Home > Reviews > THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – Elmer Bernstein


October 15, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Legendary producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, who at 72 was nearing the end of a great career, sought to reclaim past glory with a film that would serve as his crowning achievement. After much thought, he found his answer, in his past. He announced to the world in 1952 of his intention to remake his 1923 film, “The Ten Commandments.” DeMille stated that his retelling of the story would focus exclusively on the life of Moses. This epic film’s preparation took five years, with the script alone requiring three years to write, and the actual filming taking two years. DeMille insisted on a timeless script and so hired a quartet of screenplay writers headed by Aeneas MacKenzie to accomplish the task. The team drew upon three contemporary novels; “Prince Of Egypt” by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, “Pillar Of Fire” by Reverend J. H. Ingraham and “On Eagle’s Wing” by Reverend A. E. Southon. Lastly, DeMille insisted on historical accuracy and fidelity to the ancient texts, which included the works of Philo, Josephus, Eusebius, The Midrash and The Holy Scriptures.

To support his ambitions, DeMille assembled a cast for the ages, which included Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Ramses, Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, John Derek as Joshua, Cedric Hardwicke as Seti, Judith Anderson as Memnet, Vincent Price as Baka and John Carradine as Aaron. The Biblical tale is well known and portrays the liberation of the Hebrews by God from servitude in Egypt, under the leadership of his prophet Moses. DeMille was not interesting in a simple retelling of this story and took great pains to flesh out his characters and personalized the story. This approach humanized the story, made it more emotionally accessible, which in the end made the film more dramatic and emotionally compelling. Most critics, including your author believe DeMille achieved his grand ambition. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Film Editing, winning one for Best Special Effects. The film was and continues to be one of the most popular films of all time, and enduring favorite among audiences during the Easter Season.

DeMille’s favorite composer in Hollywood had always been Victor Young, and he was chosen to score the film. However it was at this time that Young’s health had begun to fail from years of over work. Young told DeMille that he could not undertake such a massive project and asked him to entrust the film to the young Elmer Bernstein, who had already been hired to write the dance music, songs, religious chants and fanfares. DeMille was skeptical and so challenged Bernstein with some auditioning and interviews. What swayed him was Bernstein’s answer to a question he posed; “Do you think you could do for film music what Puccini did for opera?” Bernstein paused, reflected, and then answered, “I can’t be sure — but I would love to try.” His genuine and humble response won the day as DeMille asked him “Do you think you could stand me for another six months?

To support DeMille’s desire for authenticity, Bernstein chose to infuse his score with a number of ethnic instruments to provide the necessary musical colors. Among these were the tiple, finger cymbals, sistrum, lyre, lute, tam-tam, marimba, and most notably, the shofar (ram’s horn), which according to Hebraic tradition was the instrument that heralded the Exodus from Egypt thirty-three centuries ago. Also innovative was the use of a Novachord and the Theremin, whose eerie, otherworldly sound supported the grim “Angel of Death” sequence. Bernstein fully understood that his music had to be rich and big, so as to match DeMille’s grand vision. In an interview he related;

“I hope to continue to grow as a musician, but at this moment I cannot even dream of ever again obtaining as important and challenging an assignment as composing the music for “The Ten Commandments” . . . It was a very complex problem since the composition had to express scripture, history and drama in music. The score is composed of symphonic themes identifying momentous events and significant personages as well as the great mass of people through whose trials and triumphs history moves. The music attempts to enhance the experience of actuality and to add to the atmosphere of authenticity. I hope that it also helps to suggest the lasting truth of the film’s inspired message . . . Of all the arts, I strongly feel that music is closest to religion. It is hard to explain what happens at the magical moment when suddenly there is music in my heart and mind and I can go to the piano and express it in sound. That is why I feel that music above all other arts can come closest to expressing religious experience and conveying it to others.”

DeMille was devoted to Wagner, and so insisted on the use of leitmotifs. As such Bernstein created leitmotifs for all the main characters in the finest traditions of the Golden Age. An astounding [15] themes are provided including Moses’ Theme, the score’s primary and animating theme. It emotes as a proud, masculine, and heroic major modal statement carried with strength by warm horns nobile. Expressed in classic ABA form, its grand nine note declarative statement perfectly supports Moses, who is larger than life as both a prince of Egypt, and as God’s deliverer. I must say that Bernstein’s conception of his thematic identity perfectly achieves DeMille’s ambitions. God has two distinct thematic identities that are kindred and often join in inspiring interplay. The Divine Theme 1 is major modal, and emotes with a more stirring and evocative spiritual emphasis, which speaks to God’s wisdom and paternal love for the Hebrews. It is the more lyrical, accessible, and religioso of the two, often born by strings solenne and woodwinds. Divine Theme 2 however, is minor modal and emotes the might of God. It offers a powerful and grand six-note horn laden declarative statement, which plays to demonstrate God’s authority, and divine might. Often a transition to strings results in providing eloquence to its expression. The Spirit of God Motif is a stirring ascending four-chord progression by refulgent strings spirituali and horns nobile, which often serves as a prelude to one of the Divine Themes.

