Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | December 21, 2011

The Classic Western Sound, II: The Austrian Wunderkind

[Update] Somehow, I’ve mistakenly assigned this score to Max Steiner. The score was in fact arranged by a number of studio composers, none of whom was Steiner. Accordingly, much of the post below is incorrect, though I will stand by my analysis of the music. Please disregard the portions of the post that reference Max Steiner. –Jeremy

Here’s our object of interest for today: Max Steiner’s 1939 score for the film Stagecoach. Give it a listen, and then we’ll discuss it.

What do you think? Does that sound Western to you? It does to my ear. Nevertheless, it lacks a whole bunch of the markers that you hear in the mature classic Western sound (see the video in my first post). So who is this guy, and what exactly is he doing to make us hear the Western sound in this piece?

Maximilian Raoul Steiner was not the sort of fellow you would expect to find involved in Westerns. Born an Austrian Jew in 1888, Steiner was a musical prodigy. He studied piano with Brahms and conducting with Mahler. He was steeped in the German Romantic tradition. Because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when World War I broke out, Steiner had to flee to the United States. He spent a decade working in Broadway and then migrated to Hollywood, where he established himself as perhaps the most brilliant of a generation of classically-inspired film composers. By 1939, Steiner had scored everything from Gone with the Wind to King Kong. He was experienced, successful, a big star. And more than any of his colleagues, he was a specialist in Westerns. Nobody did Westerns like Max Steiner in the 1930s. He owned the Western sound.

The Stagecoach theme clearly shows off Steiner’s origins in the classical world; his full orchestra, thick instrumentation (Mahleresque in places), and symphonic structure are classic outgrowths of German romanticism. But if you look more closely, you can see that Steiner is doing some really innovative things for the time; using those classical tools, he’s trying to capture a distinctly American sound. So how do you do that if you’re Max Steiner and you write classical music?

First of all, you use actual American folk songs in your music. This would have been an obvious move for a guy like Steiner, because European Romantics believed that folk songs contained the authentic character of a people. In Europe, you had professional folk song collectors (like Cecil Sharp) and composers who used folk elements in their own music (like Edvard Grieg and Franz Liszt). The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, visiting the United States during the 1890s, wrote a “New World Symphony” based on African American spirituals and Native American music — and cheekily offered to rewrite the National Anthem along the same lines. So it’s not surprising to see folk songs make an appearance in Steiner’s Stagecoach. There are two of them. At 0:35, you hear a jaunty version of “O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” which you may recognize as sharing an origin with the hymn “O Waly Waly.” And at 1:16, you hear a rendition of the Stephen Foster ballad “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.”

In addition to borrowing real folk songs, Steiner also utilizes folk elements elsewhere in the piece. The most obvious one is around 3:44 when he starts beating the Native American tom-tom. (The film treats Native Americans in a stereotypical fashion, and Steiner’s music is no exception; he doesn’t seem to have made any effort to actually understand Native American music, opting instead for a stereotyped drumbeat.) There are more subtle examples elsewhere; he uses some intervals and syncopations that he thinks sound like American folk music.

It’s worth pointing out all this folk influence in Steiner, because it makes perfect sense for a Western soundtrack — and because in our tour of the classic Western sound, you will never see it again. As stereotyped and simplistic as is Steiner’s use of American folk music, his successors simply jettisoned the whole idea. Their Western sound was a constructed, not an authentic, sound. And it was constructed out of materials Steiner and his contemporaries brought to them from European classical music, not from American folk music.

There are some other interesting things Steiner does in Stagecoach that bear mentioning, mostly because they were influential for Steiner’s successors. You barely notice it in this piece, but Steiner uses some unusual syncopations in the opening theme (for instance, at 0:12). He uses brass instruments more prominently than you’d expect from a classically-trained composer (notice the trumpet call at 2:05, for example). His use of percussion is interesting, too. Listen at 0:56 for his use of the triangle [edit: is it a xylophone?] to punctuate his rhythm — not something you’d hear a lot of in the film music of Steiner’s time. None of these things has anything to do with the folk influences Steiner is trying to foreground, but they’re a part of the musical style he brings to the Western sound. They’ll be more influential going forward than his folk tendencies are.

We’re not going to get there just yet, though. Next time, we’ll look at a piece by Steiner’s best friend and fellow composer that, if anything, sounds like a step back in defining the classic Western sound — even though it was written fourteen years later.


  1. […] 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 […]

  2. OK. I’m sorry, but I can’t leave this ridiculous blog without pointing out that Max Steiner DID NOT write the score for “Stagecoach.” Not sure where you got that notion, but the score for that film was a compilation work by a variety of studio composers who simply arranged a bunch of folk and popular songs, in addition to a little bit of original music. In fact, if memory serves, the credits on the film reads: “Musical score based on American Folk Songs adapted by Richard Hageman, Franke Harling, Louis Gruenberg, Leo Shuken, John Leopold.” Why don’t you write about something you know something about?

  3. I’m curious as to how you found this “ridiuclous blog” in the first place, or why you find the need to insult my intelligence while pointing out my mistake. However, you are right: I’ve somehow gotten that wrong. Despite my clear recollection that I saw it listed as such, I can’t find my source, and available sources suggest Steiner had nothing to do with it. I’m amending the original post.

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