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The marvels of a musical take on ‘Moby Dick’

Bernard Herrmann, pictured in the 1970s, was a staff conductor for CBS radio when he created a cantata on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” that was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1940.

On Aug. 15 the Boston Landmarks Orchestra performs excerpts from a meeting of proud American geniuses: Bernard Herrmann’s cantata on Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.”

Herrmann was to become a notably influential composer for film, his career stretching from 1941’s “Citizen Kane” to 1975’s “Taxi Driver,” and including several famous collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock. “Moby Dick,” premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1940, predates Herrmann’s film work, but hints at how well-suited he would be to the medium — and, along the way, how much the virtues of film came to permeate music.

At the time of “Moby Dick,” Herrmann was a staff conductor for CBS radio, as thorough a school of on-the-job training as could be imagined. He composed incidental music for radio dramas (including some directed by a pre-“Citizen Kane” Orson Welles), led ensembles of all shapes and sizes, and, with the CBS Symphony Orchestra, curated and conducted programs that featured classical warhorses, rare repertoire, and an unusual amount of new music. The spark for “Moby Dick,” as Herrmann told it, was a discussion with a novelist, who wanted a suitably ambitious project for a composer character in her next book. Herrmann suggested an opera on Melville’s novel, then decided the notion was good enough to act upon in real life.

But Herrmann and his librettist, CBS staff composer W. Clark Harrington, soon decided that a cantata would be more suitable, allowing for an ideally telescoped treatment of the story. With remarkable efficiency — Harrington’s text represents less than one percent of Melville’s — the adaptation touches on almost all the novel’s most famous passages, while musically encompassing much of the whole’s sweep of mood and emotion: Protestant fatalism; the exhilaration of voyage; the knife-edge camaraderie of shipboard life; Ahab’s demonic, obsessive force; the almost mystic sensuality of sea and sky.


The scenic fluency Herrmann honed in his radio work is much in evidence, and foreshadows the ease with which his skills would translate to the screen. But “Moby Dick” is also a datum in the influence of film itself. Already numerous modernist composers, as stylistically divergent as, say, Francis Poulenc, Virgil Thomson, and Alban Berg, had been exploring cinematic sensibilities in music, replacing previous generations’ concern with musical transition and development with a rhetoric of juxtaposition and self-contained immediacy. Herrmann’s seamless integration of such qualities into the essentially late-Romantic vocabulary of “Moby Dick” hints at just how much the cinema had come to mark other forms of artistic expression. Even classical-music grandeur could be swayed by the movies’ quicksilver flicker.


The Boston Landmarks Orchestra performs music of Maurice Ravel, Bernard Herrmann, Stella Sung (a premiere), and Claude Debussy, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Charles River Esplanade. (Rain date Aug. 16.) Free. www.landmarksorchestra.org

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.