For our villains Bernstein offers three themes; Ramses’ Theme attests to the divine power of Pharaoh and the military might of Egypt, It is expressed as a classic, bold, and martial marcia bellicoso. The Imperial Theme is kindred to the Ramses Theme, which it often accompanies. It is horn laden and anthem like in its articulation, embodying the power and might of the Egyptian state. Nefretiri’s Theme emotes as the score’s primary love theme, which also serves as her identity, as well as an expression of her love for Moses. It is a classic, lush love theme born by sumptuous strings in the finest traditions of the Golden Age, yet it also speaks to her femininity, allure, sensuality and seductive power. As with Moses, Bernstein perfectly captures her spirit. Later in the score her theme’s expression is corrupted by her malignant lusting for vengeance. The Menace Theme was used to support actions of menace, oppression and evil. It expression consists of an ascent that is followed by a descent that spans an augmented fourth, a device of historical infamy, which the Medieval church damned as the “Devil’s motif”. The theme is dark and menacing, finding expression with a quartet of villains; Baka, Nathan, Memnet and Ramses. Low register strings, swirling woodwinds and trumpets of death fill us with dread.

For our supporting characters we have; Joshua’s Theme offers a warm, major modal, six-note declarative statement of bold horns with string counters, which speak to his brashness and charisma. Lilia’s Theme, which serves as her identity and provides the score’s second love theme. Unlike the sumptuous and lush Nefretiri Theme, her theme is full of yearning and tenderness. After she is enslaved to first Baka and then Dathan, her melody becomes sad and pathetic, reflecting her shame and despair. Sephora’s Theme offers a third love theme for the score, one for this noble shepherdess that captured Moses’ heart. Carried by violins, her tender theme has a forthright simplicity and gentility, which perfectly capture her beauty and nobility. Bithia’s Theme offers the score’s fourth love theme, a maternal expression of a proud mother for her son. It is a warm and tender line carried by strings and flutes.

Additional themes include; The Hebrew Theme, which serves as their collective identity. Born by low register strings, it fills us with sadness as we feel the yoke of oppression. It has a dichotomous expression, on one hand it is lugubrious, and bears the pathos of their enslavement, yet during the Exodus and crossing of the Red Sea, it is celebratory. The Tragedy Motif offers a simple statement born by strings and horns tragico. This motif speaks to the pathos of the Hebrews enslavement and suffering. The Exodus Theme serves as the animating identity of the liberation of the Hebrews from bondage. Celebratory strings and horns brillante offer a breath-taking and refulgent statement that fills one with joy. For the nomadic Bedouin herders Bernstein created a simple but forthright melody with a 6/8 time signature articulated by woodwinds. Lastly we have the Nile Motif, where Bernstein used lyrical flowing strings and woodwinds gentile to embody its life sustaining waters, and carry us on its currents. Lastly, I am left incredulous that DeMille chose to film his epic without stereophonic sound. It was clearly available, so why insist on grandness for all aspects of your greatest creation, except the film score? As such, it stands as the only mid-to-late fifties Biblical epic not to be filmed in stereophonic sound. Fortunately for us, Intrada has created a pleasant and convincing stereo experience.

“Introduction” offers an Overture, which provides ambiance music as a prelude to the film. We open with the classic grand eloquence of the Golden Age. Bernstein provides a wonderful long lined romantic piece carried eloquently by sumptuous strings with warm contrapuntal French horns nobile. This is one beautiful piece! “Prelude Part” is a stunning score highlight, perhaps its best cue, and I believe, one of the finest cues ever written. The film opens with grand heraldic fanfare, emoting the A Phrase of Moses’ Theme, which informs us that an epic story will soon unfold. This fanfare ushers in a wondrous parade of several of Bernstein’s themes that play as the opening credits roll, which include both Divine Themes (0:18, 3:46 and 5:17), Hebrew Theme (1:21 and 5:10). Nefretiri’s Theme (1:35), Moses’ Theme (2:47), Ramses’ Theme (3:19), Joshua’s Theme (4:52), and the Tragedy Motif (5:09). “Slaughter Of The New Born” We open darkly with the Tragedy Motif as we see Pharaoh’s soldiers slaughtering all newborn sons of the Hebrews. We segue atop the motif at 0:45 to “Into The Bulrushes” where we see Yoshabel setting Moses adrift in the river to save his life. Bernstein weaves Moses’ Theme, rendered softly as a lullaby, with gentile statements of the two Divine Themes, which inform us of Divine sanction. At 1:44 the Nile Theme carries us as the ark is also carried by the Nile – a splendid use of the theme. As the ark arrives at Bithia’s alcove in “Bithia’s Bathing Float” a small ensemble woodwinds and harp plays Court Music (2:01). As she opens the ark in “Moses” she celebrates her new son as his theme plays with child-like gentility.

It is many years later and in “Nefretiri” Moses’ Theme born by heraldic fanfare opens the cue. Bernstein provides an exquisite rendering of her theme as she sees a triumphant Moses return. In the film, edits truncated its full expression. At 0:27 “Fanfares” reveals a proud Moses arriving at court. Fanfares and Nefretiri’s Theme carry the moment. At 0:54 in “Return Of The Conqueror” a proud Moses enters triumphant at court with his booty, paying homage to Pharaoh Seti I. Opening fanfare bravado atop his theme announces his grand arrival and carries his progress. We segue at 1:14 into “Drums and Perussion” as we bear witness to a spectacle as ethnic dance music joins with nativist drums to support the arrival of the colorful and exotic Ethiopian entourage. In “Ethiopian” fanfare royale announce the arrival of the Ethiopian King and Queen, who have come to honor Seti. We conclude with “Drums” where exotic nativist drums support the presentation of their tribute to Seti.

