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THE BIG COUNTRY – Jerome Moross

September 8, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

With The Big Country, MGM set out to bring an epic tale of Americana to the big screen. For this massive production they hired William Wyler as director and producer. A screenplay authored my a multitude of writers created a complex narrative, which sought to move beyond the genre’s traditional narratives to explore the darker and more ambiguous psychology of old west. A stellar cast was assembled, which included Gregory Peck (James McKay), Jean Simmons (Julie Maragon), Burl Ives (Rufus Hannassey), Charlton Heston (Steve Leech), Caroll Baker (Patricia Terrill) and Chuck Connors (Buck Hannassey). The story involves romance and the battle for water and grazing rights on the high plains. We see Captain James McKay, a wealthy and now retired sea captain who has come west to marry fiancée Pat Terrill, who seems pampered and controlled by her wealthy father, Major Henry Terrill. As a military seaman McKay’s formal personal affect, values and approach to life seem culturally incongruous and pretentious. When he eschews the code of the west of settling disputes with violence he creates an instant animus with the locals, especially ranch foreman Steve Leech. His apparent cowardice also loses the respect of Pat. In the larger picture we find unfolding an escalating clan battle over cattle watering rights on the arid plains. Rufus Hannassey and Henry Terrill both covet “The Big Muddy”, land owned by Julie Maragon that is abundant with water. She wisely keeps a fragile peace by allowing both clans access to her water. McKay, who is increasingly estranged from Pat meets with Julie, and they discover a mutual attraction, which leads in time to Pat ending their engagement. McKay eventually convinces Julie to sell him the water rights, thus triggering a confrontation with the Hannassey clan, which ultimately results in both patriarchs killing each other in a duel. The film concludes with McKay and Julie riding off to start a new life at the Big Muddy.

For the score, Wyler hired Jerome Moross, impressed by his earlier triumph in the genre “The Proud Rebel” (1958). Moross had in his childhood developed a love of the vast vistas of the American west as well as its traditional folk music, which he says always inspired him. He used this love to create a multiplicity of themes and motifs to culturally express the bravado of the old west on the grand tapestry upon which he was given. His music filled the spectacular vistas of the western plans and enhanced the film by fleshing out the emotional drivers of the main characters. His Main Theme has passed into legend and is now regarded as the iconic Americana theme for the old west. We bear witness to a stunning swirling vortex of violin arpeggios from which sound heraldic horns festivamente that grandly declare the indomitable American spirit. The theme has a ternary form with the opening line of violins and trumpets serving as a stunning introductory prelude. It’s violin carried A Phrase espouses proud confident nobility while its B Phrase, which flows atop violins and harp glissandi, speaks to the wondrous vistas of the American west. Pat’s Theme is dance-like in construct, flowing as a gentile two-step between violin and viola. The Cowboys Theme emotes classic Americana with its horns bravado and cocky staccato rhythms. Julie’s Theme is in reality the scores’ love theme. Emoted by lush strings with an array of woodwinds, it expresses inviting warmth. Buck’s Theme is arrogant and simple in construct like its namesake, featuring repeating statements by blaring high trumpet. Major Terrill’s Theme, like its namesake is an aggressive staccato identity emoted by harsh strings and grating horns. The Abduction Theme offers a dark staccato construct, which perfectly emotes its violence. The Stalking Theme speaks to the dark currents of violence that underpin the Terrill-Hannassey feud. It flows from the lower register atop timpani and bassoon with a stilting foreboding rhythm, which seems disconcerting and clumsy. The Spirit Of Violence Motif is expressed as repeating bleak tonal statements often as contrapuntal responses to the kindred Stalking Theme.

“Main Title” is a masterpiece cue that gains Moross immortality! As the opening credits roll and we see a six-horse stagecoach cross the Big Country’s prairie vistas. We are awed by a full rendering of the Main Theme, which soars triumphant with all its epic beauty. Moross’s music fills to overflowing the vastness of the prairie vistas all the while emoting the pioneering spirit of the people that came westward seeking their destiny. Bravo! In “Julie’s House” Jim McKay rejoins his fiancée Patricia at the home of her friend, schoolteacher Julie Maragon. Moross showcases Pat’s Theme, which creates a free-flowing dance-like sensibility that is warm and inviting. We conclude atop a wonderful celebratory dance as Jim and Pat are reunited and all seems bright. “The Welcoming” offers an exceptional cue and score highlight! We see that all is not well as the Hannassey sons harass Pat and McKay on their way to the Terrill Ranch. We are treated to a full rendering of the Cowboy Theme with its horns bravado and cocky staccato rhythms, which perfectly captures the raw, rowdy and bullying spirit of the sons who are spoiling for a fight.

