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BEN-HUR – Miklós Rózsa

September 18, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

As a new decade dawned, MGM studio executives began searching for a grand tale to bring to the screen. They decided in 1952 to cast their lot with a remake of their epic 1925 silent film, Ben-Hur. The film’s source material would again reference Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It would take six years before producer Sam Zimbalist could bring the project to fruition. It required twelve versions of the script, from four different writers, to finally satisfy the demands of director William Wyler. Casting was also challenging as over 5,000 people needed to be hired for minor roles and extras. The studio spared no expense, ultimately providing Wyler with an astounding $15 million budget. Charlton Heston secured the titular role of Judah Ben-Hur and was supported by a fine cast, which included Stephen Boyd as Messala, Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arius, Haya Harareet as Esther, Martha Scott as Miriam, Sam Jaffe as Simonides, Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, Cathy O’Donnell as Tirzah, Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate, and Finlay Currie as Balthazar narrator.

The film tells the tale of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, who lives in Judea with his family during the time of Jesus Christ circa 26 C.E. Judah’s childhood Roman friend Messala returns to Judea as an ambitious Tribune intent on achieving fame and his destiny at any cost. They greet each other as brothers, but when Judah refuses to provide Messala with the names of local Jewish dissidents, an aggrieved Messala contrives a pretext to exact a terrible revenge. Messala orders the arrest of Judah and his family on patently false charges after a freak accident injures the new Governor. Judah is then condemned to certain death on the Roman galleys, while his mother and sister are given life imprisonment. Doomed to die chained to a galley oar, Judah’s hatred and the desire for vengeance fuels his will to live.

However, the hand of fate intervenes and he gains his freedom. Empowered with the assistance of a Roman Consul and a wealthy Arab sponsor, he returns to Judea and challenges Messala to a chariot race. In an epic struggle Judah emerges triumphant while Messala lays defeated on the track, his body mangled irreparably by horses that trampled him. Meeting for a last time as surgeons wait to amputate Messala’s legs, Judah realizes the hollowness of his victory, of how unquenching it is to drink from the cup of revenge. He leaves Messala to death and rescues his family from a leper colony. Later he sees the sores cleansed from their bodies, cured by the redemptive power of love born of the crucifixion. The film was a huge commercial success, earning a profit of $20 million. It also secured widespread critical acclaim, earning 12 Academy Award nominations, winning 11, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Set Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Special Effects, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Score for Miklós Rózsa.

Miklós Rózsa had a contract with MGM, which permitted him first choice of any film of his choosing. When Ben-Hur came up he seized the opportunity immediately. Having fully research Romanic culture for the epic Quo Vadis (1951), Rózsa was well prepared to take on the massive canvass Ben-Hur afforded him. He spent a year and a half attached to this project and found much inspiration staying at a villa in Santa Margherita Ligure a resort town south of Genoa on Italy’s west coast. This setting aided him in composing not only the numerous marches and regal fanfare that fills the film, but also the multiplicity of themes required of this epic tale. Rózsa understood that his music had to speak to a multiplicity of cultural identities; Christian, Jewish, Macedonia, and Roman. For the Romans he provided strident and martial horn fare, bold percussive marches and dissonant harmonies, which offer testaments to its power and tyranny. For the Macedonians he created a sinister and serpentine expression to support their predatory piracy. Juxtaposed are the Christian and Jewish identities, which while kindred with a shared melodic consonance also display dissimilarities. The hopeful and uplifting Christian themes are major modal with stirring harmonies, while the Jewish themes tend to be minor modal, with a subtle tinge of sadness. From these four cultural identities arose a most complex and rich score with a multiplicity of themes;

The majestic Anno Domini Motif offers powerful heraldic declarations, which resounds atop horns bravura and speak to us of great tidings – the beginning of a grand tale. I believe it to be portentous in its allusions to the coming of Christ, but also following His death, it is transformed into a herald for a new age for humanity. The Judea Theme offers syncopated Middle Eastern ethnic writing carried by woodwinds esotica, with pizzicato strings and horn accents. When taken up by full strings the melody provides a lush and moving statement. This major theme permeates the entire score and serves to ground us in the culture of ancient Judea. Kindred is the House Of Hur Theme, an exotic meandering melodic construct carried by solo oboe orientale. The Christ Theme serves a Jesus’ identity and appears throughout the film. At its core this major modal and triadic theme is warm, hopeful, and bears the healing power of love. Rózsa relates that his greatest challenge in scoring this religious film was creating music for the Christ. He ultimately chose to emote the theme using pipe organ, two sets of refulgent tremolo violins playing in harmonics, and vibraphone to create an ethereal feeling to the music. Lastly, this theme appears throughout the film and is rendered in three different expressions; triumphant, ethereal and life affirming. Balthazar’s Theme is one of the score’s most beautiful with a classic ABA construct. As a Christian theme it’s A Phrase is warm, major modal and carried by resplendent strings, angelic female choir, horns nobile with a contrapuntal bass line. The B Phrase is more emotional, carried first by a solo oboe pastorale and them sumptuous strings adorned with angelic choir. The theme serves as Balthazar’s identity and speaks to us of his nobility, humility and kindness, fully embodying his on screen gentle grandfather persona.