“Moses And Nefretiri” is a masterful cue, which supports a number of different scenes with interplay of several of Bernstein’s themes and motifs. We open atop fanfare, which ushers in the sumptuous Nefretiri Theme as she and Moses embrace and kiss. At 0:55 the Menace Theme intrudes as Memnet lurks. At 1:07 Bithia interrupts the tender moment and greets her son. Her theme warmly expresses the depth of her love. At 1:37 we segue to “New City Underway” with a scene shift to Seti’s city, where the Imperial Theme joins with the Hebrew and Tragedy Themes to inform us of the misery of slaves toiling under the lash of their Egyptian masters. We see Joshua flirting with Lilia and their themes join in a beautiful tête-à-tête. Dathan interrupts their rendezvous and the Menace Theme reveals his dark nature. We return to Joshua and Lilian’s beautiful tête-à-tête, concluding darkly on the Menace Theme to end scene. The character and thematic interplay here is beautiful.

“The Advancing Keystone” is a cue where scene imagery and music achieve a sublime confluence. It reveals Yochabel trapped and about to be crushed when Joshua comes to her rescue. The Hebrew Theme sounds the alarm and joins with the harsh horn carried Imperial Theme as Yochabel struggles. Joshua’s Theme provides a heroic moment as he comes to her aid! Lilia’s and Joshua Themes entwine as he faces death for striking an Egyptian. As she flees to beseech Moses for mercy her theme carries her flight, countered by the Imperial Theme as guards pursue her. We conclude with “Mercy And A Tomb Of Rock” with a noble horn laden declaration of Moses’ Theme as he comes to render judgment. As Baka watches, Moses frees his birth mother Yochabel. Bernstein supports the rescue with exquisite interplay of the Menace, Imperial and Hebrew Themes challenged by a proud declaration of Moses’ Theme. We are moved as his theme shifts to an exquisitely tender solo violin when she embraces him. In “Temple Grainery” Moses declares a day of rest and commands that the temple granaries be opened for the Hebrews. This is a celebratory moment, and Bernstein perfectly supports the narrative with inspired interplay of the Moses, Divine 2, Joshua, and Exodus themes. “Hounds And Jackals” reveals Nefretiri and Seti playing a board game (Hounds and Jackals). Their moment is supported musically by a small ensemble playing her theme, as well as gentile court music.

“Moses The Builder Part 1” is a fine cue, where Bernstein sows tension as Moses coordinates up righting a massive obelisk. The cue features interplay between the Imperial Theme and Moses’ Theme. At 0:57 in “Fanfare”, imperial fanfare announce the arrival of Seti and Ramses who Moses ignores, which evokes Seti’s consternation. We segue at 1:01 into “Moses The Builder Part 2” where once again we have interplay of Moses’ and the Imperial themes as Moses orders the setting of the massive obelisk. In “Obelisk” we bear witness to the incredible setting of the massive obelisk. Bernstein supports the imagery with the film’s opening fanfare and Imperial Theme horn fare. “The Glory Of Goshen” reveals Ramses implicating Moses for treason and sowing doubt with Seti. Moses responds by throwing open the tent curtain to reveal the glory and magnificence of Seti’s new great city. Seti is awed and asserts that this act of love earns Moses the crown, which sets Ramses against Moses. The emotional dynamics between Seti, Moses and Ramses is complex and Bernstein once again rises to the occasion by weaving a multiplicity of themes to carry the scene’s narrative, including the Imperial, Moses, Divine, Menace, and Ramses themes.

“Harp For Nefretiri” reveals her awaiting Moses with gentile harp providing a pleasant ambiance. “Memnit’s Murder” features Nefretiri murdering Memnet who threatened to expose Moses as a Hebrew. Bernstein supports the moment with a dark and lethal rendering of her theme, and the Menace Theme. When Moses later joins her in her apartment, she embraces him and her theme returns in all its sumptuous glory. Moses has discovered his Hebrew heritage and dwells with them in Goshen to rediscover his roots. “The Brick Pits” opens with a progression of ascending chords, which create a religioso ambiance that ushers in the sad and toiling Hebrew Theme as we bear witness to their bitter lives as slaves. Slowly the theme evolves into a marcia doloroso, which concludes upon a reserved Moses Theme as we see him dressed as a slave toiling in a mud pit. “Death In The Pits” offers a fine interplay of themes. We see Moses working in the mud pits and witness Baka take Lilia as a household slave. When an old man protests, he is murdered. The Hebrew Theme joins with a sad rendering of Lilia’s Theme as she is taken to be Baka’s slave. Joshua’s Theme sounds on horns to inform us of her true love. After her departure the Hebrew Theme and Tragedy Motif entwine in agony and despair. As the old man dies in Moses’s arm the Divine Theme 1 sounds as unbeknownst to him, his wish to see the deliverer before he dies was granted. We close on a struggling Moses Theme as he returns to the pit. The myriad of emotions swirling in this scene is powerful and Bernstein’s music perfectly captured the narrative.