In “The Hazing” features some sterling thematic interplay! A cocky Buck’s Theme propels us forward as we see the brothers hog-tie McKay, much to the dismay of Pat who cannot understand why her man does not defend his honor and fight back. The contrapuntal interplay between Buck’s Theme and the Cowboy Theme unfolds as a spirited dance, which transitions to Pat’s Theme as she comforts her man. This is nicely done! “Courtin’ Time” reveals Buck, who is full of himself making an unsolicited and unwelcome amorous overture to Julie. His arrogance blinds him to her complete disinterest. The construct of this cue is most interesting as we hear permutations of the Main Theme, which initially emotes the swaggering arrogance of Buck, before transitioning to a dance-like expression as Julie informs us that she will have no part of Buck. “Terrill Ranch” opens with bassoons emoting Buck’s Theme as Jim reflects on the harsh and humiliating hazing encounter as he surveys the open vistas from the Terrill home porch. A homey and reassuring sweep of the Main Theme carries the scene, informing us that Jim has recovered.

The cue “Old Thunder” was dialed out of the film. We see ranch foreman Steve Leech call on McKay to ride Old Thunder, a wild unbroken horse as a ruse to further humiliate him. McKay finds Leech transparent and declines. Moross employs a comic scherzo-like rendering of the Main Theme for strings and woodwinds to support the narrative. “The Raid, Parts 1 & 2” is a score highlight, which features superb interplay between the Main Theme, Pat’s Theme and Major Terrill’s Theme, which evolves into a march. Major Terrill leads a raid on the Hannassey ranch to avenge McKay’s hazing. McKay’s protests diminish him in Pat’s eyes, as she views his timidity as cowardice. The writing here is of the highest order as the three theme flow to and fro! The cue “McKay’s Decision” was dialed out of the film. While left alone on the ranch after the raiding party departs McKay takes on Old Thunder. We hear a nice interplay of Major Terrill’s Theme and a comic variant of the Main Theme. In “The Capture” Terrill’s raiding party captures the Hannassey sons in town, who are taken to a stable and beaten in retribution. We are again treated to some amazing spirited thematic interplay between Major Terrill’s Theme, Buck’s Theme and the Cowboys Theme. Wow. The cue “McKay’s Triumph” was dialed out of the film. We see a triumphant McKay who has tamed Old Thunder. Moross provided a comic and festive circus like statement to support the narrative.

The next four cues all express dance music, which plays during Pat and Jim’s engagement party. “Major Terrill’s Party Parts 1” we hear a reprise of the spirited dance first heard in “Courtin’ Time”. In “Major Terrill’s Party, Part 2” a folksy waltz is provided. “Waltz” features a free-flowing waltz in its finest traditions. We close with “Polka”, which features a festive Polka with it’s trademark ¾ rhythms. The merriment is rudely interrupted by a rifle-bearing Rufus Hannassey, who has come to challenge Major Terrill for beating his sons. “Night in Blanco Canyon” reveals a dispirited Buck returning home to face his father. Elegiac trumpets intone his humiliation, but the mood shifts to a wondrous pastoral flow as he returns to is ranch. “McKay’s Ride” provides a warm rendering of both A and B Phrases of the Main Theme that play as McKay rides out to explore the range. The cue “McKay Is Missing” was dialed out of the film. We see Pat, worried when McKay doesn’t return, and insisting to her father that a search party go out to find him. The cue is outstanding, multi-thematic and offers fine interplay between the Cowboy Theme, Pat’s Theme and lastly, Julie’s Theme as he ends up at her ranch. The writing for woodwinds is just splendid as is the violin solo.

