Home > Reviews > QUO VADIS – Miklós Rózsa

QUO VADIS – Miklós Rózsa

quovadisMOVIE MUSIC UK CLASSICS

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producer Sam Zimbalist and director Mervyn LeRoy saw an opportunity to create a grand epic by adapting Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1896 novel Quo Vadis. They hired a fine cast, which included Robert Taylor (Marcus Vinicius), Deborah Kerr (Lygia), Peter Ustinov (Nero) and Leo Glenn (Petronius). Set in imperial Rome during the reign of the maniacal emperor Nero (54 – 68 C.E.) we see a love story unfold between the pagan Marcus and the Christian Lygia. Our lovers are caught in the tide of history as an increasingly mad Nero terrorizes his court and ultimately sets Rome aflame in a stunning horrific conflagration. To cover his guilt Nero falsely blames the Christians and unleashes a reign of terror with gruesome executions in the Coliseum. Through their ensuing travails, Marcus converts and our lovers manage an escape to Sicily as an avenging mob, now aware that Nero burned Rome, storms the palace and brings Nero to a well-deserved end. The film was both a commercial and critical success, earning eight Academy Award nominations.

Miklós Rózsa was a rising star in Hollywood and a natural choice for the film. It was felt that his warm, modal and melodic style would provide the grand sweep required for this epic film. He sought to infuse his score to the extent possible, with ancient musical forms and so did extensive research and adaptation. Since no ancient Roman musical script existed, he borrowed from surviving Greek sources from which Roman music later sprung. He also chose to augment the orchestra with instruments from antiquity, which included lyres, cytharas, buccina, salphinx, ethnic drums, sistrums and an exotic array of percussion. Given the complexity of the film’s spiritual narrative, he chose to infuse his score with a multiplicity of fine themes, motifs, songs, hymns, chorus, exotic dances as well as imperial fanfares and military marches. In doing so he achieved a rare and perfect synergy between imagery and music.

The opening “Overture” is a powerful and dramatic score highlight, which features fine interplay between the principle Lygia’s and Marcus’ Themes. The juxtaposition of his strong, French horn laden and martial music and her tender lyrical flow born by strings and woodwinds is just wonderful. Rózsa alludes to the film’s spiritual narrative by infusing a religioso coloring to the piece through a sequence of dramatic major chords, which play against the entwined thematic flow. “Main Title/Appian Way”, also a score highlight, opens the film as we see Marcus returning with his troops from victorious campaigns in Britannia. Once again Rózsa makes a grand statement by juxtaposing his themes. Set against contrapuntal heraldic Roman fanfare we hear the glorious resound of the religioso choral Quo Vadis Domine Theme. The theme rises up upon bass voices, adds tenor voices, and finally soprano voices, which all join and ascend in communion to culminate wondrously in a grand fortissimo climax! This is why I love film music!

“Calvary” features a spoken narrative, which speaks of the brutal power of the Roman state, but portends of its demise by Christianity as we see scenes of Christ’s crucifixion. This brief religioso cue is animated by the Quo Vadis Domine Theme, now rendered reverently by alto flute, muted horns, harp and strings brillante. We segue in “Marcus’ Chariot” to an outraged Marcus who rides furiously to the palace after Nero denies him entry into Rome at the head of his troops. Horns irato propel Marcus’ Theme with potent power and dynamism, which subsides to a diminuendo as he enters the palace. “Lygia” features our lovers’ first encounter, which goes badly when she is repelled by his arrogant presumption. I love this cue as it features interplay of a contemplative Marcus’ Theme on alto flute and harp and Lygia’s Theme born by woodwinds and strings teneramente. Her theme’s full beauty is revealed when Rózsa introduces its B phrase on solo oboe, violas with harp accents, which flow against contrapuntal chords of the Quo Vadis Domine Theme, and later her A phrase. This is just inspired writing! At 3:28 in “Hymn to Apollo” we segue to a dinner party hosted by Lygia’s Master, Plautius, where Marcus continues to offend her with tales of his bloody conquests. To support the ambiance, Rózsa adapts an ancient Greek hymn now carried by a melodic line of guitar, harps and solo oboe, which is doubled atop by flute and below by bassoon. This is just exquisite writing!

