Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | December 22, 2011

The Classic Western Sound, III: The American Romantic

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!

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  1. Great series, Jeremy. I enjoyed this post most of all of the three so far. I’m glad to see you don’t shy away from writing about intense emotions captured in music. Coincidentally, I wrote about the emotional component in federal record keeping at my own blog last night. Very powerful but largely unacknowledged emotions create a real intensity gap in some of the largely hidden battles over the records historians think they will access one day.

    Interesting to see you mention Victor Young’s jazz ballads. You are spot on in what you write about them. Coincidence? As I was completing a super challenging project recently involving some national security classified records, I took a lot of long walks and listened to classical, popular, and alternative music. Which song did I listen to most of all? Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight” in Sinatra’s 1947 recording. Why? Because my Fedland project was high risk, highly challenging, and I sometimes felt much alone in working it through. Got it done; historians will benefit from it, one day!

  2. Thanks, Maarja! I absolutely agree with your post that the intensity gap between partisans and dispassionate observers often gives the partisans a massive advantage, especially where history is concerned. And I’m glad you’re a Victor Young fan as well!

  3. Yes, exactly! Human beings are human beings. The same elements that show up in political issue advocacy show up elsewhere, as well. If you’re an official and you perceive a greater imperative not to create and preserve candid records, then no amount of NARA guidance calling for you to leave behind what it calls “an enduring record” of your public service will persuade you to do so.

    Remember how President G. W. Bush came into office saying he would not use email because of open records laws which would leave him vulnerable to those “out to embarrass?” And he didn’t.

    A NARA official, Mike Miller, described at the Cold War conference at Archives 2 in 1998 how setting up an auto email capture system for one Cabinet Secretary led him to stop using email altogether.

    At President Obama’s direction, AOTUS David Ferriero took the first steps in an electronic records management initiative in November. But it is challenging to align all the elements. I see NARA officials in person enough, including David so I’ve been able to talk to them and touch on some of the issues face to face. For a broader audience, I may take up the theme again after the holidays.

    Consider that officials create more of their own records now than they did in the days of the typing pool, which churned out internal communications on paper. Two, electronic data needs to be preserved in formats and under conditions which ensure it can be accessed in the future. You can put a paper file in a cabinet and expect it to be well preserved for decades. Not so digital data.

    That means records hold times – the time an agency traditionally keeps records in its own custody before signing over legal title to them to NARA – may change and in some cases has been changed for some agencies from 30 years to much shorter time periods. But if your records may become FOIA accessible not through your agency but through NARA while you still are in office or still alive, it might have a chilling effect on what you choose to write. Very tricky issue because it intensifies for the creating official an awareness of what digital footprints he is creating!

    No wonder I’m glad David is a former Navy hospital corpsman with a specialty as a neuro psychiatric technician who served with a Marine unit in Danang during the Vietnam war. Prior to volunteering for the Navy, when Ferriero was a co-op student at Northeastern, he worked for a while as a therapy aide at a maximum security hospital for criminally insane men. So he’s particularly well positioned to think through emotional, visceral reactions to issues such as federal record keeping. Historians don’t always factor in sufficiently the presence of intense emotion in looking at topics. That you have in your series on Western themes music is encouraging for me to see! Looking forward to future installments.

  4. Maarja, I did see that post (sorry to be so late in responding), and I connect very strongly with what you say above. I consider myself a historian of emotion and subjective experience, and I think that’s the way the profession may be going in future. I hope so, at least; you’re right that it’s a major category of historical experience that we know very little about.

    Happy new year!

  5. […] a beautiful third post in a series on music in Hollywood Western films, my blogging friend, historian Jeremy Young, […]

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