Bronislaw Kaper's music for The Way West (1967) was just about the last classic Western movie score ever written that was done in a broad, epic style without any sense of irony until John Barry's music for Dances with Wolves appeared two decades later. But Kaper's music comes from an even older tradition, dating to Dimitri Tiomkin's score for Red River (1948) and, in its use of choral music and folk melodies, to a theatrical tradition decades older than that, and the influence of such figures as Aaron Copland and Roy Harris. The Polish-born Kaper had scored a handful of Westerns in the previous decade and, perhaps recognizing the nature of time, mortality, and public taste, understood that The Way West might well be his last chance to deal with the American West in musical terms. The film was also, at least in its conception, one of the larger cinematic canvases of its kind that anyone was ever likely to see again. As it turned out, the screenplay, co-authored by former blacklistee Ben Maddow, left so many loose ends that one had the feeling that United Artists had sharply reduced the budget during production, so that what was seen on the screen was really three (or more) hours of plot jammed into a two-hour finished film. Kaper lived up to his expectations, however -- if his action themes didn't have the growl or drive of Tiomkin's music in similar circumstances, he made up for it with his expansive main title theme, which works equally well as an instrumental drenched in sonorous strings or as a choral piece (sung by the Serendipity Singers). Tracks such as "We're Crossing First," underscoring a fight to ford a river ahead of what appears to be another wagon train, follow in the same Copland-esque tradition as the title tune, and none of what's here is very distant from that composer's "Billy the Kid" or "Rodeo," or even his score for The Red Pony. "Flowers for Mr. Mack" is a more lyrical realization of the same tradition, and Kaper pretty much stays in that mode throughout "Water and Billy's Death," "Lige Celebrates," and the tragic "On to Crystal City." Other tracks, such as "Buffalos and Indians," are more densely textured and closer to European concert music. As the composer had no training at the podium, the score is conducted by André Previn, in one of his very last appearances as a Hollywood conductor before he moved permanently into the concert hall. The Serendipity Singers' other contribution, "Mercy McBee," is more in the tradition of their standard folk-pop sound, without the sheer power of the title track but with an engaging lyricism and delicacy (in the movie the song comes out appropriately rougher).
Given the obvious attention paid to the music, one of the ironies about The Way West as an album is that it had a major flaw in its original issue on United Artists Records. The track "I Killed Him (Execution)" always had a flaw which resulted in a shifting dropout between the two stereo channels, a defect that was repeated in the LP reissue from MCA -- and which was edited out, creating an artificial pause, in the EMI reissue; the latter CD also removed one other track entirely. Finally, in 2009, 42 years after the soundtrack's original release, producer Douglass Fake and Intrada Records re-released The Way West as a limited-edition CD, with that dropout repaired and all of the tracks restored.