“Marcus and Lygia” reveals yet another futile attempt by Marcus to seduce and impose himself on Lygia. This complex cue features interplay of Marcus’s Theme, Lygia’s Theme and an introduction of the Faith Theme, a canticle-like melodic line born by solemn strings and woodwind echoes. Rózsa infuses a religioso ambiance as Lygia’s and the Faith Theme entwine, intoning that Marcus’ path to her heart must come through her faith, not by force of personality. Discordance is heard as a frustrated Marcus forces himself upon her, only to be forestalled by her massive guardian Ursus. We conclude with “Preghiera” where the Faith Theme returns as Lygia prays for Marcus. “Dance of the Vestal Virgins” is a celebratory cue set at the Forum where we see Nero bestow honor to Marcus for his victories. Born joyously by woodwinds, strings and chorus we share in Marcus’ triumph. “Fanfares for Nero” is a horn lover’s dream, which is repeated on four occasions in the score! Heraldic horns grandioso announce Nero’s appearance and are joined by a magnificent display of antiphonal horn work as Marcus’ procession commences. Wow! Next we have a powerhouse cue, which brings the house down! In the grand “Hail Nero” Rózsa reaffirms mastery of his art by treating us to a stunning and bravado Marcia Vittorioso. Rendered in ternary form ABA, Marcus’ Theme is emoted as the B phrase to mark his glorious honor. This is just epic writing, Bravo!

In “Eunice”, Eunice who is a slave conceals her unrequited love for her master Petronius. To emote her silent longings Rózsa introduces Eunice’s Theme, born on alto flute with harp accents, which culminates with aching beauty upon strings appassionato. In “The Hostage”, a contemplative Lygia strolls in her garden when guards shatter the tranquility and forcibly take her to Nero’s palace. We are treated to interplay of Lygia’s Theme on cellos with the Faith Theme, which is later joined by a threatening martial motif as the guards arrive. In “The Women’s Quarters of Nero” Lygia is remanded to Acte, former lover and mistress of “Nero’s House of Women”. Ethnic woodwinds, subtle percussion and pizzicato strings emote a strolling exotic ambiance. “The Burning of Troy” features an insufferable Nero ‘entertaining’ his guests. We hear a song adorned with twinkling harp, which Rózsa adapted from the ancient Greek melody “Skolion of Seikilos”.

The following four cues are kindred in that they all feature source music dances created by Rózsa to support the ambiance of Nero’s royal feast. “Roman Bacchanale” is a wild, exciting and festive exotic dance adorned with tambourine accents, which shifts to and fro from one dynamic rhythm to another! In “Assyrian Dance” we are treated to a seduction, as a sensual dancer entertains. We hear spirited interplay by an English horn, kindred woodwinds and exotic percussion, which ebb, flow and ultimately crescendo to an astounding erotic climax. “Siciliana Antiqua” is an intricate, exotic and Arabic infused cue that features amazing writing for woodwinds with delicate percussion, pizzicato strings and tambourine accents. I love this cue. Lastly, we have the sprightly “Dance of the Muses” emoted by woodwinds, percussion and pizzicato strings, which plays a Lygia leaves the feast.

“Escape” reveals Ursus battling guards and freeing Lygia. Eerie tremolo strings sow tension until we explode into harsh staccato strikes with strings irato as the fight unfolds. Gentile woodwinds muted horns and sul ponticello violins emote a scene change as Plautius awaits news of Lygia. At 1:27 we segue into “Petronius and Eunice” where Eunice at last confesses her love to Petronius. This supremely beautiful cue is a score highlight. We hear Eunice’s Theme with its A phrase emoted by flutes and its B phrase by woodwinds and strings. At 2:36 we flow into Petronius’ Theme, a warm romantic and sumptuous melodic line carried by cello nobile and violins. Oh what I would give for an extended passage here! At 3:27 we segue into” Chilo” which offers a fine interplay of the serpentine Danger Motif and the Quo Vadis Domine Theme on woodwinds and strings as Marcus discovers the path to Lygia’s lies through the Ichthus symbol; the fish that marks the Christian faith.

