Hitchcock was an admirer of composer Bernard Herrmann long before the temperamental musician agreed to write a score for one of the director’s films. Herrmann finally signed on to write the music for Hitchcock’s 1955 film The Trouble with Harry. The two discovered an easy collaboration and worked together for eleven years, until an argument over Torn Curtain put an end to their partnership. Herrmann wrote the bulk of the score for Vertigo, considered by many critics and by Herrmann himself to be his finest film score, in a little over a month. He also had been hired to conduct the orchestra for the film’s soundtrack, but an American musician’s strike necessitated that it be recorded in Vienna under the baton of British conductor Muir Mathieson.
Herrmann scored the swirling harps and strings that imbue most of the pivotal action sequences in the film to mirror the vertigo that dogs the protagonist. The effect is heard as Scottie hangs from the roof in the opening scene, and as Scottie drags Judy to the top of the bell tower at the end of the film. The score also includes hints of motifs used by Wagner in Die Walküre and in Tristan und Isolde—a logical choice, given the film’s roots in that myth. This highly romantic score also pays homage to Latin melody and rhythm, especially in the portions of the film meant to evoke feelings of the historic San Francisco and its Spanish influences. In scenes that feature the amorous relationship between Scottie and Madeleine/Judy, the orchestration reflects their tumultuous romance by relying on swelling strings, harp, and contrabassoon.
Hitchcock places Herrmann’s background music in direct opposition to music that is played deliberately as part of the action of the film. While Herrmann’s score represents the forces of destiny and the mysterious dream world inhabited by Madeleine, music that Midge plays on her radio and record player represents her world and the norms and strictures of conventional society. In two instances, Hitchcock develops the characters of both Scottie and Midge by drawing our attention to Midge’s music. In the scene that first depicts Scottie recuperating from his brush with death, he becomes irritated with her concern for him and complains about the music she is playing—Bach’s Sinfonia. The music underscores the conventional life that Midge represents and that Scottie rejects. The clash between the conventional world and Madeleine’s world of romance and intrigue comes to a head after Madeleine’s apparent death. Scottie is catatonic in a sanatorium, where Midge vainly attempts to bring him back to reality by playing Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 on a phonograph. The music again provides a clue that he no longer responds to the conventional world. Scottie is now completely lost in Madeleine’s haunted dream world.