Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – Elmer Bernstein



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 (Moses), Yul Brynner (Ramses), Anne Baxter (Nefreteri), Edward G. Robinson (Dathan), Yvonne De Carlo (Sephora), John Derek (Joshua), Cedric Hardwicke (Seti), Judith Anderson (Memnet), Vincent Price (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. 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. Nefreteri’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 villans; 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 Nefreteri 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.

Folks, 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

A comprehensive review of the score may be found at: https://moviemusicuk.us/2016/10/15/the-ten-commandments-elmer-bernstein/

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.

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