This next ternary cue reveals Marcus finding Lygia, observing Paul baptizing converts in a hidden grotto and Peter preaching the salvation gained by Christ’s death and resurrection. We open with the religioso “Jesu Lord”, which features a traditional liturgical choral Kyrie. At 2:00 we segue into “The Last Supper” atop a brief solemn statement of the Quo Vadis Domine Theme and conclude at 2:24 with the stirring “Resurrection Hymn” emoted by inspired chorus. In “Vae Victis” Ursus and Marcus ambush spies who are trailing them. Rózsa opens with the serpentine Danger Motif from which explodes at 0:52 some truly fierce and discordant fight music. At 2:33 we segue atop a solo English horn weakly emoting Marcus’ Theme into “Caritas” as Ursus carries a wounded Marcus to safety. Clarinet, harp and angelic woodwinds emote Lygia’s nursing of his wounds as a tortured string line speaks to Ursus’ grief from killing another man.

The following ternary cue is just outstanding and a score highlight. In “Mea Culpa” Rózsa provides beautiful interplay of Lygia’s Theme born by angelic strummed harp and violins, and Marcus’ Theme on cello as she waits for Marcus to awaken. In “Non Omnia Vincit Amor” the lovers affirm their love and we hear a refulgent and lush expression of Lygia’s Theme, now transformed into a stirring Love Theme. As Lygia’s entreats Marcus to join her in the new faith a solemn Quo Vadis Domine Theme rises toward crescendo, only to dissipate as Marcus fails to commit. At 3:10 we conclude with “Temptation”, which offers a passionate entwining of their themes as Paul speaks to Marcus of Lygia’s love of Christ, yet Marcus angrily refuses to give up his Roman heritage and storms out as a plaintive solo cello emotes Lygia’s Theme to mark her grief. “Eunice’s Song at Antium” features Eunice singing a tender variant of her theme to strummed lyre as Marcus and Petronius play chess. We conclude with trepidation in “Petronius’ Presentiment” upon tremolo strings and sul ponticello strings as Poppea summons Marcus to the palace. Yet Eunice’s Theme on strings sooths him as he departs.

“Marcus and Poppea” reveals a jealous Poppea threatening Marcus over Lygia. Rózsa employed the ancient “Hymn to the Sun Theme” by Mesomedes to animate this scene, which he infuses with pastoral woodwinds, harp, soft percussion, tambourine and pizzicato strings. This is nicely done as the music plays against the on screen tension. “Chariot Chase” is a stunning score highlight! As a Nero announces the death of Rome by fire Marcus races to save Lygia with Poppea’s guard in hot pursuit. Rózsa provides a complex interplay of themes to relentless drive the action. Marcus’ Theme contests with The Hymn Of The Sun Theme and a wood percussive motif as he drives headlong to rescue his beloved. A classic accelerando occurs at 1:34 as Rózsa escalates the urgency of the music with the Quo Vadis Domine Theme and a shearing string ostinato playing in counterpoint!

Originally conceived as a two part film with an intermission, this cue “Prelude to Second Part/The Road to Rome/The Burning of Rome” was to be Rózsa’s intermezzo. When the intermission was scrapped, so too was the music. This astounding cue is a score highlight and features a rich interplay of themes. We open dramatically with Marcus’ Theme, which is countered by a sharp string ostinato adorned with animated woodwinds. A sense of urgency is felt as low register strings take up his theme. When Marcus arrives at the burning city at 1:21, the dire Hymn To The Sun Theme sounds. Rózsa brilliantly utilizes celli and low register horns, which are countered by violins, celesta, woodwinds and harp to emote the conflagration. Marcus’s Theme continues to sound as he searches for Lygia in the chaos. A new Burning Rome Motif with contrapuntal trilling woodwinds sounds at 4:00. Slowly, yet inexorably atop his theme an impassioned crescendo begins at 5:09 on violins with contrapuntal horns that climaxes with Lygia’s Theme at 5:31 as Marcus finds her! Yet The Hymn Of The Sun Theme severs the melodic line as Praetorian guards block their escape route. As the crowd breaks through a diminuendo ensues as we change scenes to Nero’s court where an appalled Petronius watches Rome burn in horror. In “The Burning of Rome” the full extent and horror of Nero’s madness is fully exposed as he proclaims himself a god and sings a truly perverse effigy. Rózsa adapted the song from the Gregorian anthem “Omnes sitientes venite ad aquas”.