Judah’s Theme supports our hero, and is masculine, confident and bold in its articulation. Its construct is triphrasic with it’s bold A Phrase exuding his masculine strength, the stirring and ascending B Phrase his nobility and heroism, and its C Phrase uncertainty in that it concludes without resolution. The theme is empowered boldly by horns eroico, yet during times of despair and duress its articulation loses its vitality and confidence. Esther’s Theme serves as her identity, but also that of the Love Theme. It is kindred to Judah’s Theme and offers a testament to her unwavering love, gentleness and femininity. The theme employs a classic ABA form, with its warm A Phrase born by solo flute or solo violin delicato and harp, and its passionate B Phrase emoted by sumptuous strings bearing a thirsting, a longing for consummation. A superb concert piece rendering of this theme, which features a sublime solo violin performance may be found on CD 2 – 21. Miriam’s Theme serves as her identity, but also the score’s second Love Theme, in this case that of a mother’s love for her son. Rózsa interpolated its melody from an ancient Yemenite folk song, and warm strings carry its sumptuous statement, perhaps the score’s finest. Yet we discern sadness in the notes, which speaks of her suffering for what has befallen her family. I believe this theme to be the most emotional of the score, an emblem of Miriam’s and Judah’s unshakeable bond.

The Friendship Theme is masculine in its articulation, and carried by warm strings with contrapuntal horns. It is Roman in its sensibilities, and speaks of the boyhood bond forged between Judah and Messala. Although major modal, we hear within its shifting harmonies a tinge of sadness and foreboding, a feeling that when the pen has written its last word, we will bear sadness and tears. Intrinsically linked and juxtaposed is our villain Messala’s Theme, which finds its genesis in his ruthless ambition. It is dark, grim and biphrasic in its articulation. Both it’s A and B Phrases emote anger and menace that never resolves. We hear in the notes the diabolical malignancy of Messala, which over time swells to a corrosive hatred that destroys him.

The Leper Motif is truly grotesque in its horrific and dissonant articulation. A harsh declaration followed by a four-note descending line by grim low register strings and horns sow terror and cause us to recoil. For the Passion of the Christ, Rózsa provided two Passion Themes. Both are eleven note long lined constructs, which emote the negative polarity of the Christ Theme. They both offer great pathos and torment, rising and falling in a painful unending cycle of suffering and hopelessness. In addition, the setting required festive and exotic dances, for which Rózsa acquainted himself well. Lastly, Rózsa understood that he had to speak to the irresistible military might of Rome as overlords of Judea. To that end he created bold fan fares, five marches and four naval motifs. The marches are classic marcia militare, empowered with horns bellicoso and martial percussive rhythms, while the trumpet led fanfares, some antiphonal, are resplendent. It is the consensus of film score historians that Ben-Hur is Rózsa’s greatest career achievement and a milestone in the history of cinema.

“Overture” offers a beautiful score highlight, a concert piece where Rózsa showcases four of his primary themes. We open dramatically with the Anno Domini Motif whose stunning heraldic power triumphantly resounds atop fanfare bravura. As the cue progresses it segues at 0:19 into the Judea Theme, first presented here as a danza esotica carried by oriental woodwinds, with pizzicato strings and horn accents. Soon full strings take up the melody providing a lush and moving statement adorned with harp and piano arpeggios. A string bridge carries us at 1:45 into the timeless Love Theme, born by warm strings and contrapuntal horns. A string ascent offers a sumptuous expression, passionate in its unquenchable longing for consummation. At 3:14 we segue into the violin carried and profoundly moving Miriam’s Theme, used to great effect to emote Miriam’s love for her son Judah. A contrapuntal line by mid-register strings enriches the theme’s expression. At the 4:12 mark glockenspiel and warm strings announce the masculine Friendship Theme that speaks of the boyhood bond forged between Judah and Messala. We close with a subdued diminuendo of the Anno Domini Motif, which seems to slowly fade and dissipate.

