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Once Upon A Time In The West - Soundtrack

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Genre: Soundtrack / Artist: Various / Soundtrack / Audio CD released 2004-03-29 at Bmg

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      26.08.2007 21:04
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      An epic, operatic powerhouse of a score replete with autumnal sweetness.

      Having now made quite a name for himself in the wake of the Clint Eastwood-helmed “Dollars” trilogy that were premiered in the US in 1967, director Sergio Leone was now considered as somewhat of a master director and, unlike during the production of those early spaghetti westerns, was also now in a position that he could ostensibly get highly respected Hollywood actors to star in his films that was not possible previously. As such, having pioneered a new type of western very different from the type coming out of America, the market for him producing another western was first and foremost in the minds of studios. Leone had, however, during this short time become more and more cynical of the western ideals he had cherished when commencing with A Fistful of Dollars, and the ideological utopia of the old west had already started its decline in Leone’s eyes. Therefore the decision of making Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968 was to create one last super-western, a western to end all westerns, throwing in all possible western references and stereotypes in a slowly Leone’ian aesthetic sense, making the whole thing more like a slow funereal elegy in memoriam of a world now long since gone. Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda (in a shocking bad guy role) and Claudia Cardinale, the film’s story of the advancement of new technology in the form of the railway, signalling the end of the lonesomeness of the great, open spaces and the profession of the traditional gunslinger, is one of absolute beauty and bittersweet autumnal longing for a quickly disappearing world.

      As was always the case in a Leone film, music continues to play an increasingly important part. Ever since A Fistful of Dollars, Leone had expressed the desire to have a pre-recorded musical score to which he could film and edit his movie’s to, but cost was always something that came in the way. Even in For a Few Dollars More, where the music acted as a key plot element, it was still all recorded during post-production. The first time Leone got to use pre-recorded music came during the last scenes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Ennio Morricone’s music for Tuco’s cemetery sprint and the final duel were both scenes keyed to the music itself that Leone played during filming and to which the actors could react to. But it was not until Once Upon a Time in the West that a full, pre-recorded score was composed by Morricone and then used by Leone as a directionary marker for the actors to perform to and how to shoot his scenes. Many often refer the score for Once Upon a Time in the West as “leitmotivic,” the Wagnerian principle of distributing individual themes and motifs to represent a character, an object or a plot element, but I would not really see this score as being particularly leitmotivic due to the fact that the score lacks the kind of transmogrification of its thematic material to different guises rather than always remaining the same throughout that Wagner’s principle more specifically alluded to.

      The score basically consists of four themes that act as signatures to the four main characters. Firstly there is Jill’s theme, which is the most gentle and beautiful of the four. The theme is one of those extremely lyrical creations that are a Morricone hallmark, beginning with an almost beckoning harpsichord melody of nostalgia, drawing you into an age long since past, before the strings enter with the sweeping main melody to which the soprano of Edda dell’Orso creates a dream-like, ethereal quality of sublime beauty. The theme bookends the album (though not the film) in the opening “Once Upon a Time in the West” and closing “Finale,” and can also be heard in the majestic “Jill’s America,” in the intimate “Jill,” in the lengthy, cello-led “A Dimly Lit Room” and in the hopeful “Birth of a City.” Aside from the openly beautiful theme for Jill, the themes for the men are by far more hard around the edges. The theme for Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica” is one of disconcerting dissonance, and is primarily signified by the harmonica (naturally), appearing in cues like “Harmonica” and “Death Rattle,” though funnily enough the sound of the harmonica seems to emanate from just about everywhere else than the harmonica. This theme is often combined with the theme of Henry Fonda’s Frank, a hard-edged electric guitar-led riff that rises to a grandly epic and operatic funeral dirge with full choir and orchestra. The combination of the motif of Harmonica and Frank’s electric guitar in cues such as the legendary “Man with a Harmonica” and in the climactic “Final Duel” raise the themes to the level of a frightening dance of revenge that just sends shivers down the spine. The fourth theme for Jason Robard’s outlaw Cheyenne as a contrast is more comedic and consists of an amusingly clippety-clop rhythm and twangy banjo as in “Cheyenne” and “Farewell to Cheyenne.” It may not be as dramatic as either of the three above, but does provide quite a lot of contrast to the other music.

