|The Story of Shep's Theme
by Steve Glazer
|All serious Shep fans -- not those whose knowledge is derived solely from multitudinous cable showings of A Christmas Story -- immediately recognize the bugle call sounding the beginning of one of his radio broadcasts. For those of us fortunate enough to have frequently listened to him on WOR radio during his 21-year nighttime stint, those notes introducing his theme music elicit a Pavlovian anticipation of the fun to follow. Here is the story behind Shep's theme, more formally known as Bahn Frei!, Polka-schnell, Op. 45, by Eduard Strauss.
Eduard Strauss (1835-1916) was one of three sons of Johann Strauss I. Together with Eduard's older brothers -- Johann Strauss II ("The Waltz King") and Josef Strauss -- the family dominated Viennese light music in late 19th-century Austria. Eduard (known as "Edi" to family and friends) labored in the shadow of his two older brothers and father. Although primarily known in his time as a conductor of dance music, Eduard nevertheless carved out a niche composing music in the style of "polka-schnell" or "quick polka," sometimes also referred to as "galop.
At the same time the Strauss musical dynasty reigned in ballrooms and concert halls in central Europe, the continent was captivated by rapid advances being made in communications and transportation, especially with ever-expanding railways. The Strauss family, as well as other popular composers of the time, capitalized on the confluence of prevailing tastes in dance music and the public's interest in travel by rail. Numerous fast-tempo compositions referencing trains were written. Those by Eduard included titles such as Mit Dampf ("Full Steam"), and Ohne Bremse ("Without Brakes"). However, his most popular and enduring composition in this vein - indeed, probably of all Eduard's works - was Bahn Frei!
Bahn Frei! - most properly rendered with an exclamation point! - has been variously translated into English as Clear Track, Clear the Track, Track Clear, Rail Free, Fast Track, Free Track, Open Track, Go Ahead, and Make Way. As one musicologist described the gist of the title's historical meaning: "It was not unusual, once one boarded the train, for there to be a delay before the train would be on its way. Bahn Frei! meant the track is free, all clear, we can go."
Bahn Frei! premiered at the Diana-Saal Ballroom in Vienna on February 17, 1869. The piece was dedicated to the committee of a ball organized by officials of the Imperial and Royal Privileged Northern Railway. It was originally arranged for an orchestra, but it was later performed by all kinds and sizes of musical ensembles, both chamber and orchestral. Virtually all later arrangements of Bahn Frei! -- at least well into the 20th century -- were apparently faithful to its original metaphorical roots. The piece was firmly situated in the sub-genre of music devoted to travel by train. Indeed, even today there are numerous musical anthologies of train music, especially in Europe, where Bahn Frei! prominently appears. Nevertheless, near the close of World War II, a transformation of thevenerable polka would take place at the hands of an inspired New Englander.
As the war was nearing its climactic end, Arthur Fiedler was planning a concert for his Boston "Pops," a popular orchestra that specialized in short and light classics. Fiedler wanted to include a performance of Bahn Frei!, a work for which he apparently had some fondness. The learned conductor, who had resided and studied in both Berlin and Vienna before the war, certainly would have been familiar with the background of the Austrian polka. Moreover, he would have known of the significance of trains in Germany, which regarded them as examples of technological prowess and efficiency. Fiedler was also a prominent Jew. One can only imagine his likely sensitivity to performing a piece from the Third Reich celebrating trains, which were known by then to be transporting hundreds of thousands of people to concentration camps, including Mauthausen in Strauss's native land. Mauthausen, nicknamed "the bone grinder" in Nazi circles, was the final destination for many of Europe's intelligentsia, including musicians, thought to be enemies of the Reich. In any event, Fiedler turned to a frequent collaborator with the orchestra -- Percival Thomas Bodge (1889-1980), professionally known as Peter Bodge -- to pen an entirely new arrangement of Bahn Frei!, one, as it turns out, not alluding to trains.
Bodge was born and raised in Westbrook, Maine. While still a teenager, he became a professional musician. By 1907, he settled in Boston, where he played in and conducted several orchestras, as well as arranged music. In about 1932, Bodge was hired by the Shepard Broadcasting Company's Yankee Network, which included Boston radio station WNAC, where Bodge would remain as musical director for many years. (Shep's radio show, theme and all, would later be broadcast on WNAC.) At the same time, Bodge often worked with Fiedler and the Boston Pops, for whom Bodge arranged dozens of musical pieces for concert performance. On April 10, 1945 -- less than a month before Germany's surrender -- Bodge's arrangement of Bahn Frei! was performed by Fiedler's orchestra and recorded by RCA Victor. The newly arranged polka opened with a readily recognizable race-track bugle call named "Call to the Post," followed by the unmistakable sounds, tempos and rhythms of galloping horses.
