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Soundtrack review: Ben-Hur (Miklos Rozsa – 1959)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: Ben-Hur (Miklos Rozsa – 1959)

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“Ben-Hur” is a 1959 American epic historical drama film, directed by William Wyler, produced by Sam Zimbalist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and starring Charlton Heston as the title character. Judah Ben-Hur lives as a rich Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century. Together with the new governor his old friend Messala arrives as commanding officer of the Roman legions. At first they are happy to meet after a long time but their different politic views separate them. During the welcome parade a roof tile falls down from Judah’s house and injures the governor. Although Messala knows they are not guilty, he sends Judah to the galleys and throws his mother and sister into prison. But Judah swears to come back and take revenge.

“Ben Hur: A tale of Christ” by Lew Wallace is one of the most famous novels in American literature and not only. As influential as it was, the 1959 movie adaptation matches it with 11 Academy Awards and contains one of the most famous scene in movie history, the chariot race which even 60 years later is still considered a masterpiece and I still wonder how they managed to pull it off in the 50s. In today’s money the budget of the movie would have been something like 122 million dollars and it showed. Along with the movie, the score by Miklos Rozsa is considered, and rightfully so, to be one of the best and most influential film music works in history. Something of that scale, musically, has rarely ever been achieved, something so epic, so memorable, a work that is as big, as vast and as immortal as “War and peace” by Lev Tolstoy is in literature. There have been a lot of releases, the most succinct being the 2011 Film Score Monthly 5CD release which I have listened to countless times. Now, in 2017, Tadlow Music releases a new and improved recording of the complete score.

Reviewing a score like this is not only a difficult task but also seems small in a way, as in the music is too big and important and everybody knows about it and has an opinion about it and generally the opinion is that this score is among the best of all times. I am sure the biggest majority of the people are reading a review of “Ben-Hur” just as an article or as a confirmation of what they felt or thought while listening to this magnificent composition (on which Miklos Rozsa worked for one year) and not as an incentive to listen to it. Just in case, even before laying out my thoughts about this score, I am telling you that if you are a film music fan, you have to listen to “Ben-Hur”.

The main theme, the “Overture” concentrates in little over 6 minutes everything that’s great about the golden age of film music, everything that’s actually great about film music; no matter how many years pass since this theme was written it will still remain one of the greatest moments in music history, any kind of music; the melody, the way the orchestra plays it, the emotion and the epic sound are about as majestic and grandiose as anything every composed. The buildup, the way the different sections of the orchestra come together make me think of something soaring higher than I can see or feel; this is perfection in every sense of the word, a flawless melody, a beautiful yet crushing love theme, a piece that makes me think more of gods than of men. This piece of music will never get old and die and the current restoration brings the quality of the recording at today’s standards and all but dwarfs everything else. You don’t have to be a scholar of music, or a film music fan to be touched by “Overture”; you just have to be a human being with a heart.

Miklos Rozsa gives me these feelings before even getting to the choral work; the first moments when the angelic choir starts singing on “Anno Domini / Star Of Bethlehem / Adoration Of The Magi” awakens eery fibre of nostalgia I might have because it’s that Disney like magical choral sound that a lot of us grew up with; it’s surrounded with flutes and strings to make the entire composition even richer without ever being too heavy or crowded. After a legendary opening it’s time for a fairy tale in the second cue and I rarely find myself needing to write to much for each separate piece of music from a score.

I have listened to “Ben-Hur” a lot of times over the years and yet I ams till discovering new nuances in the music; now I feel as if the composer took each of these perfect cues and made them shine slightly more in one subtle way: first there’s the love theme, then the choral work while the third cue “Fanfare & Prelude / Marcia Romana / Spirit & Sword” is the fanfare piece you have been dreaming of all your life. This is every 40s-60s fanfare you’ve ever heard or the only one you need to hear. Once again the quality of this recording helps me experience the music even better, even clearer. I feel close to the period in which the story takes place when the fanfare comes back in “Salute For Messala / Friendship / Friendship Continued”; it’s as if the music replaces the world around me with the Roman times and places and I feel the need to salute and put on sandals instead of shoes. I don’t think there have ever been richer and more spectacular fanfares done in film music; this is what a 100 piece orchestra can give you and this is what you can rarely have these days anymore.

The score may rest on these thematic pillars but the entire soundscape is rich and rewarding. Even the more “normal” cues are infused with the magic of those pillars as motifs or pieces of motifs anchor throughout the score like ribbons hanged in smaller rooms. The love theme so majestically introduced in “Overture” returns in a smaller scale, not as rousing but just as beautiful, in “Esther / The Unknown Future”. I am usually not one to scout for themes or the way they connect and recur throughout the score but a composition like “Ben Hur” makes this task feel natural and seamless; the same love theme returns in flute for, at its tenderest and most precious, in “Love Theme / Ring For Freedom”; that subtle ethnical sound, that love motif that I already feel as part of me before hearing this cue, and the stunning simplicity of a perfect emotion make this another reason to, yes, love this score. It’s fascinating how it seems Miklos Rozsa started big, bold, large scale before going deeper and deconstructing these themes into just as meaningful pieces for solo instruments, to be enjoyed in smaller doses, to be understood at more levels, to become subtly addictive in more ways.

If the love themes are as tender as butterfly wings the action pieces are stormy and rousing; oh how I would love to be in the room when Ben-Hur is being recorded and see the orchestral perform something like “Condemned* / Escape* / Vengeance”, to pick just the first of the blistering and complex action cues. A long, 11 minutes long suite like “Battle Preparations / The Pirate Fleet / Attack! / Ramming Speed / Battle / Rescue / Roman Sails / The Rowers” is as breathtaking and intense as the rowing scenes themselves; there’s not a moment’s rest or reprieve as the music punishes and affects in the best of ways.

