Written between 1943 and 1951, Wuthering Heights is an opera in 4 acts by Bernard Hermann. The "Prologue" of this neo-romantic opera introduces the three principal motifs: (1) a sighing phrase in the woodwinds, associated with the tragic spirit of Cathy; (2) a phrase in the celli and basses associated with the Wuthering Heights; and (3) a clarinet phrase associated with Cathy. The formal design of the opera is circular; the music of the prologue and the epilogue is the same, both depicting the 20 year vigil of Heathcliff. The vocal lines are paced by Lucille Fletcher's libretto which is based on Emily Brontè's famous novel.
The Prologue takes place 20 years after Catherine Earnshaw's death and concerns her re-appearance as a ghost. In Scene I, Cathy and Heathcliff, taken in as a homeless waif at Wuthering Heights, declare their love, heightened by impressionist orchestral writing in their final duo. An orchestral interlude (Nocturne) follows consisting of variations on the love duet music. Scene II is set the following Christmas. Nelly, a servant, recalls the happiness of past times and how Heathcliff was treated like a son. Cathy returns from a finishing school and is shocked at how Heathcliff is being treated, but Heathcliff thinks she is laughing at him. Hindley insults Heathcliff's dirtiness and they fight accompanied by powerful orchestral writing. Heathcliff vows revenge and the curtain closes. In Act II, some exquisite music accompanies Heathcliff's brief aria "Come Cathy, it's a wild fresh afternoon." Cathy's pride surfaces as she insults Heathcliff and slaps Edgar, to whom she is attracted. Hindley, drunk and crazed, threatens the maid with a carving knife and tries to throw his child Hareton from the top of the staircase. After some deep soul-searching, Cathy realizes she still loves Heathcliff and cannot marry Edgar. She rushes out into a storm to find Heathcliff. Act III is three years later. Heathcliff re-appears interrupting a domestic scene with Cathy, Edgar and his sister Isabel. Even though Cathy is now married to Edgar, she unashamedly expresses her love for Heathcliff, who has decided to stay for the rest of his life in Wuthering Heights. Soon, everyone is at odds with each other: Heathcliff makes fun of Edgar's weakness, Cathy says she doesn't want Edgar anymore, Cathy warns Isabel about Heathcliff and Heathcliff says he'll do as he pleases with Isabel. Cathy's love has become obsessive as she sings of Wuthering Heights at night. Out the window she sees Heathcliff and Isabel and vows "Oh, Heathcliff, you have betrayed me, and now, I'll break your heart by breaking my own". The music for the last half of this act is sparse, full of simple but evocative gestures. Act IV, takes place the following March on a somber winter day. Isabel writes in a note to Nelly that she now hates Heathcliff, who she realizes still loves Cathy. Hindley has become a crazed alcoholic and wants to shoot Heathcliff. Isabel becomes interested in the gun, but when Heathcliff overpowers Hindley she says that she was trying to save him. The act ends with Heathcliff staring out the window with flowers he picked for Cathy falling from his hand. An orchestral interlude (Meditation) follows, expressing bitter regret mixed with love in beautiful counterpoint. Cathy enters. She is dying after breaking her own heart and in the process, Heathcliff's. But they finally express their love and Heathcliff forgives her. When Cathy dies, Heathcliff begs her to return. With the ghost of Cathy at the window, Heathcliff sinks broken as a snowstorm swirls outside.