In “The Old House” McKay and Julie begin to bond as he assists in the repair of her grandfather’s old farmhouse. The cue is alight with a lush and at times spirited rendering of Julie’s Theme, and we are treated to splendid writing for strings and woodwinds. “Waiting” reveals Pat distraught when the search party returns without McKay. A duet of flutes and clarinets doloroso emote a distraught Pat’s Theme. “Horror Stories” is a fun cue! We see McKay and Julie sitting on her porch, exchanging horror stories. Moross provides faux horror music that swells with melodrama as each tries to best the other with increasingly gruesome tales. The culminating crescendo is superb! In “Big Muddy” McKay solicits Julie to sell him the Big Muddy, which he hopes to cultivate and whose water rights he promises to manage fairly. A folksy rendering of the Main Theme supports the vistas of the Big Muddy. We flow into an exquisite rendering of Julie’s Theme upon solo violin, which informs us of McKay’s growing attraction to her. What a nice cue. “Still Waiting” reveals a distraught Pat back at the ranch. The flow of Julie’s Theme continues into this scene as Jim remains with Julie with interplay from Buck’s Theme on sharp edged violins, as Pat fears Buck has bushwhacked Jim.

The cue “McKay Alone” was dialed out of the film. We see an internally conflicted Jim riding back to the ranch. Moross informs us of this conflict with interplay of repeated agitated phrases of Major Terrill’s Theme, and a now minor modal variant of Julie’s Theme. The psychology of this thematic writing is first rate. “Night at Ladder Ranch” reveals a determined McKay calling Leech out to settle their differences once and for all. Moross offers stirring rendering of the B Phrase of the Main Theme, which ascends with strength and nobility. Nicely done! There is some nice musical complexity to “The Fight”, which opens atop the dark staccato rhythms of the Stalking Theme as McKay and Leech fist fight. As the fight ebbs and flows Moross provides interplay of the Main Theme, Julie’s Theme and the Stalking Theme. The cue “Cattle at the River” was dialed out of the film. It was intended to play as Leech and his men confront the Hannasseys at the river. We see spirited interplay of the Cowboys Theme and Major Terrill’s Theme, which contest as well as Julie’s Theme, emblematic of the Big Muddy. I would have left this cue in the film. In “Pat’s Mistake” Julie comforts Pat who reveals her disappointment with Jim. Blaring horns dramatico offer repeating phrases of Major Terrill’s Theme that dissipate as we transition to interplay of Pat’s Theme and Julie’s Theme.

“Buck Comes for Julie” is multi-scenic. We open with Rufus’ deciding to force matters by kidnapping Julie, hoping to lure Terrill and his men into an ambush in Blanco Canyon. We open softly upon clarinet and strings, which usher in Julie’s Theme. The melodic flow is severed by the onslaught of the fierce Abduction Theme, which unfolds with brutal malevolence. As we shift scenes to the hotel Pat’s Theme unfolds as we see Pat and Jim’s relationship end after she makes a fruitless attempt at reconciliation. “The Abduction” reveals Buck forcefully taking Julie into Blanco Canyon by night. We open atop the Main Theme, but harsh repeating statements of the Abduction Theme sever its melodic flow. We fade out upon melodic fragments of Julie’s Theme. This interplay is nicely conceived. In “The Captive” Julie is held captive by Buck. Moross weaves superb interplay of a sinister Buck’s Theme on bassoon and bass clarinet and the more feminine and lyrical Julie’s Theme on strings. “The Attempted Rape” reveals Buck’s sexual assault that is forcefully ended by his outraged father. A brutal horn and percussion laden variant of the Abduction Theme propels the scene. Wow. Julie’s Theme supports the aftermath and brings the scene to closure.

In “The War Party Gathers” the Hannasseys and Terrills have gathered and readied themselves for battle. Moross uses a propulsive staccato line of strings and horns bellicoso to amplify the tension. A transition upon the Abduction Theme ushers in a diminuendo upon Julie’s Theme, which brings us to closure. “McKay in Blanco Canyon” reveals a relentless escalation of tension brewing in the warring camps. Moross forments this tension with a repeating line of staccato strings with horn calls replete with snare drum percussion that are sowed with fragments of the Abduction Theme. Although “Jim and Julie” is a short cue, Moross was challenged to speak to much in the characters that was unsaid. McKay cannot dissuade Rufus to reign in his forces and Buck, who is spoiling for vengeance, threatens to shoot McKay if Julie doesn’t cooperate. As Rufus forces McKay and Buck into a duel, McKay and Julie embrace. We see in their eyes the acknowledgement of love. Moross uses interplay of a romantic variant of the Main Theme and the Spirit of Violence Motif to support the narrative. In “The Major Alone” we have a fine extended rendering of Major Terrill’s Theme. An insubordinate Leech refuses to follow Major Terrill into battle. A resolute Terrill is undeterred and so sets off alone. Leech however relents, and soon follows with his men. French horns nobile set the tone and usher in Major Terrill’s Theme, which animates this scene. His theme swells with energy and pride as he rides alone to his destiny.