It is fascinating to me how someone can express emotions so clearly through music and transmit to me that exact same feeling as if I was experiencing it myself; a cue like “Nostalgia / Farewell To Rome” with two interconnected string motifs, a deeper cello one and a piercing violin motif, sounds exactly like nostalgia would feel to me, a combination of sadness, heartbreak and determination. This is one of the most simple cues from “Ben-Hur”, one of the quietest and in the same time one of the most memorable for me.

Still, for me, in this unique composition there’s nothing as memorable and as durable as that love theme. Every time it comes up throughout the score (and Balthazar / Balthazar’s World could be my favourite place to find it in) I get goosebumps and not shy ones but at shattering levels; it’s a theme for a love beyond life, beyond human, beyond self and Miklos Rozsa uses it to mark each passage where some form of love appears and makes that love trump everything and feel like the most natural and invincible thing in the world. It’s exactly how I perceive faith or love of God, as something so certain, so natural that it is unrelated to whatever happens on the outside.

There are moments during “Ben-Hur” when my eyes get misty eyed instantly and without warning because of the warmth and kindness the music evokes; a cue like “Homecoming / Memories / Hatred” with that melodic opening that’s like a baldaquin where the veil is made of flute sounds makes me feel like a god, revered, respected, adored; it’s a strange feeling as the music feels like such an undeserved and surreal gift at times that I consider myself spoiled beyond belief to be able to listen to it and experience it at will. There are very few scores from the tens of thousands ever written and from the thousands I’ve listened to myself that make me feel this way; maybe a handful and “Ben-Hur” is definitely one of them. Another thing I almost never do in my reviews is mention specific parts of cues by second but the motif that plays during “Return / Promise / Sorrow / Intermission” starting at 4:56 is the musical piece that gets to me the most; it’s present quite a few times throughout “Ben-Hur” and it’s something indescribably beautiful. It evokes a mix of sadness, love, gratitude, care, resolve. It last until 06:14 into the cue and it’s just one more treasure you can find if you listen to the full recordings. At the 4:20 point in “Valley Of Lepers / The Search / The Uncleans” it appears in another version that, as on cue, brings tears to my eyes; here it grips even tighter with an added violin motif.

Miklos Rozsa also did something else that is as risky and rewarding as everything else about this magnificent work of art: he wrote these hours of music and this rich and emotional score without ever writing music for specific characters; it’s all about the feelings and situations, all about emotions, be they love, hatred, nostalgia, regret. It’s a musical study of a human soul, of any and all human souls with just a slight change in sound, to the organ, whenever Jesus Christ appears; just this small and special concession because otherwise, the emotions he explored through this massive musical compositions can appeal to everyone, be they Roman, Romanian, heroes or villains, kings or beggars.

There is something divine in the both the fury and tenderness of how the music is performed, something perennial that will affect every new generation that is exposed to this. “Ben-Hur” could be the equivalent of the bible in film music and the CD should be mandatory in any drawer; it’s dense and emotionally draining and it’s not something you can listen to in full on a daily basis but it should be there for times or need and you would know exactly which passage you need for comfort at various times.

The journey of listening to the complete recordings of “Ben-Hur”, especially at this quality, is one of the most rewarding a film music fan, or an symphonic music fan, could have. Emotionally there are few composition as rousing and affecting as this one; majestic is too small a word to describe what Miklos Rozsa created here. All the nuances of the story, all the weight and gravity of that period and those lives are transformed into notes, motifs and themes, some quiet and subtle, other heavy and dense as the huge boulders the temples that still stand tall today after 2000 years were made of. At the end of the story Ben-Hur witnesses the crucifixion and the miracle of finding faith and if a transposing a moment like this into music seems like a task way to tall for anyone, just listen to this score from start to finish. It will change your life.

Cue rating: 96 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 137 / 156

Album excellence: 87%

Highlights:
Overture
Anno Domini / Star Of Bethlehem / Adoration Of The Magi
Fanfare & Prelude / Marcia Romana / Spirit & Sword
Salute For Messala / Friendship / Friendship Continued
Esther / The Unknown Future*
Love Theme / Ring For Freedom
Arrest*
Reminiscences
Condemned* / Escape* / Vengeance
The Prison – Part 1 / Behind Grills** / The Prison – Part 2 / Silent Farewell**
The Desert / Exhaustion / The Prince Of Peace / Roman Galley
Salute For Arrius / Quintus Arrius / The Roman Fleet
The Galley (The Rowing Of The Galley Slaves) / Rest
Battle Preparations / The Pirate Fleet / Attack! / Ramming Speed / Battle / Rescue / Roman Sails / The Rowers
Nostalgia / Farewell To Rome
Judea / A Barren Coast*
Balthazar / Balthazar’s World
Homecoming / Memories / Hatred
The Dungeon** / Lepers
Return / Promise / Sorrow / Intermission
Entr’acte (Original Version)
Panem Et Circenses
Circus Fanfares
Fanfare For Circus Parade / Circus Parade (Parade Of The Charioteers)
Ben-Hur Crowned / Bitter Triumph / Aftermath
Valley Of Lepers / The Search / The Uncleans
Road Of Sorrow / The Mount / The Sermon / Frustration
Valley Of The Dead / Tirzah Saved
The Procession To Calvary / The Bearing Of The Cross / Recogniton
The Miracle / Finale
Love Theme From Ben-Hur

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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