“Into The Royal Barge” Nefretiri finds Moses in the mud pits and orders him to be taken with her entourage to her barge. She is amused to find him caked with mud and Bernstein provides playful court music by small ensemble to support their progress. At 1:34 we segue into “The Royal Barge” where Nefretiri uses all her seductive charms, entreating Moses to rejoin her as a prince of Egypt and her fiancée. He is clearly still in love with her, yet refuses her entreaty to her great dismay. Bernstein supports the scene with a full-extended rendering of her lush and seductive Love Theme, countered by a fleeting muted statement of his theme. In “The Die Is Cast” we see Lilia being adorned to satiate Baka’s sexual appetite. She begs him to restore her to her people but is rebuffed. She is inconsolable and loathes her fate. Bernstein provides us with fine interplay of his themes for the potent scene. He expresses Lilia’s misery with the Hebrew Theme, which is rendered as a slow flowing triste danza. The melodic flow is interrupted by brief statements of the Menace and Joshua’s themes, which allude to coming conflict for her fate. As Joshua sets fire to the chariot house to create a diversion his theme sounds heroically on horns and initiates intense battle music. His capture and torture by Baka is carried by interplay of the Tragedy Motif, the Hebrew Theme and Menace Theme. We conclude with Moses’ slaying of Baka and the heroic rescue of Joshua. Bernstein completes this complex scene with inspiring interplay of the two Divine Themes and Moses’ Theme as Joshua proclaims Moses deliverer.

“Court Dance” features exotic dancing by a dance troupe in the throne room carried by a small ensemble of ethnic instruments. Ramses sets the stage for his triumph by advising Seti that he has found the ‘deliverer’. At Seti’s command the throne room doors open and Moses is brought forth in chains. Seti is outraged and offers Moses an opening to refute the charges, but he refuses and declares his opposition to the cruelty and enslavement of the Hebrews. In “Take him Away” tragic drum fare plays with finality as a devastated Seti banishes Moses from his court. Interplay of Ramses’ Theme alla marcia and the Devine Theme 1 is sterling. In “Drums” Seti confers succession to Ramses, betroths him Nefretiri, and orders all references of Moses to be stricken from the kingdom. He leaves Moses’ fate to Ramses. Bernstein supports each proclamation uttered by Seti with drums of doom, which seal his fate. At 0:37 we segue into “Dungeon” in a scene change where a devastated Nefretiri bids Moses a tearful farewell. Ramses has banished him to the unforgiving desert of Sinai with paltry provisions, to ensure his death. Bernstein again weaves his themes to support the intersection of powerful emotions with interplay between an impassioned and anguished Nefretiri’s Theme, and Ramses’ Theme.

In “Dathan’s Garden” Dathan has been bequeathed Baka’s estate by Ramses for betraying Moses. Gentile harps provide background ambiance for the scene where we see him contented by his new status. In “Lilia’s Harp”, Lilia begs Dathan to release her from his household, which he summarily rejects. A lush yet tragic rendering of her theme is emoted to support her plight. At 0:58 we segue into “Dathan Bribes Lilia” with him offering to spare Joshua’s life if she commits to him. Her theme becomes mournful with a sad recognition of her fate as she consents. “Egyptian Border – Moses Crosses The Desert” offers one of the score’s most inspired moments. It reveals Moses being released into the desert to die. Dark bassoons portend his doom and Ramses’ Theme, which is rendered fully with both it’s A and B Phrases carries his release as he gloats over his vanquished foe. We bear witness to the travails of Moses struggling to survive the burning desert, which serves as a crucible from which God will first purify and then fashion his deliverer. Bernstein perfectly captures Moses’ struggle with inspired interplay of his themes; a struggling Moses Theme, the two Divine Themes, Nefretiri’s Theme when he thinks of her, the Imperial Theme, and lastly, the Exodus Theme, which alludes to his destiny. This music was brilliantly conceived, and perfectly attenuated to the film’s imagery and narrative.

“Song For Jethro’s Daughters” reveals Jethro’s daughters tending to their sheep by his well. They sing a simple song, acapella. Moses comes to their rescue after a gang of thuggish Amalachites bully them. Heroic horn fare sounding his theme and the Divine Theme 2 carries the day. As the women attend Moses, Sephora’s Theme joins with his theme in interplay, alluding to their nascent love. A wondrous passage by woodwinds and Sephora’s Theme completes the cue as we see Moses bonding to his new surroundings. “Mountain Of God” is a glorious score highlight which offers an inspiring thematic confluence. It reveals Moses and Sephora alone together with Mount Sinai adorned with fiery skies as a backdrop. Moses is bitter that God has deserted his people who suffer under Pharaoh’s cruel lash. He relates that he will not believe until he meets God face to face. Sephora’s Theme and the Divine Motif open the scene and then we are treated to sterling interplay of the Divine Themes and the Ramses’ Theme. As Sephora counsels Moses to be contented in his new life, we hear her theme and his entwine, reflecting their growing love.