In April 1946, one year after its initial performance in Boston, Eduard's recast polka -- included in a 3-record collection of six pieces titled "Strauss Polkas" -- was released as side 6 of RCA Victor Red Seal Album M 1049 (Record 10-1207-B). On the record's label, the piece was identified as "Bahn Frei-Polka (Fast Track)." Peter Bodge was also given full credit for the orchestral arrangement. Indeed, Bodge received U.S. Copyright EP136324 for his composition, which he had registered as a "galop."
During the last week of April 1946, the collection of Strauss polkas was nationally advertised. On April 29, Life magazine carried a full-page advertisement, featuring a large portrait of Fiedler. That same week, widespread newspaper ads appeared for the album. The classical polka collection was widely marketed on college campuses and at record stores. Demonstration copies of the album were also doubtlessly sent to radio stations in major markets throughout the country, in the hope that a disk jockey would play, if not recommend, the recordings.
At least one Midwestern disk jockey took the bait. Jean Shepherd joined the on-air staff of Cincinnati radio station WSAI in January 1947. By the summer, he was playing records at the station both in the early morning and late evening hours. In July, he apparently obtained a new sponsor -- Bay Horse Ale, bottled by Heidelberg Brewing Company -- based in Covington, Kentucky, where Shep was then living. The trademarked label of the locally brewed brand included three bay horses, which by all appearances could have been at the start of a race.
On or about Saturday, July 26, 1947, Shep premiered his newly sponsored program on WSAI immediately following the midnight news. The record show was called, appropriately enough, "Bay Horse Opera." The show's theme music, also appropriately enough, was Peter Bodge's horsy arrangement of Bahn Frei!, which would remain Shep's on-air theme for the next three decades, even if the original sponsor was out of business not long after the premiere of its radio program.
In later years, Shep would not reveal in public the true origin of his theme music, let alone acknowledge having been on WSAI. The closest he came was in an interview on The Larry King Show. Shep there rightly attributed his long-time theme to Bay Horse Ale being his sponsor, but claimed that Bahn Frei! was first used on his "Rear Bumper" program on WLW-TV, which would have been in 1953. However, in reality, Shep had worked at WLW six years after "Bay Horse Opera" first aired on WSAI radio, and some four years after the Kentucky beer ceased even being distributed.
From time to time, Shep also attributed beginning each radio show with Bahn Frei! to its inferior quality. As he stated during an interview in the last year of his life, "I played that because it's such a bad piece of music that I thought it set the tone." As someone who knew music, Shep's comment was probably more comedic than heartfelt.
Bahn Frei! has always received a warm reception, especially Bodge's arrangement. In fact, within a year of the RCA Victor release conducted by Fiedler, Columbia Records pressed its own version of Bodge's arrangement, performed by Erich Leinsdorf and the Cleveland Orchestra Columbia 12543-D). It was titled -- with no bow to subtlety or translation accuracy -- "Race Track Galop."
Critics have also long been kind to Bahn Frei! Here is how one modern reviewer of classical music describes Eduard Strauss's most popular polka, which has been included in some 70 classical albums within the past two decades alone: "It is a vibrant, colorful work filled with playfulness and joy. The main theme gallops along with almost ecstatic high spirits in a radiant world that has no need for Prozac or pills, only a need for festive celebration. The music effervesces both in its arch-shaped main theme and mostly descending second subject. The brief middle section, too, comprised of variants on the main material, is also vivacious and full of cheer. The opening theme returns to close out this joyous piece with a rousing finish. Lasting slightly over two minutes, this delightful work will appeal to most listeners interested in light classics." Although one could perhaps quibble with some of the exuberance of the reviewer, the fact remains that Bahn Frei! is a perennial favorite of many orchestras, especially around the New Year, when it is performed throughout Europe and North America, and even in China and Japan.
But perhaps the highest praise we can give Bahn Frei! is simply this: One cannot imagine any other piece of music more evocative of Shep's exhortation of "Excelsior!" The master storyteller realized this while still a tadpole swimming in the waters of southwestern Ohio.
Hear It Again!