In “Tu Es Petrus” we again hear a fine interplay of themes. A grim line by low register strings reveals Nero falsely blaming the destruction of Rome on the Christians. Later, Lygia’s Theme warmly ascends as she is reunited with Marcus. A somber Faith Theme carried by woodwinds plays as Lygia fails to reconcile Marcus to her faith. As Peter greets an exiting Marcus, Rózsa provides a more intimate yet sad rendering of the Jesu Lord Theme by string septet. This rendering of the theme is perfectly conceived. In “Petronius’ Meditation/Petronius’ Decision” Rózsa uses his theme to emote a stirring pathos as a despondent Petronius resolves to end his life. A full statement of his theme unfolds on solo English horn and violas with contrapuntal flutes, which evoke the despair of his complicity in Nero’s reign of terror. The theme shifts to bass clarinet at 1:30 as he advises Eunice that he will end his life on his own terms. “The Prison” reveal Marcus being imprisoned with Lygia and other Christians. Dark and foreboding music plays and entwines with Lygia’s Theme and later the Faith Theme. At 2:19 we segue into another score highlight, the ethereal “The Vision of Peter” where a stirring spiritual transcendence is evoked. Having left Rome, Peter stops on the road and beholds a Divine Light, which counsels him to return to Rome. Rózsa emotes the theophany with celesta, harp, shifting string harmonics and sparkling glockenspiel, which interplays with the Quo Vadis Domine Theme, sung by wordless female choir.

“Petronius’ Banquet Music” reveals Petronius feasting with friends one last time as his theme plays in dance form. At 0:36 we segue atop a harsh chord into “Petronius’ Death” where he has a physician slit his wrist. Not willing to live apart, Eunice grabs the knife and joins him in death. Rózsa emotes the pathos of this tragic scene of expiation with an aching interplay of their themes. The festive “Ave Caesar” reveals restive crowds at the coliseum set to watch the slaughter of Christians. Rózsa scores the energetic scene using a marcia festivamente. “First Arena Fanfare/Where O Death?/Second Arena Fanfare/Resurrection Hymn” reveals Nero ordering the slaughter of Christians. Rózsa demonstrates mastery of his craft by juxtaposing the harsh martial fanfares of the Roman state with two a capella songs of faith sung by the Christians. In the “Third Arena Fanfare” we see the last group of Christians slaughtered. At 0:12 in “Aftermath” Nero walks among the dead and is vexed by the parting smiles on their faces. The Resurrection Theme plays over a grim melodic line, again juxta-opposing Nero and Christians. At 0:54 we segue into “Hymen” which is a sublime score highlight! As we see an imprisoned Peter preaching, Rózsa unfolds his themes in stirring interplay; the Quo Vadis Domine Theme on woodwinds, Lygia’s Theme led by solo cello, Marcus’s Theme on low register strings, a refulgent Faith Theme when Marcus accepts Christ, and lastly the Jesu Lord Theme, which entwines with Lygia’s Theme as our lovers unite in love and faith. Bravo! At 4:40 we conclude brilliantly with “Ecce Homo Petrus”. We begin with a reprise of the dark “Aftermath” line. Slowly we ascend to a glorious crescendo atop strings, horns magnifico and wordless choir for a stirring and refulgent affirmation in the Divine.