In “Jethro’s Daughters Dance“ Jethro hosts a dinner party, where he hopes Moses will select one of his daughters to wed. Bernstein provides a small ensemble of ethnic instruments to provide festive and exotic dance music. Moses respectfully declines to wed and retires; joining Sephora who is tending to her flock. “Moses Chooses Sephora” offers stirring romantic writing and is a score highlight. We open with statements of both Divine Themes, which speak of God’s presence on the mountain. This gives way to a beautiful statement of Sephora’s Theme, with echoes of Nefretiri’s Theme, reflecting Moses’ conflict of breaking from the past and accepting new love. Slowly, yet inexorably Sephora’s Theme gains a stirring romantic prominence as he at last realizes that he has found true love in Sephora. “Seti’s Death Chant” reveals Seti’s deathbed with Ramses and Nefretiri in attendance. Acapella funereal chanting supports the vigil. We segue at 2:37 into “Royal Falcon”, which offers an ascending line that culminates with references to Ramses and the Devine Theme, a portentous allusion of the coming confrontation between the two.

“Burning Bush” offers another score highlight, which abounds with a stirring spiritual power. Moses sees the burning bush and ascends the mountain to see it close up. As he ascends his theme carries him upwards and joins in wondrous interplay with both Divine Themes. In “I Am That I Am” Moses communes with God. Bernstein creates an ambiance of reverence and submission with chromatic strings solenne and organ. Word Of God” reveals Moses accepting the Divine mandate to liberate his people. A refulgent Divine Theme 1 on shimmering strings supports the moment. The theme gains strength and accompanies his descent from the mountain as he rejoins Sephora and Joshua. We close with a sublime joining of his and Sephora’s Themes as he relates his mission. We conclude with an inspiring flourish, which brings us to intermission. “Overture Act 2” is a score highlight, which offers a stunning parade of Bernstein’s themes! We open with classic heraldic fanfare, which launches a rousing rendering of the Exodus Theme. Soon the other themes join for a dramatic and inspiring passage including; Moses’ Theme, the Divine Theme 2 and the Imperial Theme. It does not get any better than this!

We begin Act II with “The Power Of God” another complex cue, which offers a wondrous display of thematic interplay. We open with the Nile Motif and Divine Theme 1, which inform us of Moses’ return with Divine sanction. We scene change to the palace atop Ramses’ Theme, which is rendered as a marcia solenne as foreign dignitaries offer tribute to him at court. As Moses approaches the throne the Divine Theme 1 carries his progress. In the scene Moses demands the liberation of the Hebrews, which Ramses refuses. A battle of snakes ensues with Moses’ devouring Ramses, but it is to no avail, as Ramses will not relent. Slithering string effects and dark horns support the snake battle. As the scene continues, Bernstein’s music speaks to the complex emotional dynamics at play with interplay of both Divine Themes, Nefretiri’s Theme when she recognizes Moses, and the Menace Theme. I must say that this is masterful writing of the highest order. A Tambourine effect, which was excised from the film opens the “Bricks Without Straw”. Ramses has ordered the Hebrews to make bricks without straw in retribution to Moses’ affront. Moses is saved from the angry mob by Imperial troops, which escort him away. A militaristic Ramses Theme supports the anger of the Hebrews and Moses’ removal. The Menace Theme sounds darkly as Dathan orders the people to collect straw stubble in the fields to complete their brick quota. At 0:45 we segue into “Royal Barge” as Moses is again brought to Nefretiri. Strummed harp supports their reunion as she realizes that she no longer commands his affections.

“Joshua and Lilia” reveals Joshua and Lily meeting at the well at Goshen. We open with a sad rendering of Moses’ Theme as the people are counseled to store water for seven days. As the two lovers meet we have interplay of a sad Lilia’s Theme and Joshua’s Theme. At 1:26 we scene change and segue into “Shrine Of The River Gods”, which reveals the annual blessing of the waters ceremony. An acapella chorus supports the ceremony. “The Red River” features the first plague, where the waters of Egypt are turned to blood. As Moses’ staff strikes the Nile and begins the horrific transformation, swirling strings launch the Devine Theme 2 powerfully, which is joined by an equally powerful statement of Moses’ Theme. The blood spreads atop the Nile Motif as the Devine Theme 1 emotes the glory of God. As Ramses seeks to counter the plague by pouring sacred water he fails, and his theme sounds with futility. In “God Of Slaves” Moses threatens Ramses with hail that burns atop the ground and then three days of darkness. Ramses’ Theme and Menace Motif interplay as Ramses’ advisors beg him to release the Hebrews. As Ramses wavers Nefretiri intervenes shaming him publicly, which hardens Ramses’ resolve. Bernstein renders her theme darkly and joins it in unholy communion with the Menace Theme. “Lilia’s Song” offers her plaintive theme sung by her with a harp as she longs for death.

“Pestilence” is a masterful cue, which abounds with darkness, menace and horror. Bernstein supports the passage of the Angel of Death with the otherworldly sounds of a Novachord and the Theremin. Interspersed are statements of the Hebrew and Menace themes. “Shadow Of Death” continues the soundscape of the previous cue with the addition of Joshua’s Theme as we see him seeking shelter, the Imperial Theme as we shift scenes to the palace, and the Divine Theme 2, which informs us of the might of God. “The Dying Boy” offers a truly dark and grim cue of devastation. We see a grieving Ramses, who has lost his son; summon Moses, advising him that he is releasing the Hebrews. The Menace Theme, Theremin effects, and a grim rendering of his theme inform us of Ramses’ devastation. As Nefretiri enters with their dead son in here arms her anguished theme joins the Menace Theme in a grim lamentation, which closes atop a statement of a now vanquished Imperial Theme. In “Lord Of The Underworld” a thankful Moses departs the throne room carried by the warmth of the Devine Theme 1. Ramses places his son’s body in the arms of a statue of Anubis, god of the underworld, and pleads with him to restore him to life. Ramses Theme sounds as a marcia funebre, which soon writhes in pain, reflecting his agony. A statement of the Menace Theme offers an allusion that Ramses’ pain will soon turn to avenging anger.

