The Man from Snowy River and Bruce Rowland’s orchestral score

The Man from Snowy River and Bruce Rowland’s orchestral score
Geoff Burrowes
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One of the most widely recognized examples of Australian film music is Bruce Rowland’s orchestral score for The Man from Snowy River (George Miller 1982). Along with other iconic passages of soundtracks (including excerpts from Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Pricilla Queen of the Desert), this music featured at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony - standing in as the sound of Australia. 

In the early part of this clip – where the riders gallop through the bush in pursuit of the wild brumbies – we hear a prominent orchestral string ostinato (i.e. a repeated phrase) in triplets, which imitates the horse footfalls while enhancing the action. This section merges into the main theme (played in brass).  

Then for the famous wild ride down the hillside – showcasing the skilful Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) –the music becomes more sparse, almost silent. The sound of horse hooves punctuates a bedding drone - and helps to accentuate the element of danger. Once Jim reaches the bottom of the hill - seemingly unharmed - he cracks his whip, triggering the introduction of the main theme on triumphant brass and percussion. The chase now resumes.   

When the horses encounter a snow pass, the music becomes higher in pitch and more ethereal in tone and colour - with piano and metallic orchestral percussion such as chimes taking the place of the brass, giving an almost Christmas/festive feel. The higher register also seems to resonate with the high-altitude environment. Once off the snow, we return to the dramatic dynamics of brass which help foreground the Australian high country landscape. The scene concludes with an image of the rider coming to a halt, the only sound being the cracking of his stockwhip. 

The types of orchestral devices found in this sequence and throughout the film echo classical Hollywood compositional and narrative techniques designed to function on subliminal, emotional and dramatic levels. These devices and aesthetics also emphasize the epic quality and spectacle of landscape shots and action sequences. The use of traditional orchestration and narrative techniques equates to a kind of ‘production value’, saying something about the film’s commercial imperatives as well as its intent to appeal to international audiences.

George T Miller
Geoff Burrowes