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Artwork copyright (c) 1987 Fifth Continent Music Corp; review copyright (c) 2003 James Southall


Challenging, rewarding musical depiction of the Old West

That a western score from Alex North should sound like a western score from nobody else comes as no surprise; North's composing sensibilities were as far removed from the pioneers of the western score like Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Elmer Bernstein and co as you could get.  Inevitably, whereas it could be argued that those other composers scored the location more than anything else, North's only, relentless goal (as with every score he wrote) was to score the human drama.

Cheyenne Autumn was one of the final films made by directing legend John Ford, of The Searchers and The Quiet Man.  He didn't like music in films but put up with it as a necessary evil, but he hated North's score for Cheyenne Autumn with a passion (North had been hired against his wishes by producer Bernard Smith).  With retrospect however it would be entirely plausible to posit this as the finest score ever to feature in one of his movies - North always tried to accomplish something new with his scores, never ready to retread old ground or simply go with the flow.  Every phrase of every cue had a meaning and collectors of North's music will find more to discover each time they listen to one of his scores.

Dissonant and uncomfortable for the most part, Cheyenne Autumn will not please many listeners.  Fans of North will, of course, know exactly what to expect, but more uninitiated film music lovers would no doubt be shocked to hear music like this.  Ironically it's far too avant garde to be used in a 2003 movie - which, really, just goes to show how far ahead of his time Alex North truly was - that music written forty years ago is too modern for a present-day film.  His only concession to lyricism is the gorgeous theme heard for the character Deborah (played by Caroll Baker) - check out "Friend Deborah" to see what I mean - it's not as sweeping as something like Spartacus, but it's truly beautiful.  Beautiful also, to my ears at least, is the anguished music heard for the Cheyenne Indians, who are making their way back home to Dakota from Oklahoma on a perilous journey - North was of course a master at this sort of psychological scoring - and his music here is especially affecting ("Sick Girl").  He eschews any notion of using ethnic music to depict the Indians, believing (correctly) that it is more important to score the emotion with the music than it is to emphasise what people can already see, ie that we are dealing with Indians here.

The score's "main theme", if it can be termed as such, is a portentous, enormous gathering of orchestral forces, developed most fully in the second cue.  Action music permeates many other tracks, including the thrilling "River Crossing" and "The Battle", scored exclusively for brass and a massive percussion section.

There are moments of (somewhat forced) humour in the movie.  This is heard most obviously in the score in "Dodge City", with what seems to be an almost-parody of Steiner's western scores mixing with quotations from "Camptown Races" towards the end of the cue - all done in North's unique style.  The sequence could easily have stuck out like a sore thumb, but North manages to keep the humour toned down just enough for it to pass by without seeming too out of place.

The score was released on Label X.  Whether it's a bootleg or not is unclear - there's no barcode, which is usually a surefire indicator of illegitimacy - but it's stocked by all the big stores.  Or at least, it was - it was re-released in the late 1990s but has now become quite rare again - you can try the Amazon link below and see if they have any used copies at any point.  The package is good, with unbelievably detailed liner notes by Royal S. Brown - probably the longest notes I've ever seen for an album - and the sound is just about on the right side of acceptable, but it could do with some hiss being removed and the brass made a bit punchier for the full effect.

But it's the music that matters, and on that score Cheyenne Autumn is breathtaking.

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  1. Overture (3:10)

  2. Main Title (2:17)

  3. Indians Arrive (1:27)

  4. Friend Deborah / Waiting for Supplies (2:25)

  5. The School House (1:16)

  6. Archer (1:51)

  7. Rejection (4:15)

  8. Truth (:52)

  9. Entr'acte (1:17)

  10. River Crossing (2:24)

  11. Sick Girl (2:26)

  12. The Battle (3:40)

  13. Dodge City (2:14)

  14. Cattle Drive (1:46)

  15. Old Chief (1:37)

  16. Lead Our People Home (3:09)

  17. Death (2:35)

  18. The People (1:10)

  19. Spring / Soldiers / Alarm (3:18)

  20. Hope (1:10)

  21. End Title (:52)