The Exodus is complex and multi-scenic, which required Bernstein to speak to what I believe, is the score’s emotional apogee. We open with “Shofar”, which reveals the traditional shofar fanfare announcing the Exodus. At 0:25 we segue into “Exodus Part 1”, a magnificent score highlight where we are treated to a celebratory rendering of the Exodus Theme, in all its resplendent glory. We segue at 2:01 into “Dathan’s House” where he is being evicted for complicity with the Hebrew Passover. Bernstein offers interplay of the Menace, Joshua’s and Lilia’s themes to support their interactions in the scene. At 2:44 we scene shift back to the Exodus staging area and bear witness to a splendid rendering of the Exodus and Moses Themes. At 4:00 male chorus sings with solemnity and reverence the “Song Of Joseph”, which supports the scene of carrying his shrouded body on a liter so as to return him to the Promised Land. At 4:49 we segue into “Nubian Drums” where we see Nubians drummers propelling the caravan forward. At 5:03 fanfare launches “Exodus Part Two”, which reveals Moses leading the Exodus out of Egypt. We are treated again to a parade of Bernstein’s themes, with Joshua’s and the Divine The 1 highlighted. Flash backs to the palace where Ramses and Nefretiri stew in a cauldron of pain and anger is supported by the Menace Theme. The “Exodus Part Three” cue crowns the passage splendidly, and we are treated to a wondrous celebratory rendering of the Exodus Theme alla marcia. Of note is that Bernstein’s original conception of the music for this scene was mournful and slower paced. Upon hearing it, DeMille would have none of it and ordered him to replace it, with faster paced, celebratory music to inform us of the Hebrews joy in gaining their freedom. When Bernstein countered that fast paced music and slow paced film imagery would feel awkward, DeMille commanded him to “trust his judgment.” Bernstein later related that DeMille was indeed correct, and that he learned a valuable lessen in scoring technique.

“A Hardened Heart” launches a powerful passage of cues! Their son is dead and Nefretiri again poisons Ramses’ heart, questions his kingship, and demands vengeance. We hear a joining of her theme and a dark rendering of the Imperial Theme as Ramses summons his troops and resolves to pursue and annihilate the Hebrews. At 1:33 we flow into “Fanfare – Chariot Assembly – Ready For Battle Fanfare” Martial fanfare announces the assembly of his chariots, and as Ramses mounts his war chariot to lead his troops his now militarized theme joins fanfare bellicoso that is both powerful and dramatic. As he rouses his assembled troops royal fanfare resounds as he will personally lead his troops. “Mission Of Vengeance” is a tour de force! Ramses commands his charioteers forward and Bernstein supports the grand departure with his theme transformed into aggressive militaristic pursuit music. References of Nefretiri’s Theme supports flashbacks to her at the palace, and inform us that it was she who set Ramses on this catastrophic course. “Shofars and Fanfares” reveals discovery of the advancing Egyptian army. Shofar horns signal the alert, and the following fanfare the rousing of the Hebrews towards the sea. “Pillar Of Fire” is a stunning score highlight. For this lengthy and complex cue we open with militaristic fanfare as Ramses arrives and prepares to begin his assault. The furious pursuit variant of the Ramses Theme carries their progress. Dathan sows mistrust atop the Menace Theme, yet Moses reassures his people. He raises his staff and proclaims the glory of God, as we bear witness to a pillar of fire, which ascends to block Ramses path. Both Devine Themes join in communion to support the intervention. As Moses raises his staff again we see God part the waters, thus allowing the Hebrews safe passage.

What now unfolds is a tour de force! At 2:47 we segue into “The Red Sea 1” atop Joshua’s Theme as the Hebrews are ordered to cross. The Devine Theme 2 heralds the miracle and the celebratory variant of the Moses and Hebrew Themes supports the initial passage of the Hebrews to safety. At 4:17 Joshua’s Theme launches “The Red Sea 2” as the Hebrews begin reaching the far shore carried by powerful proclamations of the Divine Theme 2. We enter “The Red Sea 3” at 5:23 as we see the pillar of fire dissipate. Ramses orders his hosts to annihilate the Hebrews. A fierce militaristic rendering of his theme propels them forward to their doom atop a crescendo of ferocity! “The Red Sea 4” As they close Moses again raises his staff and the waters collapse upon the Egyptians killing them all. Bernstein closes the dramatic scene with interplay of the Devine Theme 2, a joyous Exodus Theme. A return to a devastated Ramses concludes the scene with a dark orchestral descent. “Mount Sinai” reveals that Moses has ascended Sinai to receive God’s law, which is supported by the Divine Theme 1.