      On the whole the score is pretty theme centric and much of the action revolves around these four themes, often with not much difference in performance. The theme for Frank probably gets the largest amount of different arrangements such as being performed by the oboe in the world-weary cue “Frank,” by a horn in “Epilogue” and with a funereal trumpet in “Like a Judgement,” while most of the other themes pretty much remain unchanged in their general demenour. Outside of these main themes the score does contain a number of more scene specific cues. The cue “Bad Orchestra” is clear source music for use of background noise rather than actual underscore and as the track title suggests, is silly and not particularly good with its use of high pitched fiddles, wild banjos, player piano and a slide whistle. A skippable number to be honest. More suspenseful material is presented in the the three “Tavern” cues and particularly in “The Transgression,” which is almost identical with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s churning “Due Contro Cinque.” These cues are not particularly interesting, but neither are they really numerous during the score. Finally there is the short character theme for the corrupt railway baron of Morton, whose theme appears only once in the cue “Morton” and is a lyrically morose one, offset by tremolo strings and an undulating piano. It is unfortunately used too little, but provides a nice oneshot cue nevertheless.

      The score on album has fared quite well in face to some of the other Leone scores. The original album came out in 1969 on LP and was subsequently re-pressed in CD form in 1989 by RCA Records, the album containing around 40 minutes of music. This was the only representation of the score for years until it was re-released significantly expanded in 2004 by BMG. This new edition offered an additional seven tracks to the previous 13 tracks and packaged it in a weird cardboard casing with no liner notes or any technical details. Also sound quality was not really top drawer stuff, regardless of the age of the score, making it a disappointing blessing. However, it was not longer than in 2006 that the score was again reissued, this time by the Italian GDM label, adding yet another seven tracks to rise the grand total to 27 tracks and all of them sequenced in film order. Sound quality was also much improved with fairly little hiss to be detected thanks to the tracks being pruned from the original stereo masters and while unfortunately there’s still no score information presented in the liner notes (it’s all just a bunch of pictures), this is by far the best presentation of the score todate. Bare note, however, that this 27 track version can only be bought from speciality outlets such as the German site Chris’ Soundtrack Corner for €16.95 (that’s where I bought it keep these transactions inside the EU instead of having to deal with dollars). The 2004 expanded version is easier to find, Amazon for example selling it at £5, which may be adequate to anyone not that specific about sound quality. The original album may just as well be forgotten in light of both expansions. But regardless of which version you’ll get, the score is a true masterpiece in the annals of spaghetti westerns and one of Morricone’s absolute best. Most definitely one to be found in any soundtrack collection. Highly recommended.


      Expanded 2006 album track listing

      1. Once Upon a Time in the West (3:46)
      2. The Man (1:02)
      3. The Grand Massacre (2:39)
      4. Arrival at the Station (0:55)
      5. Bad Orchestra (2:25)
      6. Jill’s America (2:49)
      7. Harmonica (2:27)
      8. The First Tavern (1:40)
      9. A Bed Too Large (1:31)
      10. Jill (1:48)
      11. Frank (1:52)
      12. Cheyenne (1:16)
      13. The Second Tavern (1:34)
      14. The Third Tavern (1:20)
      15. Epilogue (1:15)
      16. On the Roof of the Train (1:19)
      17. Man with a Harmonica (3:30)
      18. A Dimly Lit Room (5:09)
      19. The Transgression (4:43)
      20. Return to the Train (0:56)
      21. Morton (1:36)
      22. Like a Judgement (3:07)
      23. Final Duel (3:35)
      24. Death Rattle (1:45)
      25. Birth of a City (4:24)
      26. Farewell to Cheyenne (2:39)
      27. Finale (4:10)


      Music Composed and Conducted by Ennio Morricone
      Performed by The Orchestra Unione Musicisti di Roma
      Chorus: I Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni
      Soprano: Edda dell’Orso
      Harmonica: Franco de Gemini
      Whistle: Alessandro Alessandroni
      1969 / RCA Records, 1989 (4736-2-R)
      BMG, 2004 (MCPS 82876589982)
      GDM Music, 2006 (GDM 2062)

      © berlioz, 2007

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    • Product Details

      Disc #1 Tracklisting
      1 Once Upon A Time In The West
      2 As A Judgement
      3 Cheyenne (Bonus Track)
      4 The Transgression
      5 Harmonica (Bonus Track)
      6 The First Tavern
      7 The Second Tavern
      8 The Third Tavern (Bonus Track)
      9 Jill (Bonus Track
      10 Man With A Harmonica
      11 A Dimly Lit Room
      12 Frank (Bonus Track)
      13 Bad Orchestra
      14 Morton (Bonus Track)
      15 Jill’s America
      16 The Man
      17 Epilogue (Bonus Track)
      18 Death Rattle
      19 Farewell To Cheyenne
      20 Finale