In “Fanfare for Burning/Incarnate Godhead/Fifth Fanfare for Nero/Fanfare for Ursus & Lygia/Upon These Lilies” Marcus and Lygia are led to be executed with fellow Christians, with Marcus ordered by vengeful Poppea to watch Lygia die first. Rózsa again juxta-opposes the martial fanfare of Nero with a religioso a capella rendering of the Ambrosian chant “Aeterna rerum conditor” sung by the Christians. A mocking song by Nero concludes the cue. In “Fanfare for the Bull” Nero orders Lygia’s death with the release of the bull. “Finis Poppaea” reveals Ursus breaking the bull’s neck and saving Lygia. When Marcus escapes his bonds and announces General Galba will soon arrive to free Rome, Nero and Poppea flee. Rózsa portends Nero and Poppea’s fate by emoting Nero’s Fanfare as a dark marcia funebre. From out this dirge rises the Burning Of Troy Theme, which builds to a hideous crescendo as Nero blames Poppea for his demise and strangles her. As he flees with rising terror, the Burning Of Troy Theme builds to a shattering crescendo. We segue at 2:25 into “Nero’s Suicide” where Acte assists a pathetic Nero commit suicide. For the death scene Rózsa introduces his last theme, the Doom Theme, a dark repeating six-note line carried by celli and bass. Slowly a tragic statement of the Burning Of Troy Theme rises and climaxes with the dagger thrust, his life ebbing in a diminuendo echo of strings. This is just a masterful cue.

“Hail Galba” reveals General Galba’s triumphant entry into Rome, which Rózsa supports with an outstanding marcia maestoso! For “Finale and Chorus” as Marcus and Lygia travel to Sicily her theme, now rendered by pastoral woodwinds, harp and strings fills the air. Yet at 0:22 upon crossing the point of Peter’s vision, denoted by his implanted staff, glockenspiel ushers in an ethereal reprise of the “Vision Of Peter” music. From out this rises the Quo Vadis Domine Theme by chorus for a final, joyous affirmation of faith that ends in a glorious flourish. Bravo! In “Epilogue” we conclude with a wondrous score highlight. Rózsa provides a sumptuous rendering of Lygia’s Theme by strings appassionato, which crescendos with a glorious horn trionfonti flourish.

We conclude with the album’s highlight and in your author’s judgment, a masterpiece that earns Rózsa immortality. The ‘Quo Vadis Concert Suite” was created by Rózsa himself and is arranged in classical form as a concert piece of four movements. We open with the bravado “Ave Caesar”, a marcia trionfonti, which features Marcus’ Theme in astounding interplay with the Quo Vadis Domine Theme. “Romanza” is the heart of the suite, rendered in ABA form, and achingly romantic. We open with Lygia’s Theme, which segues at 2:35 atop French horns nobile into Petronius’ Theme. His theme culminates atop sumptuous strings with pastoral woodwind accents, ultimately surrendering at 4:13 to a final tender reprise of Lygia’s Theme. The festive and exotic “Arabesque” is also rendered in ABA form and features interplay of the Assyrian and Sicilian Antiqua dance themes. We conclude grandly with “Quo Vadis Domine?”, a truly transcendent piece. We open with the sparkling ethereal melody of the “Vision Of Peter Theme”, which segues into the Quo Vadis Domine Theme. Slowly, yet inexorably Rózsa builds the music to a wondrous crescendo. At 2:45 the Resurrection Hymn Theme joins and with each rising statement is countered by statements of the now antiphonal Quo Vadis Domine Theme! The suite culminates in grand fashion with an astounding and glorious horn trionfonti flourish.

Please allow me to thank James Fitzpatrick and Prometheus Records, for this 2 CD Collector’s Edition of the complete score of Quo Vadis. Thanks to Leigh Phillips the score was carefully reconstructed and then expertly performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Nic Raine. The digital sound quality of the album is flawless. This score is one of the finest examples of the ancient epics genre to be found. Rózsa created a multiplicity of great themes and motifs, which interplay with remarkable beauty and complexity. He infused the film with several exotic dances, emoted the martial splendor of Rome and its emperor with outstanding fanfare and marches, and lastly captured the spiritual power of the story with his stirring use of liturgical songs. The first ever digital stereo release of his masterpiece concert suite is a gift for which words fail me. I believe this score to be one of the finest Golden Age scores ever to be written and highly recommend you add it to your collection.