“Spoils Of Egypt – Idolators – Forming Of Golden Idol” offers a festive orgiastic Bacchanal as the Hebrews in Moses’ absence descend into idolatry and wickedness. The next cue is complex and shift scenes to and fro from Moses on Mount Sinai, to the Hebrews below. In “The Finger Of God – Golden Idol – Idol Sacrifice – Idolators – Bacchanal –Shofar” we see Moses alone on Mount Sinai where God manifests as a pillar of fire from which He engraves one by one, the Ten Commandments. Religioso organ establishes solemnity, and as God fashions the tablets refulgent proclamations of both Divine themes attest to his authority and power. The Hebrew camp is supported by a festive orgiastic Bacchanal as we bear witness to all sorts of depravity. The Menace Theme informs us of Dathan’s malignant influence in turning the people from God. A sounding of a Shofar horn by Joshua informs us of Moses’ return. This is really a masterful cue. In “The Lord’s Side – End Title” Moses commands those that still honor God to join him. The Divine Theme 2 supports the wrath of God as we see fire and lightning smite the Hebrews that chose to abandon Moses and God’s covenant. At 0:25 a scene shift to 40 years later reveals Moses, Joshua and Sephora standing on a bluff overlooking the future land of Israel, which God has forbidden Moses entry. A heartfelt Sephora’s Theme joins with the Devine Themes and Moses Theme in stirring interplay to bring the film to its conclusion. As Moses departs to ascend to heaven the music swells atop the Devine Theme 2 and concludes in a magnificent horn laden flourish! “Exit Music” is a score highlight, that is in reality a closing suite written to play as the audience departed the theater. We open with a solemn rendering of the Devine Themes, which ushers in a magnificent reprise of Bernstein’s primary themes, again ending in a stirring flourish.

This review was for me a passion project and I begin by offering my heartfelt thanks to Emilie Bernstein to granting me access to her father’s score and manuscripts. To hold them in my hands and read his personal notes on the score was a treasured moment, which I will never forget. I also must thank Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson of Intrada for this amazing release. This box set includes six CDs, three premiering the complete original two and a half hour soundtrack for the first time ever. Included is another 40 minutes of never-before-heard alternates, unused music and trailer cues! The original score was monaural and most of the cues have been converted to stereophonic, however the reader is advised that although the mastering was good, it does not achieve the quality of modern stereophonic recordings. This did not detract from my enjoyment or listening experience. I believe this score to be Bernstein’s Magnum Opus. He offers an extraordinary fifteen themes, which fully captured the film’s emotional core and expertly supported its narrative. When was the last time you beheld a score with four exquisite love themes? Today we are often thankful if we get one! The manner in which Bernstein adapted and rendered his themes, as well as his use of counterpoint and thematic interplay are of the highest order and offer testimony to his singular gift, and mastery of his craft. In my judgment the grand magnificence of DeMille’s crowning achievement owes its success by and large to Bernstein’s epic score. I believe it to be one of the finest ever written and a glorious example of Golden Age film scores. I consider it an essential score for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the score’s “Prelude”; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07VQzw-t0Jw&list=PLBXBmZcJbX0xIXVABFiWeY2rbq3t-IFaB

