Monday, August 11, 2014

Favorite Western Film Scores

Film scores are among my favorite kinds of music—and many of my favorite scores are from Westerns. To me, the colorful, energetic (and Copland-influenced) style that Elmer Bernstein and others developed in the early '60s is the signature Western film-score sound, even though most of my favorite Western movies come from earlier decades. It seems a shame that just as this wonderful music style was developing, Western movies were already changing, and the traditional Western would be well on the downward slide by the end of the decade. There ought to have been more movies and better movies to go with scores like this!

But anyway, to return to the subject of this post—I've done plenty of talking about Westerns, and a good deal about music, so I thought it was about time I did a post on my very favorite Western film scores. So here are my top three:

1. The Magnificent Seven (1960) by Elmer Bernstein
It's a classic, that's all there is to it. It's practically impossible not to get a huge grin on your face when you listen to the exuberant main theme. This is one of those scores that really 'makes' its movie—can you honestly imagine the film without it? I knew the music long before I ever saw the movie, and when I finally did see it, I was astonished that some of the most energetic cues, which sounded like they came from all-out action scenes, actually belonged to moments where not much was happening onscreen. As the CD liner notes observe, the music supplies much of the film's energy.

2. The Cowboys (1973) by John Williams
I wish the traditional Western movie had lasted another decade if only so John Williams could have written more scores like this. It's got everything—a lively, toe-tapping main theme with sparkling orchestrations, which reappears with a fresh twist and creative syncopation for each action scene; plus a couple of achingly beautiful slow themes. (Not to mention that utterly odd bass harmonica villain's theme.) I love practically every minute of this soundtrack.

3. The Big Country (1958) by Jerome Moross
A slightly earlier score, but with a similar sensibility. The marvelous sweeping main theme is undoubtedly the best part; it's another one of those pieces that you just can't help loving, both in the grand main title and the lovely slower renditions later on. There's other good moments throughout the score too.

Runners-up: The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and The Comancheros (1961), both by Elmer Bernstein; the gorgeous main theme to Rio Grande (1950) by Victor Young; The Searchers (1956) by Max Steiner; Dances With Wolves (1990) by John Barry. I also really like the main theme of Silverado (1985) by Bruce Broughton, though I haven't heard the whole score.

It is a curious thing that my favorite scores don't come from my favorite movies. Quite a few of these films I've never seen, haven't seen all the way through, or didn't particularly care for. Favorite films are a subject for another day. But anyway...what are your favorite Western movie scores?

7 comments:

Suzannah said...

My favourite is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Not that I've a huge experience with westerns, but Ennio Morricone's composition and use of leitmotifs is superb (and even weaves into the plot).

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Hmmm, I don't know that one! I think the only Morricone I've heard is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But I love scores with leitmotifs—I remember years ago when I first started listening to a lot of film music, being thrilled when I discovered how cues of music underscored what was happening in scenes.

Hamlette said...

I just bought the 2-disc full version of the Silverado soundtrack, and wow -- it's great! I also love Broughton's soundtrack for Tombstone, which might be my second-favorite western soundtrack over all. My first favorite is The Sons of Katie Elder, and I also love the soundtrack for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. I can listen to some of those cues over and over and over and over.

I just ordered the soundtracks for Hour of the Gun and The Magnificent Seven, as it so happens. I did opt for the later recording of Seven since the original soundtrack on CD costs a couple of hundred dollars because... somebody is mean, that's why. Let's see, I also love the music from Giant, which takes place in the 20th century but has such a great flavor to it. I think that's the extent of the western soundtracks I own, but I love so many themes from other movies. John Williams' stuff for The Rare Breed, of course The Big Country, the theme for The Wild, Wild West... I could go on and on :-D

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I'll have to listen to the whole Silverado sometime. I wish I could find the full soundtrack to The Sons of Katie Elder! There seem to be only some expensive used ones out there. I wonder what in the word happened with the Seven soundtrack? It seems to be available in mp3, but I can't understand how they'd let the disc go "out of print," so to speak, when it's such a popular score.

I just realized I forgot to mention Bernstein's The Tin Star, too—I liked that. And you mentioned The Rare Breed, too! Years ago, for Father's Day gifts to my dad, my siblings and I burned a couple of CDs with every Western theme we could find—Red River, Stagecoach, Shane and so on. That one's on there too.

And of course I didn't even mention TV Western themes! That's another whole post. :)

Caftan Woman said...

For years, the only thing I liked about "The Magnificent Seven" was Bernstein's magnificent score. I've mellowed toward the film in recent years. Berstein's score for "True Grit" really movies me, although I think he reused a lot of stuff from "The Sons of Katie Elder".

Alongside "The Big Country", my favourite western scores come from Victor Young - "Rio Grande" and "Shane".

Hamlette said...

There's a CD now with Katie Elder and The Shootist together on it. Amazon has it for $22. I actually have the original LP -- my hubby gave it to me for Christmas a couple years ago. My sound system can record to CD from LP, so I've just done that to create a version I can listen to in the car.

But I forgot to include the one western soundtrack I've listened to more than any other! The Lone Ranger. I forgot it because it's never made it over to the CD shelves -- ever since I bought it last summer, it's lived by the CD player in the kitchen. My go-to music for getting myself moving on hard mornings, for soothing myself on a tough day, for making me grin while I make supper. Not to mention certain cues directly influenced scenes at the end of my western novel. Even if you don't like the movie, the soundtrack is awesome.

I haven't heard the Tin Star soundtrack, but I love Bernstein, so I'll see if there are any tracks on YouTube to give me a taste.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Caftan Woman - I think the theme from Rio Grande must be one of the most under-appreciated film themes ever. I wish someone like the City of Prague Philharmonic would record a clear, sparkling new version for us. (Did you ever notice there's a brief quote from the Rio Grande score in Shane? The scene where the homesteaders drive to town, I believe.)

Hamlette - I saw that Katie Elder/Shootist CD on there—I'll have to check it out more closely!