Herrmann's "Wuthering Heights"

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, June 30, 2020

In 1971, American film composer Bernard Herrmann confessed, "the only thing I ever did that was foolhardy was to write an opera." The opera was based on the 19th century novel "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte. Herrmann began work on it in April of 1943, and didn't finish until today's date in 1951—at 3:45 p.m., as he noted in its score.

In those years, Herrmann was juggling three careers. He was conducting the CBS Orchestra, producing music for New York radio plays and occasional Hollywood films, and trying to write "serious" concert hall works. It's no wonder it took him eight years to finish a big opera score that clocked in at over three hours in length.

Now, writing an opera is hard enough, but getting it staged is even harder. Herrmann liked to quote Franz Liszt, that "to write an opera you have to have the soul of a hero—and the mentality of a lackey—to have it produced." Even if an opera company expressed interest, Herrmann refused to cut or alter his score. He felt "Wuthering Heights" was his masterpiece, and refused to compromise.

The opera was never staged during his lifetime, so Herrmann had to content himself with making his own studio recording of "Wuthering Heights" at his own expense. After Herrmann's death in 1975, the Portland Opera staged an edited-down version, and more recently, in 2011, the Minnesota Opera staged and filmed a critically acclaimed revival.