The second cue “Anno Domini” which translates as “The Year Of Our Lord”, opens the film to the MGM logo, in which studio executives purposely silenced the roar of Leo the lion. The heraldic horn declarations of the Anno Domini Motif resound majestically declaring atop fanfare bravura, the beginning of a grand tale. As the fanfare fades we begin the film carried by the Judea Theme, which supports narration that establishes the film’s setting. Unlike its form in the Overture, violins and bass play against a contrapuntal mid-register string line. The tone is burdened and sad, a testament to the subjugation of the Jewish people. At 0:54 bold Roman fanfare declarations support the mentioning of the Fortress of Antonio, seat of Roman power in Jerusalem. A nascent rendering of the Christ Theme emerges at 1:15 as the narrator speaks of the hope for a redeemer. We close with uncertainty atop the contrapuntal strings of the Judea Theme as we see Mary and Joseph on the crowded street.

At 1:30 we segue into “Star Of Bethlehem” where Rózsa introduces Balthazar’s Theme, which is rendered fully in ABA form, and expressed with a profoundly moving and emotional statement. As a Christian theme it is warm, major modal, comforting, and adorned with angelic choir. The theme beautifully supports the Star of Bethlehem’s passage across the star lite night sky as the Magi observe its progress. It culminates with grandeur as it stops and illuminates the manger below. This scene offers a perfect synergy of music and film imagery. At 3:06 we segue into “Adoration Of The Magi”, which supports the arrival of the Magi, who present gifts and kneel in adoration. The music is kindred to Balthazar’s Theme and is carried by angelic female choir, strings delicato with solo flute and glockenspiel accents. Its melody is simple, and forthright in its testimony to, and adoration of, the birth of Jesus Christ. We conclude full of wonder with the choir joining violins for a stirring reprise of Balthazar’s Theme as we see him gazing on the child Jesus.

“Prelude” serves as the delayed Main Title of the film, which supports the roll of the opening credits against the backdrop of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” painting. We open with regal Roman trumpeting fanfare and celebratory bells in a bold fortissimo statement. A cymbal crash at 0:12 brings forth the Christ Theme, which supports the film’s subtitle “A Tale of the Christ.” Presented here as an uplifting major modal statement it is triumphant, glorious and inspiring. We flow seamlessly into a proud and rousing statement of Judah’s Theme, that begins an impassioned and glorious ascent on violins from which is born Esther’s Theme. After a brief but sumptuous statement of it’s A Phrase, we return to Judah’s Theme. We conclude with a dramatic statement of the Anno Domini Motif, as Anno Domini XXVI displays on the screen, thus resuming the tale 26 years later. “Marcia Romana” introduces us to the first of the many marches that abound in this score. As we observe columns of Roman legions marching through Nazareth, Rózsa opens with a martial fragment of the Judea Theme, which gives way to a classic Roman marcia militare borne by horns bravura, and powered by an oppressive bass bellicoso ostinato and snare drums. The music is not celebratory but instead determined, willful and its interplay with the Judea Theme emblematic of occupied Judea is brilliantly conceived. At 4:07 we segue into “Spirit And Sword” where we see Jesus walking home from the hills. A contemplative variant of the Christ Theme supports his progress. We return to the Roman marcia militare as Messala arrives at Citadel Antonio.

In “Salute To Messala” regal trumpet fanfare support Messala’s arrival and greeting by Tribune Sextus. At 0:17 we segue into “Friendship” a score highlight where Messala is advised that Judah Ben-Hur has come to see him. Messala’s Theme, which opens the cue, was excised from the film. As Judah meets the adult Messala for the first time at 0:26 we are graced with a warm rendering of the Friendship Theme. This emotional passage is a long one with classic ABA form, which features warm strings, horns nobile and a beautiful solo oboe statement. When Messala challenges Judah to spear throws, we achieve radiant flourishes at 3:06 when Messala hits the crossbeam, and 3:26 when Judah matches him. Sadly Messala causes tension by injecting politics into their reunion. The cue ends with the theme becoming slow, and heavy with a portentous tinge of sadness.

“House of Hur” opens in Messala’s austere quarters where Judah drinks an uneasy toast, taken aback by Messala’s strident warning of severe reprisals if rebellion takes place. The Friendship Theme reprises and maintains the brotherly bond as their arms entwine during the toast. In a scene change to the House of Hur, Messala visits and enjoys reminiscing of their boyhood adventures. Rózsa carries the scene with his House of Hur Theme, an exotic meandering melodic construct carried by solo oboe orientale. The mood is warm and as they enjoy each other’s company the Friendship Theme rejoins with a House of Hur Theme coda ending the cue as Messala and Judah depart to talk. In “The Conflict” Judah gifts Messala a stunning Arabian horse, but the moment is lost when Messala insists that Judah provide him the names of Jews who believe in rebelling. Angry words are exchanged, when Judah refuses to be party to murder. When Judah rejects an ultimatum by Messala’s that he is either with him or against him, their friendship is shattered. Rózsa introduces the cold menace of the Messala’s Theme, which now becomes emblematic of his implacable evil. It is introduced darkly in the lower registers by bass with dissonant horn blasts, and then reprised by cellos. As a resigned Judah shares the bad news with his family, the cue concludes with a sad rendering of the Friendship Theme, an echo of a friendship lost.

