Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Whitmer, Mariana. “Silent Westerns: Hugo Riesenfeld’s Compiled Score for The Covered Wagon (1923).” American Music 36 (Spring 2018): 70-101.

Hugo Riesenfeld’s compiled score for The Covered Wagon (directed by James Cruze, 1923) influenced the music design of silent and sound era westerns to come, drawing inspiration from the vast landscapes and historic context of the frontier. The Covered Wagon was instrumental in shifting the focus of westerns from individual characters to epic tales of American progress and Manifest Destiny. Riesenfeld’s score adds to the grandeur of the film, particularly in how it presents the landscape. To underscore the film’s representation of Native Americans as a constant threat to the settlers, Riesenfeld uses several stereotypical music cues. He does not distinguish between hostile and friendly Native Americans and uses the same cues in both circumstances, a practice upheld by subsequent silent westerns. To represent the settlers, Riesenfeld uses Stephen Foster’s Oh! Susanna, a song historically linked with westward expansion. In an early example of direct cueing, the settlers themselves frequently sing and play Oh! Susanna on screen. To accompany the film’s love narrative, Riesenfeld adapts another popular song from the frontier era: George Linley’s I’ve Left the Snow-Clad Hills. In selecting classical and classical-sounding cues for other scenes, Riesenfeld’s approach was to help advance the plot and interpret character motivations while not overpowering the visuals with the music. For a shorter cut of The Covered Wagon, James C. Bradford produced a cue sheet based on Riesenfeld’s compiled score but comparatively less nuanced in setting the love narrative. The lasting impact of The Covered Wagon on the prestige western genre is due in part to Riesenfeld’s compiled score, which complements the epic presentation of the film with an important step toward modern thematically integrated soundtracks.

Works: Hugo Riesenfeld: score to The Covered Wagon (78-90); James C. Bradford: cue sheet for The Covered Wagon (90-98)

Sources: Erno Rapée and William Axt: Indian Orgy (78-79), Misterioso (87-88); Charles Sanford Skilton: War Dance (79); Charles K. Herbert: Indian War Dance (79-80), Indian Lament (79-80); Francis Smith (lyrics): America (My Country ’Tis of Thee) (80); Traditional: The Girl I Left Behind Me (80); Stephen Foster: Oh! Susanna (80-81); George Linley: I’ve Left the Snow-Clad Hills (82-86); Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 (87)

Index Classifications: 1900s, Film

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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