The piece presents in music three scenes from the old American West.
I. Iron Horse
“Iron horse” was the name allegedly given by American Indians to the locomotive. The idea of a transcontinental railroad had been already proposed in the 1840s, but construction began first in the 1860s. On May 10, 1869, the rails of the Central Pacific coming from the West and those of the Union Pacific coming from the East were joined at Promontory Summit in Utah. Within twenty years, a huge rail network spanned the West. Travel to the West became relatively fast and easy, and populations of Western states and territories increased dramatically within two decades.
In this movement, we hear the steam engine of the train approaching far in the distance. It gradually approaches at great speed with great noise, and slows to a halt to take on passengers, freight, and fuel. Then it starts up again and moves off out of sight over the horizon.
II. Elegy for the Plains Buffalo
The American Bison, commonly known as the buffalo, numbered as many as 50 million in the first part of the 19th century. Enormous herds blackened the Great Plains of the central United States – until the white man with his repeating rifle came and slaughtered the great beasts. By 1889 the hunters were astonished to find no more buffalo. In a little more than a decade, they had been ruthlessly hunted to near-extinction. Ten years before the end of the century, there were less than a hundred wild buffalo left. This also spelled final defeat (and starvation) for the Plains Indians, who depended on the animals for food, clothing, and fuel.
The movement alternates a solemn, meditative character with frantic reminiscences of the hunt. The sounds of tuned wine glasses and the Indian rattle add an unearthly atmosphere, evoking a prairie that is now inhabited by huge herds of buffalo no more – only the spirits and memories of a former time.
Unlike the romantic image portrayed in western films, the cowboy’s job was long, dirty, difficult, uncomfortable, and poorly paid. With the coming of spring, his work began again with the annual six-week round-up of the cattle that had spread out over a huge area around the range. A cowboy arose each day at 3:30 a.m. to select his horse for the day and have breakfast. He then set off searching for cattle, riding as much as 70 miles in a day. There were plenty of dangers in the job with the herding of cattle through rough country and chasing and sometimes tussling with uncooperative calves or ornery steers on the end of a lasso.
This movement starts quietly, depicting the pre-dawn darkness, and then gathers momentum as the round-up continues. In the middle of the piece the music depicts a cowhand having some trouble with some particularly obstreperous steer, but he triumphs in the end.