“Esther” offers a score highlight in which Rózsa’s introduces Esther’s Theme. As she descends a stairway Judah is transfixed by her beauty. She informs Judah that she has been betrothed to another man, yet we see in their eyes an unspoken love. Her theme is rendered fully in an ABA statement, opening hesitantly with violins delicato. A solo flute tendore emotes the B Phrase, before lush violins take up a final A Phrase statement. Rózsa’s music fleshes out the deep well of unspoken emotion in this scene, her resignation, and his regret. At 3:19 we segue into “Unknown Future”, which features music for a cut scene. Judah joins Esther in his study for a toast to her betrothal in “Love Theme”, another score highlight. There is much to be said; yet restraint governs. As they discuss her future, her theme is rendered fully with resignation in ABA form with an alto flute delicato carrying the A Phrase and strings gentile the B Phrase. At 2:31 we segue into “Ring For Freedom” a sublime score highlight where we bear witness to Esther’s Theme being transmuted into the Love Theme. Judah removes her slave ring and places it on his finger, a token of his love for her. A solo violin bathes us with the A Phrase of the theme as his love for her becomes palpable. At 3:52 we begin a stirring slow crescendo on strings appassionato as all pretenses are dropped and Judah embraces and kisses Esther. We close with a diminuendo of uncertainty seen in Esther’s tears. Rózsa’s demonstrates mastery of his craft as his music makes this scene and brings a quiver and tears.

“Salute For Gratus” offers a slowly paced, heavy, and oppressive marcia brutale carried by blaring horns and a thundering cadence by kettle drums. Rich antiphonal fanfare regale greets Gratus, whose ego is offended by the absence of locals. At 0:33 we segue into “Gratus’ Entry to Jerusalem” where his procession is again supported by a slowly paced and oppressive marcia brutale. We see loathing in the eyes of the Jews, and dire horn declarations strike fear as snare drum and timpani provide a grim cadence. As the Governor passes beneath the Hur compound, Tirzah inadvertently causes a loose roof tile to fall, which knocks the Governor off his horse. “Arrest” offers an outtake Rózsa intended to support Messala’s arrest of Judah and his family. Pandemonium results and Messala dispatches his troops to arrest Judah and his family. I believe the music should have remained, as its kinetic fury intensified the terror and fear of the Hur household. “Reminiscences” reveals Messala going to the roof terrace and easily dislodging a tile. He discerns what happened was an accident, and yet shows no mercy to Judah. A solo oboe doloroso pines an elegy for a friendship lost. The pathos is taken up by a mourning clarinet and violins affanato, ending darkly with despair.

The next tertiary cue is multi-scenic and filled with a powerful intersection of emotions. In “Condemned – Escape” we have a regrettable outtake where Judah is informed that he will be sent to the galleys – a death sentence. He tries to escape, yet fails. Rózsa sows tension that rises to desperation atop a grim syncopated string line. As he escapes Rózsa whips his orchestra into a driving kinetic line, which begins a vigorous accelerando empowered by a dissonant and desperate Judah’s Theme as he struggles to at last reach Messala’s private chambers. As he enters Messala’s quarters and threatens him at spear point we flow into “Vengeance”. Messala’s cruelty and implacable evil is declared when he admits that he knows that Judah is innocent. His purpose is political – by condemning his friend and his family without mercy he will instill fear in the Jews. Judah throws his spear against the wall and is taken away. A he declares his intent on vengeance Messala’s Theme resounds with grim finality. We close with an anguished reprise of the Friendship Theme as Messala reflects upon what he has done. In “The Prison – Part One/The Prison – Part 2” Simonides and Esther meet with Messala and plead Judah’s innocence. Their progress through the fortress is carried grimly by low register tremolo strings, piano and a plaintive bassoon, which sow a rising tension. Messala’s Theme supports his presence. The rest of the cue is dialed out of the film.

In “Desert” Messala rejects their pleas and his theme resounds with malice as he orders Simonides imprisoned. At 0:18 we shift to the burning desert, as we see Judah sweltering, staggering, near exhaustion in the unrelenting heat. Rózsa introduces yet another motif, a torturous seven-note construct that I will refer to as the Suffering Motif, a dissonant repeating line, beset by dire horns, darting free form woodwinds, struggling strings, and coupled with a steady drumbeat, full of despair and dread. At 2:09 we segue into “Exhaustion“ where Rózsa unleashes a torrent of emotions. As the guard halts the men by a well in Nazareth, strings affanato commence an impassioned ascent in pace and register as Judah desperately seeks water. When a guard denies him water he crumbles to the ground, as his will to live is lost. His suffering is born by a descent on repeating phrases by strings affanato as he cries out in agony, “God Help Me!” At 4:05 we segue into “The Prince Of Peace” where Rózsa graces us with a score highlight, an inspiring, ethereal rendering of the Christ Theme. This theme is essential to the story’s narrative and serves to portray the on-going transformation of Judah by the Divine presence. The theme is carried with a soothing gentle radiance by pipe organ, celesta, vibraphone, plucked strings, and two sets of violins playing in harmonics. As Jesus wipes his face and quenches his thirst we see in Judah’s eyes that he has regained hope and been restored. At 4:53 the heartless guard moves in to confront Jesus with whip in hand. He is carried by menacing strings and timpani, yet as he gazes on Jesus he is flummoxed, and turns back with bewilderment. We see that Judah has been invigorated in flesh, but also in spirit. As he departs and gazes back with a silent thank you, the Christ Theme resounds gloriously.

