Tuesday, November 21, 2023


 Movie Music International

By Jonman

November 18, 2018

The genre more or less mirrored the Hollywood western borrowing themes and plots from the likes of John Ford and John Sturges, whereas the Italian western when it had properly established itself was to become not simply a genre filled with lookalike films based on tired cliches from the Hollywood cowboy films, but would end up actually influencing future American produced examples. German westerns were clean cut and had somewhat recycled plots that audiences had seen so many times in one form or another and although these worked and became hugely popular they still had a distinct Americanized flavour and appearance to them, this was apparent when we see the good guys wearing white hats and being clean cut and the bad guys often wearing black and being unshaven or unkempt in their appearance oh yes and the good guys always won. The most popular movies that came out of Germany were the cinematic interpretations based upon the writings of Karl May, these were WINNETOU, OLD SHATTERHAND and SUREHAND.

The musical scores for these Sauerkraut sage brush sagas was the work of just a handful of composers which included Gert Wilden but most notably Martin Bottcher and Peter Thomas, or at least these are the three composers that most associate with the genre. The music that these three highly talented composer, arranger conductors provided, was in many ways as cliched as the films that they worked upon within the western genre. The melodies being romantically adorned and sweeping but at the same time containing an almost easy going pace. The themes were even melodic when dramatically infused, the composers relying upon the string section and also the use of bold sounding brass and percussion punctuated by bass guitar to fashion a sound that had significant links to Americana but also had to it a slightly clinical persona and a contemporary freshness. Bottcher in my opinion was the more original sounding of the three at least when scoring westerns, his music for the movie WINNETOU ll in particular being outstanding.

Music in the German western as I have already stated did draw on elements and styles that were present in American films, German composers often utilising established instrumentation that was associated with the western as in harmonica and jaunty sounding saloon pianos. However, whereas they would employ it in a more traditional manner, Italian composers such as Ennio Morricone very often put a twist on the situation to create some sinister moods and atmospheres as in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, where the harmonica becomes the pre-cursor to a death or a moment of violence rather than an easy going little ditty that acted as a background to camera shots of grasslands and deserts. I know it sounds as if I am not a fan of the German western score, but that is not the case. The music in German westerns was consistently very good, but maybe was not raw enough or even different enough for it to truly stand out apart from a handful of examples. Years ago THE BEAR FAMILY record label issued a number of soundtracks from westerns, which were quickly deleted and are now rare items. There were also soundtracks such as THUNDER ON THE BORDER or Winnetou and Old Firehand to give it its original title issued on compact disc which had a score by composer Peter Thomas that was wonderfully written and served the movie adequately and had the bonus of being great music to listen to away from the film. 

I also think that the German western scores did have an important part in influencing a handful of Italian composers in the early days of the Spaghetti western genre, and one can hear these influences in the early scores of De Masi and also to a degree Ferrio, even Morricone employed a slightly Americanized sounding score in GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS, so I suppose we have to ask if he was influenced by Steiner, Bernstein or Bottecher during this period of his career. Italian composer Riz Ortolani worked on a German production entitled, THE APACHES LAST BATTLE or OLD SHATTER HAND in 1964, and scored GUNFIGHT AT HIGH NOON in the same year for German film makers and then worked with Spanish director Jose Luis Borau on Cavalca e Uccidi, which was three years previous to the composer scoring DAY OF ANGER the violent western that starred actor Lee Van Cleef. The German western score was also notorious for including a number of cues that I refer to as square dance tracks, ie fiddles and happy sounding ho down/hill billy pieces, which granted did have a place in the films but were slightly annoying after a while, but we all know that every genre or score for whatever film contains cues that can be annoying or aggravating.

The scores for the WINNETOU movies for example were big on percussion, strings and brass and at times the themes being performed were more akin to the sound of the big band or easy listening bands such as James Last and Bert Kaempfert rather than music to accompany galloping horses on the open prairies, but surprisingly it worked. WINNETOU movies contained some beautiful thematic moments and were written, orchestrated and performed marvellously, but as I have said there was a rawness and a power lacking that was present in the Spaghetti western soundtracks.

I suppose the German western was responsible for the eventual return of the western and becoming popular once again with cinema audiences and maybe without the German western films such as THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE UNFORGIVEN, VALDEZ IS COMING and YOUNG GUNS would not have been made. So now to the music of WINNETOU, SHATTERHAND and SUREHAND.

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