The Big Country: Jerome Moross

Agent Triple P has been enjoying Jerome Moross’s epic soundtrack to the William Wyler western The Big Country (1958). With its instantly recognisable opening of swirling violin semiquavers it is one of the best two Western movie theme tunes (with Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven (1960)) and one of the most well known motion picture themes ever.

In fact it is one of those classic cases where the music is more popular than the film it comes from; Wyler’s Cold War allegory being rather hard going.

Jerome Moross was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1913. He didn’t come from a musical family but by the age of four he had taught himself to play the piano by ear. Formal lessons followed and he attended the DeWitt Clinton High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan where one of his classmates was Bernard Hermann. He was so advanced academically he skipped four years and graduated at the age of fourteen. Like Hermann, Moross went on to study at New York University (graduating at the age of 18) and, simultaneously entered the Julliard School of music as a conducting fellow. Oddly he never studied composition as such; focussing on harmony, counterpoint and fugue. By the time he was at university he had already gone past the point where college could help him as regards composition.

His first major piece, Paeans (1931), was premiered when Moross was 17 with Hermann conducting. He had studied the serial music of Schoenberg, Berg and their ilk but rejected it for a more jazz and blues orientated style influenced by Gershwin in pieces such as Those Everlasting Blues (1932). This took him into the world of musical theatre but his work was more akin to opera than Broadway and wasn’t that successful commercially. He continued to write serious music, including five ballets and his Symphony number 1 received its premiere under Sir Thomas Beecham and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 1943. Later in his life he produced some chamber music.

In the early 1940s Moross followed Hermann to Hollywood and started orchestrating scores by the likes of Adolph Deutsch, Franz Waxman and Hugo Friedhofer. His first original score was for a low-budget film about neo-Nazis in America called Close-up (1948).

The Big Country was his seventh score and was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Dimitri Tiomkin’s The Old Man and the Sea (1958); another example of the Motion Picture Academy getting it completely wrong. The full score, for what was a very long film, lasted 74 minutes and was an immediate hit with the studio issuing it as Moross’ first soundtrack album. It was a hugely influential score taking the Western soundtrack down a more folk based and American voiced road than before. Previous music for westerns, dominated by Max Steiner in the Thirties and Dmitri Tiomkin in the Forties and Fities, had come out of the tradition of European late-romantic work and there was little that was really American sounding about them. True, Aaron Copeland had scored The Red Pony in 1948 but this was a stylistic direction not taken up by other Hollywood composers until Moross’ masterwork a decade later. Subsequent scores by the likes of Dimitri Tiomkin (The Alamo (1960)), Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven (1960)) and Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won (1963)) would replicate the mixture of American folk sounding music and sweeping melody which Moross pulled off so perfectly.

Moross’ really big earner, however, was the theme tune he wrote for the long running TV series Wagon Train, which he adapted from a piece he wrote for the score of a film called The Jayhawkers (1959).

Other fine scores followed, particularly for Charlton Heston’s Norman era set The Warlord (1965) where he conjures up an appropriately period feel. His second to last score was for The Valley of Gwangi (1969), the Old West, Ray Harryhausen dinosaur epic. In this score he revisits the big western feel of The Big Country. One track in particular, Forbidden Valley, is almost identical to the Raid music from The Big Country which itself recalls the rhythm of the toccata from Widor’s 5th Organ symphony.

Moross’ last work was a one act opera Sorry, Wrong Number (1977). He died in 1983, largely unknown compared with his contemporaries.

For many years the soundtrack for The Big Country was deleted and only the main theme was ever heard. In 1990 MGM reissued the soundtrack on CD but the sound was terrible; sounding like it had been recorded in an old tin box. Like many soundtracks, even today, the music was a re-recording for the purposes of the album release using far fewer musicians than the original recording for the film itself. In 1995 Tony Bremner re-recorded the entire 74 minute score with the Philharmonia Orchestra in a very good recording although critics have said that he takes it in rather a too sedate way. Much more recently however Moross’ original sessions for the film, with the full orchestra of over eighty musicians, have been unearthed and despite being fifty years old and in mono still sound magnificent having been recorded on state of the art hifi equipment.

Today Moross is being properly appreciated and more of his music is available on recordings than at any other time.
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