We conclude the cue at 6:33 with a scene change “Roman Galley”, which introduces two of the three naval oriented motifs. We see the Roman fleet from afar and the cue opens with the Fleet Motif, which consists of competing repetitive fortissimo four note motifs by trombones, French horns and violas driving the warships with menace. Playing slowly in their lower register we have methodical trombones while in the upper register we have a strident violin ostinato playing quickly. At 6:49 we descend into the ship’s interior that houses the oarsmen and the music segues into the Rowing Motif, a brilliant motivic construct. The hammering drum strikes of the hortator support a methodical and slowly paced statement of repeating triplets carried by trombones with counterpoint provided by harsh grating strings, horn blasts and drums. The cue is beautifully conceived as Rózsa provides the repetitive monotony of the hortator’s drum beat that is akin to the human heart beat to capture the ship’s pulse; sustained by the unending torturous cycle of the oar-bearers. In “Salute For Arius” the Consul Quintus Aruis is welcomed aboard his flagship with regal fanfare befitting his station. At 0:45 Arius descends into the galley for inspection and takes notice of Judah’s intelligence and will to live. His command to the oarsmen is simple – “row well to live.” The unending toil of the Rowing Motif returns to support his inspection. As he ascends deck to advise his officer corps of their mission to destroy the Macedonian pirates his theme, a menacing descending string line, which never resolves emerges to support the scene. We conclude with “Roman Fleet” with the Fleet Motif as we pan out to view the Roman fleet.

“Rowing Of The Galley Slaves Parts” offers an astounding cue where we observe Arius test the metal of his rowers by ordering ever increasing rowing speeds; normal, battle, attack and ramming. Methodical bass, trombone glissandi, and the hammering drum strikes of the hortator play a repeating ostinato, which is opposed by a counter ostinato by violas and horns. Within this cue we are treated to an oppressive, stepped rhythmic accelerando. As Arius orders ever increasing rowing speeds the counter ostinato quickens and intensifies as the rest of the strings and horns join in. Soon further orders for more speed are made and the bass beat quickens while the music gains greater and greater energy and tension as we see the oarsmen struggling to sustain the pace. The music ultimately ends abruptly as Arius signals a stop order. At 3:05 we segue into “Rest”, a pivotal scene in the film where Arius resolves to spare Judah’s life, we first hear a solo oboe play against the muted bass of the rowing triplet. This quickly segues into an extended statement of Arius’ Theme, which has softened in its articulation, alluding to his act of mercy for Judah. We close with interplay of the Fleet Motif and Arius’ Theme as Judah is brought to his quarters.

We now come to an astounding extended octonary cue abounding in action, which supports the naval battle. We open in “Battle Preparations”, with the sinister Pirate’s Theme, a serpentine string born construct, with counter Roman trumpet declarations that raises the alarm and signals the advent of battle. As Arius descends into the galley the martial horn rich Battle Motif resounds with interplay of the Rowing Motif. Arius makes a fateful decision to spare Judah’s life with the command to not chain him. A powerful and authoritative rendering of his theme supports his act of mercy. A softened and thankful variant of Judah’s Theme with muted horn counterpoint supports his realization of what has been done. A brief quote of the Christ Theme reveals Divine sanction. At 2:02 we segue into “The Pirate Fleet”, where we see the two fleets about to engage, carried into battle by the methodical cadence of the Rowing Motif. As the fleets contest, so do their themes, with the Romans carried by trumpet declarations, and the Pirate’s by their theme, now buttressed by French horn and trombone declarations. Woodwind and harp arabesque figures support the rise and fall of Roman incendiaries launched against the pirates. At 3:06 we segue into “Attack” where we proceed into some truly kinetic and robust action writing, which features the Rowing Theme accelerating to attack speed, buttressed by a drum ostinato and the trumpets of the Fleet Motif. Arius spots a vulnerable pirate vessel and orders it be rammed. We hear the Pirate Theme as the Roman ship turns towards its vulnerable flank. We segue at 4:40 into “Ramming Speed” where a now ferocious ramming cadence of the Rowing Motif propels Arius to victory.