Rating: *****

Buy the Quo Vadis soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • DISC ONE
  • Overture (Intermezzo) (3:01)
  • Main Title (Original Version)/Appian Way (2:25)
  • Calvary/Marcus’ Chariot (1:06)
  • Lygia/Hymn to Apollo (5:15)
  • Marcus and Lygia/Preghiera (5:27)
  • Dance of the Vestal Virgins (1:04)
  • Fanfares for Nero/Hail Nero (Triumphal March) (4:13)
  • Eunice/The Hostage (1:41)
  • The Women’s Quarters of Nero/Roman Bacchanale (5:26)
  • Third Fanfare for Nero/Assyrian Dance (3:55)
  • The Burning of Troy (1:44)
  • Fanfare for the Wrestlers/Siciliana Antiqua/Dance of the Muses (4:33)
  • Escape/Petronius and Eunice/Chilo (5:18)
  • Jesu Lord/The Last Supper/Resurrection Hymn (Orchestra and Choir) (3:44)
  • Vae Victis/Caritas (5:48)
  • Mea Culpa/Non Omnia Vincit Amor/Temptation (4:09)
  • Eunice’s Song at Antium/Petronius’ Presentiment (2:35)
  • Marcus and Poppaea (2:35)
  • Chariot Chase (3:43)
  • DISC TWO
  • Prelude to Second Part/The Road to Rome/The Burning of Rome (7:03)
  • The Burning of Rome (Nero’s Fire Song) (2:41)
  • Tu Es Petrus (3:30)
  • Petronius’ Meditation/Petronius’ Decision (2:29)
  • The Prison/The Vision of Peter (4:02)
  • Petronius’ Banquet Music/Petronius’ Death (Parts 1 & 2) (3:03)
  • Ave Caesar/Fourth Fanfare for Nero (1:14)
  • First Arena Fanfare/Where O Death?/Second Arena Fanfare/Resurrection Hymn (A Cappella Choir) (3:22)
  • Third Arena Fanfare/Aftermath/Hymen/Ecce Homo Petrus (5:46)
  • Fanfare for Burning/Incarnate Godhead/Fifth Fanfare for Nero/Fanfare for Ursus & Lygia/Upon These Lilies (2:20)
  • Fanfare for the Bull/Finis Poppaea/Nero’s Suicide (5:50)
  • Hail Galba (1:31)
  • Finale and Chorus (2:31)
  • Epilogue (2:36)
  • Main Title (Film Version) – Bonus (1:32)
  • Ave Caesar (Triumphal March) – Concert Suite (4:16)
  • Romanza – Concert Suite (6:45)
  • Arabesque – Concert Suite (3:54)
  • Quo Vadis Domine? – Concert Suite (4:10)

Running Time: 136 minutes 36 seconds

Tadlow Music/Prometheus XPD-172 (1951/2012)

Music composed by Miklós Rózsa. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Original orchestrations by Eugene Zador. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Album produced by James Fitzpatrick and Luc Van de Ven.

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  1. Richard Reese-Laird (Rick)
    January 10, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Wow, Craig. That wasn’t a review- that was a full-blown essay.
    And a damned fine one, sir. A truly great read.
    Thanks for the hard work you put into that (and, yeah, that piece of music deserved it).

  2. Sir Cecil
    July 27, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    “The digital sound quality of the album is flawless”. You must be listening to something different to me. I hear only utter congestion and distortion in the many loud passages that make those parts virtually unlistenable. Quieter passages are fine and expertly performed, but the louder sections are OBLITERATED with ATROCIOUS sound. I can scarcely believe anyone could reach any other conclusion. Tadlow has recorded any number of superb scores with outstanding results that I love, so I get no pleasure from saying this is among the worst re-recordings of an important score I have heard. Note that I do not criticize the performance, only the truly awful sound.

  3. A.
    May 16, 2017 at 5:59 am

    I wuld like to know who really tacles the bull…

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