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MohicanLand Musical Musings: The Music of The Last of the Mohicans

Last of the Mohicans
The "Main Title" is the heart and soul not only of the movie but much of the rest of the soundtrack as well. Trevor Jones, who wrote this piece, reused it over and over again in the movie, in several variations, and so much of the rest of the music hangs from it.

This piece is written in the key of D-minor. While minor keys are generally recognized as the sad keys (major keys being bright, happy or jubilant keys), D-minor is one of the saddest, darkest keys.

In terms of music theory, the "Main Title" we hear in the movie and on the CD has what is called an A-A-B structure, where A and B refer to specific and unique sections of music. The "Main Title" opens ominously with just the drums––the drums of war––for one full measure, and then what sounds to be low strings and bassoons play a variation of the melody, barely hinting at what is to come. The CD version is different in that it does not include this opening measure of the drums alone, but starts immediately with the entrance of the strings and bass instruments. Throughout the introduction in both versions, the musical emphasis remains on the drums while the music crescendos toward that grand entrance of the main body of the orchestra and the first blood-stirring chord of the "Main Title". This grand chord signals the opening of the A section. The A section is repeated and is then followed by the second section, the B section. Both sections are in a slow 4/4 time, and both are 4 measures long.

The first occurrence of the A section is rather dark, but very grand, very big. The melody in this A section is played by the trumpets, creating a very militaristic affect. The second time through, when the A section is repeated, it is somewhat lighter, without the military brass. Section B is the lightest of the three, much more relaxed and entirely free of the military feel. The B section could be construed to be in the key of F major, which has the same key signature as the D-minor and is its "relative major" but is much brighter. However, based on the way the B section ends exactly as the A section does, even this brighter B section is still in D minor.

We hear the complete A-A-B pattern of the "Main Title" in just three places during the movie (typically, we hear only the A or only the B section). The first place is obviously at the start of the film and during the opening credits––the drums of war beat during the textual introduction and then see the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains as the full force of the theme bursts upon us. The end of section B fades almost seamlessly into "Elk Hunt" in the movie. The second place we hear it is at the beginning of the scene known as the River Walk. This is just after Hawkeye and the Mohicans have rescued the British from the ambush on the George Road––the grand "Main Title" opens (without the introduction) as the six of them walk out onto the rocks near the waterfall. Here also is where, during the B section, Uncas watches Alice as she prepares to climb up the rockface. The final notes of the B section fade away as Duncan begins to thank the "Scout" Hawkeye for his help. The third place we hear the full A-A-B of the "Main Title" is in the "Top of the World." Here it is less crisp than in the opening scene, more legato and thereby less majestic.

The A section occurs in many instances in the movie and is the basis for several other themes, which are essentially variations of the A section. However, the B section is used only twice elsewhere in the movie: it is used within "Fort Battle", and in "Top of the World".

One of the most prominent features of the "Main Title" is what is called a Scottish Snap. Musically, this is a short note on the beat followed by a long note. This pattern is significant in that music most commonly consist of the reverse: long notes followed by short notes. The Scottish Snap is commonly found in Scottish music, especially Scottish song tunes or English tunes based on Scottish melodies. Thus, the Gaelic/Scottish influence figures in the music from the very start and in the most pivotal piece.

lotm_theme_sheet_music.jpg (129498 bytes)

Other Recordings of the "Main Title"

As mentioned above, the "Main Title" in the movie and on the CD consists simply of an A-A-B pattern. However, the LOTM "Main Title" appears on two other CD recording, and in both cases the piece is much longer than we are used to hearing, as it 3:03 in one and 3:16 in another rather than the 1:44 in the movie and on the CD. In these other recordings, the length comes from doubling the structure, as they both consist of an A-A-B-B-A-A pattern. Since both have this structure and are based on the original score without being manipulated to fit movie scenes and vice versa, one can assume the "Main Title" was originally the full 3+ minutes in length and was cut in half for the filming and editing cues.

The "Main Title" is orchestrated differently in each of these two version, meaning that the conductor has chosen to use different instruments than were used in the movie and CD soundtrack versions; usually this is done to suit a conductor's personal taste and/or the instruments and musicians at hand. In both instances, drums are used more heavily, as is brass which is used to double the principle melody played by the strings; in the movie the brass play their own counter-melody. Also, both of these orchestrations use a gong at key points, which is very effective. Finally, during the repeat of the section A, drums are added again, making the ending much grander and more militaristic than the movie version. The movie version, though, has more feeling, is more soulful.

  • The Big Picture In 1997, the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra recorded a CD entitled "The Big Picture", a selection of 24 movie themes from a variety of movies and by many composers, conducted by Erich Kunzel. This recording, which is one of a limited number of recordings in full Dolby Surround Stereo, includes "Main Title [sic] from 'The Last of the Mohicans' [ by] Trevor Jones". It also includes "Main Title from Gettysburg [by] Randy Edelman", as well as three contributions––themes from Apollo 13, Jumanji, and Braveheart––from one of the most successful movie composers, James Horner (also of Titanic fame.) One review of the recording states, "the performance of the main titles [sic] from Last of the Mohicans lacks the grand sincerity of the original, but is still entertaining."

    Kunzel went for a true symphonic, orchestral (that is, BIG) sound. He added a heavy dose of kettle drums and more bass drum and, during the second A section, and adds bells playing a portion of the melody (which is not an effective addition). The piece ends with a truly symphonic fermata, which means that the last notes are held for a significant amount of time, which tends to turn it into a show piece rather than a show-stopper. This CD is on the Telarc label, #CD-80437 (available at via this website).

  • Cinema's Classic Romances In 1998, an obscure label called Silva Screen Records released Cinema's Classic Romances, a collection of themes from movie "romances", recorded by the City of Prague Orchestra. Some of the other movies represented are Much Ado About Nothing (soundtrack to which is a personal favorite of this writer), Romeo and Juliet, Sense and Sensibility, and the award-winning The English Patient.

    The LOTM "Main Title" on this CD begins with a more militaristic feeling from the use of snare drums, which are sharper and more prominent than the deeper drums used in the movie; the snare drums are also used in the dramatic repeat of the A section. This recording makes much greater use of horns, especially trumpets and trombones. Additionally, the long notes are held even longer, so that they hang in the air even more than in the original. If anything, this recording is even more majestic and awe-inspiring than the "original" versions, but as with Kunzel's recording, it is less soul-full than the LOTM movie version. This recording is on the Silva label, #SILKD6018 (available at via this website).

People interested in compilations such as these (a great way to own the best of many movies) should remember that these recordings are based on the conductor's interpretation of the music. The differences may not be to everyone's liking. Still, having that long play of the "Main Title" to listen to is a treat.
On to "Elk Hunt"
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