At 5:00 we segue into “Battle” where Arius realizes that his victory is short-lived as a pirate ship moves in to ram his exposed flank. The Pirate Theme gains ascendency, which crests as it rams Arius’ ship. What unfolds is a furious accelerando, an orchestral torrent, and an intensifying interplay of competing themes, which provides testimony to Rózsa’s genius for action scoring. At 7:57 Judah’s Theme resounds as he spears a pirate about to slay Arius. A diminuendo at 8:06 takes us into “Rescue” where Arius falls overboard, and Judah leaps after him and saves his life. As Judah lifts Arius atop a floating deck their themes interplay.

We see the Roman fleet ablaze and the Fleet Motif resounds. Arius is overcome by his apparent defeat and attempts to commit suicide. A stirring ascent on strings unfolds as he struggles with Judah, but a gong strike supports Judah knocking him unconscious with chains. Expiation on the Fleet Motif supports the sinking of Arius’ flagship. At 9:58 we segue into “Roman Sails” where we see a dejected Arius and a hopeful Judah. A crescendo on urgent horns supports the sighting of a sail on the horizon. When it turns out to be Roman, the Rowing Motif returns as Judah resigns to his fate. As they board the ship Arius is stunned to hear that he won a great victory. He rewards Judah’s with a cup of water and his freedom. As they walk to his quarters the Rowing Motif sounds darkly as Judah looks below deck and is reminded of his prior life.

“Victory Parade” presents a magnificent score highlight! Rózsa provides a classic Marcia di Vittoria, carried by celebratory trumpeting fanfare, festive woodwinds, drum percussion and clashing cymbals. The cue is set to Arius’ triumphant chariot ride into Rome where Judah partakes in the glory of the victory parade before the Emperor, Senate and people of Rome. It is an honor all warriors dream of, yet few achieve. After extended development of the theme the cue concludes with dramatic trumpeting fanfare as Arius ascends the steps of the Senate to accept the coveted baton of victory from the Emperor Tiberius. At 2:04 we segue into “Victory Finale” as Arius accepts the baton of victory and Tiberius’ command to see him tomorrow to discuss Judah. As Arius descends to his chariot resplendent Roman fanfare honors him, and carries his progress, concluding with a flourish by the Marcia di Vittoria!

In “Fertility Dance” Arius host a sumptuous gala to celebrate Judah’s now legendary charioteer victories in the Roman Circus. Rózsa supports the colorful troupe with a festive danza esotica. Continuing the scene is “Arius’ Party”, where Arius announces his formal adoption of Judah as heir to his House. A small ensemble offers another dance, but one that is more gentile and intricate in its construct. Its A Phrase melody is carried by flutes and oboe supported by harps, celli, bass, clarinet and bassoon, while the B Phrase offers a splendid duet of oboes, flutes and English horn. In “Nostalgia” Judah is alone in his thought on the terrace. A warm rendering of his theme flows into the Love Theme, informing us that he longs to return home. At 0:33 we segue into “Farewell To Rome” as Arius joins Judah on the terrace. Judah is plagued by guilt and Arius counsels patience until Pontius Pilate assumes the Governorship. Judah thanks Arius for his generosity but takes his leave to return to Judea in an effort to save his family. The cue is one of the score’s finest, where Rózsa graces us with a contrapuntal duet of solo violin and cello, which is exquisite and supremely moving.

In “Judea – A Barren Coast” Judah sees his homeland from his ship and is thankful to be home. A lush string presentation of the Judea Theme supports the scene and then his travel by camel. Solo oboe and bass then take up the theme as he arrives at the oasis to quench his thirst and rest. The remainder of the cue was excised and rewritten after the previews by Rózsa. We continue the scene with “Balthazar”, a gorgeous multi-thematic cue. We open with a resplendent rendering of Balthazar’s Theme as Balthazar gazes on Judah for the first time. As Judah lays down to rest we hear a sad variant of his theme, which flows into the Love Theme carried tenderly by solo oboe and violins as his ring reminds him of Esther. Balthazar wakes him, and apologizes for mistaking him for a man he seeks from Nazareth. The Christ Theme plays gently informing us that it is Jesus that he seeks. At 1:57 we segue into “Balthazar’s World”, a scene change to Sheik Ilderim’s tent where he entreats Judah to charioteer his four stallions against Messala in Jerusalem. He refuses, stating that he must deal with Messala in his own way. Messala’s Theme informs us of the vengeance upwelling in Judah, but Balthazar speaks against murder. His theme usher’s in the Christ Theme as he relates his star of Bethlehem tale and lifetime search for the one. We close upon his theme as he counsels Judah to find his path to God. “Harun Al Rozad” was a festive danza Araba written to support dining entertainment in the Shiek’s tent, which was excised.