“The Duel” reveals the build-up to the duel by McKay and Buck. Moross sows tension on Buck’s Theme, which builds to a dark crescendo. In “The Death of Buck Hannassey” Rufus shoots his son when he dishonors himself and the family with his treachery during the duel. We close seeing a devastated Rufus hugging his dying son. An elegiac variant of the Cowboys Theme unfolds as a solemn marcia funebre, fully expressing Rufus’ anguish. Nicely done! The cue “Ambush in Blanco Canyon, Part 1” was dialed out of the film. We see the first indecisive skirmish between the warring clans. Militaristic snare drums propel this aggressive repeating staccato line that swells in intensity upon horn fare. Wow. “Ambush in Blanco Canyon, Part 2” is an outstanding score highlight! We see Rufus calling off his men and issuing a personal challenge to Terrill to settle the dispute honorably in a duel, which Terrill accepts. As the film prepares to culminate with an epic showdown, Moross demonstrates mastery of his craft by providing sterling energetic interplay of both his Main Theme and Terrill’s Theme.

In “The Stalking” we see Major Terrill and Rufus align for their duel. Moross scores the scene with simplicity by using a grim dirge like rendering of the Spirit Of Violence Motif, which crescendos as we end tragically with the deaths of both patriarchs. We conclude our journey in “End Title” with a warm and hopeful rendering of the Main Theme as Julie and McKay set-off for a life together at the Big Muddy.

Please allow me to thank La-La Land Records and producer Ford A. Thaxton for this superb reissue of “The Big Country”. The re-mastering efforts were outstanding and the album provides an exceptional listening experience. This effort by Moross is acclaimed as his Magnum Opus. The marriage of imagery, narrative and music reveals Moross’ mastery of his craft. It is no doubt not only one of the finest scores of the Americana genre, but also of the Golden Age. He provides eight themes and a motif, which time and time again features thematic interplay of the highest order. His Main Theme, one of the best to ever open a film, has passed into legend and earned him immortality. I recommend with enthusiasm that this score is essential to the collection of lovers of film score art.

Buy the Big Country soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:21)
  • Julie’s House (2:10)
  • The Welcoming (3:09)
  • The Hazing (1:49)
  • Courtin’ Time (1:21)
  • The Terrill Ranch (1:35)
  • Old Thunder (1:40)
  • The Raid, Parts 1 & 2 (3:39)
  • McKay’s Decision (1:03)
  • The Capture (1:28)
  • McKay’s Triumph (0:35)
  • Major Terrill’s Party (1:30)
  • Major Terrill’s Party, Part 2 (1:09)
  • Waltz (2:16)
  • Polka (0:54)
  • Night in Blanco Canyon (0:52)
  • McKay’s Ride (1:20)
  • McKay Is Missing (2:02)
  • The Old House (2:18)
  • Waiting (0:30)
  • Horror Stories (1:04)
  • Big Muddy (2:33)
  • Still Waiting (1:37)
  • McKay Alone (1:20)
  • Night at Ladder Ranch (1:09)
  • The Fight (2:54)
  • Cattle at the River (2:21)
  • Pat’s Mistake (1:20)
  • Buck Comes for Julie (1:12)
  • The Abduction (1:10)
  • The Captive (1:34)
  • The Attempted Rape (2:10)
  • The War Party Gathers (2:39)
  • McKay in Blanco Canyon (2:27)
  • Jim and Julie (0:35)
  • The Major Alone (1:51)
  • The Duel (0:51)
  • The Death of Buck Hannassey (2:44)
  • Ambush in Blanco Canyon, Part 1 (1:16)
  • Ambush in Blanco Canyon, Part 2 (1:47)
  • The Stalking (1:21)
  • End Title (1:59)

Running Time: 72 minutes 35 seconds

La-La Land Records LLCD-1055 (1958/2007)

Music composed and conducted by Jerome Moross. Original orchestrations by Jerome Moross, Bernard Mayers, Gil Grau and Conrad Singer. Edited by Lloyd Young. Score produced by Jerome Moross. Album produced by Ford A. Thaxton, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys.

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  1. June 26, 2017 at 10:00 am

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