Buy the Ten Commandments soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Introduction (1:37)
  • Prelude – Part 1/Prelude – Part 2 (5:44)
  • Slaughter of the Newborn/In the Bulrushes/Bithia’s Bathing Float (3:46)
  • Moses (0:41)
  • Nefretiri/Fanfares/Return of the Conqueror/Drums and Percussion/Fanfare (1:40)
  • Ethiopians/Drums (0:45)
  • Fanfare/Moses and Nefretiri/New City Underway (4:00)
  • The Advancing Keystone/Mercy and A Tomb of Rock (3:26)
  • Temple Grain (1:13)
  • Hounds and Jackals (2:42)
  • Moses the Builder – Part 1/Fanfare/Moses the Builder – Part 2 (1:52)
  • Obelisk (0:20)
  • The Glory of Goshen (2:33)
  • Harp for Nefretiri (1:05)
  • Memnet’s Murder (2:15)
  • The Brick Pits (2:12)
  • Death in the Brick Pits (4:01)
  • Intro to Royal Barge/The Royal Barge (3:18)
  • The Die Is Cast – Part 1/The Die Is Cast – Part 2 (5:23)
  • Court Dance (2:47)
  • Take Him Away (2:16)
  • Drums/The Dungeon (2:30)
  • Dathan’s Garden (1:14)
  • Lilia’s Harp/Dathan Bribes Lilia (1:23)
  • Egyptian Border/Moses Crosses Desert (5:33)
  • Song for Jethro’s Daughters (0:35)
  • Defending the Well (0:52)
  • Mountain of God (3:30)
  • Jethro’s Daughters’ Dance (1:33)
  • Moses Chooses Sephora (3:23)
  • Sethi’s Death Chant/Royal Falcon (3:02)
  • Burning Bush (1:39)
  • Organ (I Am That I Am) (2:26)
  • Word of God (End Act 1) (2:17)
  • Overture – Act 2 (Part A)/Overture – Act 2 (Part B) (2:16)
  • The Power of God – Part 1/The Power of God – Part 2 (4:08)
  • Well of Strangers/Royal Barge (Revised)(2:23)
  • Joshua and Lilia/The Shrine of the River Gods (1:49)
  • The Red River (1:28)
  • God of Slaves (1:51)
  • Lilia’s Song/Lilia’s Song (Harp Chord) (0:27)
  • Pestilence (1:00)
  • Shadow of Death (1:16)
  • The Dying Boy (3:02)
  • Lord of the Underworld (2:21)
  • Shofars/Exodus – Part 1/Dathan’s House/Nubian Drums/Exodus – Part 2 (7:31)
  • Fanfare (Alternate No. 1) (0:15)
  • Fanfare (Alternate No. 2) (0:16)
  • Fanfare (0:10)
  • Exodus – Part 3 (3:10)
  • Death Gongs (0:28)
  • A Hardened Heart/Fanfare/Chariot Assembly/Ready for Battle Fanfares (2:39)
  • Mission of Vengeance (0:59)
  • Shofars & Fanfares (0:37)
  • Pillar of Fire/The Red Sea – Parts 1, 2 & 3 (7:40)
  • The Red Sea – Part 4 (0:59)
  • Mount Sinai (0:35)
  • Spoils of Egypt/Idolators (Bacchanali)/Forming of Golden Idol (0:49)
  • The Finger of God/Golden Idol/Idol Sacrifice/Idolators (Bacchanali)/Bacchanal/Shofar (8:46)
  • The Lord’s Side/End Title (3:46)
  • Exit Music – Part 1/Exit Music – Part 2 (5:16)
  • Moses (Alternate) (0:23)
  • Moses and Nefretiri (Alternate)/New City Underway (Alternate) (3:55)
  • Temple Grain (Alternate) (1:12)
  • Memnet’s Murder (Alternate) (3:22)
  • Memnet’s Murder (Revised) (2:16)
  • The Royal Barge (Alternate) (3:23)
  • Court Dance (Alternate) (2:22)
  • Baccha’s Garden No. 1 (Source Music) (2:16)
  • Baccha’s Garden No. 2 (Source Music) (2:15)
  • Baccha’s Garden No. 3 (Source Music) (2:01)
  • Song for Jethro’s Daughters (Alternate) (0:31)
  • Defending the Well (Alternate – Long) (2:17)
  • Jethro’s Daughters’ Dance (Alternate) (1:57)
  • Exodus – Part 3 (Short Version) (1:37)
  • Shofars & Fanfares (Alternates) (0:56)
  • Exit Music – Part 2 (Alternate) (1:45)
  • The Red Sea – Part 3/Song of Joseph (Film Edit) (2:00)
  • The Red Sea – Part 4 (Early Version) (1:34)
  • Exodus (Early Version) (3:12)
  • The Lord’s Side (Brass) (0:15)
  • The Royal Barge (Short Source Alternate) (0:16)
  • Tiple (Wild )(0:31)
  • Drums No. 1 (Wild) (0:26)
  • Drums No. 2 (Wild) (0:30)
  • The Finger of God – Part 1 (Early Version) (0:37)
  • Trailer No. 1 (0:57)
  • Trailer No. 2 (0:30)
  • Elmer Bernstein ’s Original Piano Theme Demos – Theme of Egypt/Nefretiri’s Theme/Bithia’s Theme/Hebrew Theme/Theme of Moses/Possible Short Identifying Themes for Moses/Sephora-Bedouin Theme/Song of Joseph – Exodus Anthem/Joshua-Lilia Love Theme/Joshua-Lilia Love Theme in A Major Key/Theme of God/Theme of Evil (12:36)
  • Prelude (5:43)
  • In The Bulrushes (3:23)
  • The Bitter Life (2:09)
  • Love and Ambition (3:53)
  • The Hard Bondage (2:12)
  • Egyptian Dance (2:47)
  • The Crucible of God (3:15)
  • And Moses Watered Jethro’s Flock (2:17)
  • Bedouin Dance (1:57)
  • I Am That I Am (3:52)
  • Overture (2:13)
  • Thus Says The Lord (3:45)
  • The Plagues (2:11)
  • The Exodus (6:40)
  • The Pillar of Fire (2:45)
  • The Red Sea (2:35)
  • The Ten Commandments (5:22)
  • Go, Proclaim Liberty! (3:20)
  • Prelude (5:07)
  • In the Bulrushes (4:01)
  • The Bitter Life (2:05)
  • Love and Ambition (4:03)
  • The Hard Bondage (2:03)
  • Egyptian Dance (2:52)
  • The Crucible of God (3:07)
  • And Moses Watered Jethro’s Flock (2:13)
  • Bedouin Dance (1:56)
  • I Am That I Am (3:13)
  • Overture (2:06)
  • Thus Says The Lord (3:39)
  • The Plagues (2:51)
  • The Exodus (6:00)
  • The Pillar of Fire (2:45)
  • The Red Sea (2:30)
  • The Ten Commandments (5:40)
  • Go, Proclaim Liberty! (3:20)
  • Overture Act I (4:15)
  • Nefretiri (2:36)
  • Court Dance (3:03)
  • Sephora (2:10)
  • The Burning Bush (3:44)
  • Overture Act II (2:06)
  • The Exodus (3:04)
  • Dance of Jethro’s Daughters (2:02)
  • The Red Sea (2:36)
  • Finale (3:29)

Running Time: 357 minutes 36 seconds

Intrada 7147 (1956/2016)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes. Score produced by Elmer Bernstein. Album produced by Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

  1. Justin
    October 22, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    Wow, this is one of the most in depth reviews for a soundtrack I’ve ever read. Thanks for always putting in effort well beyond the requirements. Your passion for this stuff is unmatched.

  1. June 12, 2017 at 10:00 am

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