesting Travis’ violent urges rising and falling.

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Romantic motif

The second section features a saxophone playing a romantic melody that sounds at home in a jazz club.

It should be noted at this point that for the score Herrmann collaborated with Christopher Palmer on some of the arrangements for the film, as the composer had limited experience in the genre. The jazz influence in the score helps to signify the urban environment, and its sensuality also underscores Travis’ misguided attempts at romance later in the film.

Much can be discussed about the Taxi Driver score – it is musically dense and alludes to much that is unsaid in the narrative. It is unfortunate that Herrmann died just as he entered this second phase of his career, as he had been disillusioned for much of the ‘60s. With a string of films alongside Taxi Driver such as La mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black) (Truffaut, 1968), Sisters (De Palma, 1973, and It’s Alive (Cohen, 1974), and with more films planned to follow, the composer appeared to have found the relevance he had craved since his work in the classic era of Hollywood. But his musical legacy has endured and inspired subsequent composers, and as Scorsese wrote, “There was no one who could even come near him.”

References:

Bruce, Graham. Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Scorsese, Martin. “On Bernard Herrmann.” In Taxi Driver [CD liner notes]. New York: Arista, 1998.

Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

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