It’s 1953, fourteen years after Max Steiner’s triumph in Stagecoach, and not much has changed in the classic Western sound. Today, we’ll look at the theme for Shane, written by Steiner’s best friend, Victor Young. You know the drill by now: listen to the video, then we’ll talk about it.
You know, there’s a lot we could talk about here: that remarkable four-note trumpet figure at the very beginning of the piece that serves as a marker of Westernness (and is the only melodic figure in the entire work played by the brass); the sudden entrance at 1:56 of the harmonica in the melody, which will be important later as a key component of the Western sound; the intervals at 1:06 that echo the “Western” ones Steiner used earlier in Stagecoach. None of that really matters, though, does it? Despite these minimal attempts at Westernness, Victor Young isn’t really interested in giving you the trappings or the folk music of the West. He wants you to understand the heart of the West.
As an exotic construct of American culture (see Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land or Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation for more on this), the West has often served as a repository of American emotionalism, just as it has been the receptacle of American dreams of conquest and violence. The real West, of course, was all of these things and none of them; it was a place where people lived their lives just like everywhere else. But in American memory and culture, it has become a place of lonely beauty, of depth and sadness. This constructed nature of the West is part of the Western sound, just as much as are xylophone licks and folk songs.
For his part, Victor Young was well-positioned to define the West as an emotional heartland. An American original, Young studied piano and violin in Poland as a teenager, but returned to the United States to make a living as a composer and arranger. He was well-known as a film composer, but today his most enduring standards are his popular songs. At heart, Young was a jazz balladeer. Among his compositions are “Stella by Starlight,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “When I Fall In Love.” Let’s listen to that last one, written in 1952 for Doris Day, and see if you can’t spot the similarities to Shane.
No, I’m not just talking about that exciting and out-of-place opening. I’m talking about the raw emotionalism of the music. There’s that lonely heart of the West, only it’s not in the West at all, but in the urban medium of Jazz. Clearly, this emotion was part of Young’s musical language, and it’s not surprising to hear him bring it to his conception of the West.
I wanted to play you Shane not because it’s in any way innovative; indeed, Steiner clearly put more thought into his conception of the Western sound than Young did. Instead, I want to use Young’s theme to suggest that the idea of loneliness is embedded in all conceptions of the Western sound. If you don’t get that from the music itself, listen to how Young’s soundtrack interacts with the iconic closing scene of the film (start the following clip at 34:08).
We’re going to talk a lot in subsequent posts about instrumentation, intervals, and other musicology stuff. But the emotion of the music is real, too, and it’s important not to lose sight of that, or of the lonely heart of the classic Western sound.
And now, for the innovators. Next time, we’ll talk about a composer whose music played a critical transitional role between the sound of Steiner and Young on the one hand and the mature Western sound on the other — but who is probably unknown even to the most assiduous of you film buffs. Stay tuned!