In “Homecoming” Judah returns to Jerusalem with a forlorn rendering of his theme carrying him from the Shiek’s tent, which transitions to the Judea Theme as he walks along Jerusalem’s streets. When he reaches his house, ensemble woodwinds wondrously reprise the House of Hur Theme as he enters the barren leaf strewn courtyard. We close on the Judea Theme as he honors the entry mezuzah. At 1:15 we segue into “Memories”, a powerful testament to love. Judah greets a stunned Esther in the room where he first kissed her. The Love Theme begins tentatively on alto flute and builds inexorably with growing strength and passion, culminating gloriously as the embrace and kiss. We close tenderly atop a solo violin delicato. We conclude at 3:44 with “Hatred” where Esther asks Judah to abandon his lust for revenge and instead embrace the path of forgiveness and love preached by Jesus. Grim strings emote a twisted variant of the Love Theme that is countered by a fleeting ethereal rendering of the Christ Theme. Judah is not persuaded and we close darkly. In “The Dungeon” Judah confronts Messala as the son of Arius and demands the release of his family. Messala acquiesces and sends Drusus to free them. As he travels into the bowels of the prison Rózsa conceived a grim and foreboding cadence, which was dialed out of the film. When he enters the cell at 2:14 he recoils in horror, as they are lepers. The horrific and dissonant Leper Motif resounds grotesquely with deafening power by low register strings and horns as both the jailer and Drusus gaze upon them. The jailor orders their release and the cell burned.

“Return” offers an exquisite cue, which reveals Miriam and Tirzah returning home and discovered by Esther. They come to say their farewells after being released from prison, and secure a promise by Esther to not to tell Judah that they are alive and lepers. What unfolds in this emotional scene is a wondrous progression of major themes. We open starkly on the Leper Motif, which is woven into an expanded statement full or heartache by strings doloroso. We flow atop a duet of solo oboe and English horn into Miriam’s Theme, with cellos replacing the English horn in the duet. As Judah arrives home his theme joins, juxtaposed by tremolo strings, as there is tension while they remain hidden. As he leaves the tension passes and we close tenderly on his theme, now emoted in duet by clarinet and flute. At 3:18 we segue into “Promise” where Miriam states to Esther’s that she knows that she loves her son. The Love Theme joins upon cello with a clarinet, and then flute in counterpoint as an affirmation. A bridge by strings affanato usher in a heartbreaking rendering of Miram’s Theme, which supports their departure for the leper colony. A plaintive diminuendo carries their departure. At 6:16 we segue into “Sorrow and Intermission” where Esther honors Miriam’s wish and tells Judah that they are dead. Strings affanato usher in a grieving rendering of the Judea Theme, which swells to hate atop a dire statement of Messala’s Theme as furious Judah storms off, intent on revenge. A crescendo on horns carries his dark purpose concluding with “Intermission” displaying on the screen. “Entr’Acte” features Rózsa energetic and original conception, not the abbreviated film version. It offers resplendent Roman fanfare and themes graced by the beautiful Love Theme. We conclude the piece boldly with a crescendo of horns festivamente!

“Panem et Circensus” reveals the charioteers entering the Circus and moving to the assembly point. Rózsa supports their progress with a marcia fieramente, which perfectly carries the scene. “Circus Fanfares” presents in a single cue the four Circus fanfares. “Fanfare For Circus Parade” offers magnificent horns regale fanfare as Pontius Pilate and Roman nobles arrive to take their seats. At 0:29 we segue into a score highlight, the magnificent “Circus Parade”, which has passed into legend. As the charioteers procession abreast around the track, Rózsa supports the pageantry with a glorious marcia magnifico rendered in ABA form. Most interesting and brilliantly conceived is that a major modal Messala’s Theme is subtly embedded in the A Phrase, while Judah’s Theme is embedded in the B Phrase. Although Messala’s Theme reprises, Judah’s concludes the piece as a coda. Wyler made the decision to not score the famous charioteer race.

In “Ben-Hur Crowned” Judah is victorious and presents himself to Pilate who crowns him victor and the people’s ‘god’ with a laurel wreath. Rózsa emotes Judah’s Theme as a regal fanfare to celebrate his victory. At 0:17 we segue into “Bitter Triumph” where Messala writhes in agony yet refuses amputations of his legs to save himself, insisting on receiving Judah as a full man. As Judah arrives an anguished rendering of the Friendship Theme so full of pathos carries the tragedy that brings the boyhood friends together one last time. At 0:59 we segue into “Aftermath” as Messala’s hate lashes out one last time with the revelation that Judah’s mother and sister are not dead, but instead alive as lepers. His grim theme exudes his cruelty, yet it is a spent force, shorn as he is, of its strength. Judah is deeply wounded and departs supported in his unbearable pain by an anguished rendering of the Friendship Theme. As he enters the empty arena a muted trumpet sears his pain with a mocking tribute to his ‘great’ victory. We end in the despair of the Friendship Theme.

