The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Was Bernard Herrmann’s love theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” influenced by Antonin Dvorak’s “American Suite”? | July 8, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear spent an interesting and enjoyable Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Two of the most enjoyable things seemed to overlap unexpectedly.

On Wednesday night, I tuned into Turner Classic Movies. That’s when I watched, once again and with great pleasure, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful “North by Northwest (1959.”

The next morning, on Independence Day, I tuned in to Wisconsin Public Radio and heard a lot of music by American composers and by composers who were inspired by America.

That’s when I heard the “American Suite” (1895) by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (below), who directed a conservatory in New York City and liked to spend summers in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, where he was captivated by American music of Native Americans and African-Americans.

What overlapped was the music, the love theme between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint — called “Train Conversations” — by Bernard Herrmann (below) in the film and the opening of the suite by Dvorak.

But The Ear needs a reality check: Is the Ear the only one to hear striking similarities between the two?

Take a listen to the two works in the YouTube video below, decide for yourself and let us know if you hear the same influence.

To be sure, The Ear is not saying that Herrmann – a sophisticated American composer who knew classical music and who is perhaps best known for his edgy score to “Psycho,” which is often played in concert halls – completely lifted the music or stole it or plagiarized it.

But it certainly is possible that Herrmann was influenced or inspired by Dvorak – much the same way that Leonard Bernstein’s song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” seems remarkably close to an opening theme in the slow middle movement of the Piano Concerto No. 5 – the famous “Emperor” Concerto — by Ludwig van Beethoven. The same goes for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, some say, borrowed tunes more than once from Franz Schubert.

Well, if you’re going to borrow, why not do it from the best? And Dvorak was among the great melodists of all time, in company with Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc, to name a few of the best known.

Anyway, listen to the two scores and let us know what you think.

Can you think of other music that was perhaps influenced by a work of classical music? If so, leave a comment, with YouTube links if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. I noticed it myself and googled whether anyone else had, and found your post. Definite similarity.


    Comment by robert sborofsky — July 30, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

  2. How about the Brahms Piano Sonata #1, Op.1 and “Don’t cry for me Argentina?


    Comment by Robert — July 8, 2019 @ 8:48 pm

  3. Just a small tightening of facts about Dvorak and the Czech community of Spilville, Iowa. The composer took up residence in New York in September of 1892. Homesick, he intended to spend the summer of 1893 back in Prague. But his student and secretary, Josef Kovarik, born in Spillville of a Czech family, persuaded him to visit that town instead. This he did, spending 100 days in Spillville, with his family. Though he loved the place, this was his only visit there, though on the way back to New York he did tour a swath from Minnesota to Niagara Falls. In the subsequent two summers in his New York residence, Dvorak and his family returned to Prague.


    Comment by John W. Barker — July 8, 2019 @ 9:39 am

  4. I echo fflambeau’s comments both about the film and the music. I can see where you might have heard some overlap, but that goes away quickly for me as Dvorak develops more complex themes in his composition. As good as Herrmann’s music is — and it is almost always good if not excellent — it’s a fairly simplistic theme developed over violins that echo the rhythm of the train on which the scene takes place. Both are suitable or their own purposes, but it seems a stretch to say the film music does more than suggest the orchestral work more fully develops.


    Comment by Mike Muckian — July 8, 2019 @ 8:22 am

  5. “North by Northwest” is certainly a great film (the scene with Cary Grant and Roger Thornhill’s mother disparaging the “spy” activities is one of my favorites).

    I can’t say that I hear much if any similarities here but it is possible though Bernard Hermann was a musical genius. Those who, in general, discredit the music in films need to listen more carefully: this is great music.


    Comment by fflambeau — July 8, 2019 @ 1:43 am

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