In “Valley Of Lepers – The Search – The Uncleans” Judah is determined to find his mother and sister and journeys to the colony. Rózsa sows unease with grim repeating phrases of the Leper Motif joined by tense tremolo strings, and dissonant horn effects. As Judah descends a dark trombone cadence carries his progress. At 2:33 violas begin an impassioned crescendo of pain upon the Leper Motif as Judah and Esther see each other when she arrives with food. He is furious at her deception, but acquiesces that he honor their wish to be thought dead, and so hides behind a rock. The Leper Motif remains an oppressive weight, yet it dissipates as Miriam and Tirzah arrive, replaced by an exquisite rendering of Mariam’s Theme replete with a contrapuntal violin solo as she asks Esther if Judah is well. Powerful and conflicting emotions are in play in this scene and Rózsa’s music drives home the tragedy, the estrangement, and regrets.

“Road Of Sorrow” reveals Judah self-tortured and bitter. Esther again asks him to honor his mother’s wish that they be thought of as dead. The Leper Motif resounds darkly and plagues him as he departs. As they come to a stream, the Christ Theme informs us of a gathering atop a nearby mount. As Balthazar joins them flute tenero and kindred woodwinds carry his theme. He shares his joy that he has found the Son of God, yet Judah is embittered by life and impervious to his words. As he drinks from the stream the Christ Theme returns, a reminder of an act of kindness from a man who quenched his thirst. Yet Judah has hardened his heart and a grim rendering of his theme sounds as he states that he is still thirsty. We close on the Anno Domini Motif. At 2:38 we flow into “The Mount” where we see a large crowd gathering for a sermon, supported by soft repeating phrases of the Anno Domini Motif. At 3:20 we segue into “The Sermon”, presented in Rózsa’s original conception a choral work using the words of the Beatitudes. In the actual film the scene is supported orchestrally with pipe organ, violas, celli solenne, and refulgent tremolo violins playing in harmonics, which create an ethereal ambiance. At 4:05 we conclude with “Frustration”, a cue with a torrent of emotions. We see an embittered Judah returning Arius’ signet ring and refusing Pilate’s offer of Roman citizenship. He thus repudiates Rome for perverting Messala and ruining his life. Later, as he fights with Esther, Messala’s Theme rises up from the dead to fuel his anger. When he refuses her entreaty to give up hate; she rebukes him with “It is as though you have become Messala.” Messala’s Theme resounds and we see him stunned as she departs saying “I’ve lost you Judah.” Her departure is carried with a plaintive rendering of the Love Theme by a solo English horn doloroso. We conclude with the Leper Motif as Judah stalks Esther’s return to the colony, determined to rescue his mother and sister.

“Valley Of The Dead” supports the emotional reunion of Judah with his mother and sister. Strings sofferenti inform us of Judah’s torment as he and Esther arrive. When she suggests he take Miriam and Tirzah to Jesus for healing, the Christ Theme shimmers, but it dissipates, overcome by the return of the strings sofferenti of the Leper Motif. Yet hope remains as we begin at 0:46 a stirring and impassioned ascent on strings, from which is born Miriam’s Theme as mother and son are at last united in embrace. The theme continues with a diminuendo as Esther and Miriam depart. At 2:40 we segue into “Tirzah Saved” where Judah searches the cave for Tirzah. His restless theme carries his progress with growing urgency until at last at he finds her at 3:20 and his theme blossoms, regaining its warmth as he carries her to freedom. We conclude darkly with a mysterioso as we scene change to the deserted streets of Jerusalem.

We now come to a tertiary cue of great pathos. In “The Procession To Calvary” Jesus is condemned by Pilate to crucifixion and begins his trek to Calvary. As Judah, and the three watches, Rózsa introduces the first of his two Passion Themes, a slow and heavy minor modal eleven-note theme that elicits unbearable sorrow and despair. The solemn cue opens as a grim marcia funebre with strings playing in their lowest register and a solitary drum beat of doom offset with an echo provided by tuba and trombones. As the opening eleven note theme progresses, the strings begin a gradual increase in tempo and sustained ascent in their register, yet instead of achieving a climax, the theme loses hope, slows, and we hear the strings descend in their register to begin another cycle of torment. This cyclic rise and fall creates pathos of despair, a harbinger of a tragic ending that cannot be forestalled. At 3:30 as Jesus falls the first time as we flow into “The Bearing Of The Cross”, which introduces the second Passion Theme. The setting is the agony of the cross; the path of the Via Dolorosa where Jesus struggles to bear his cross to Golgotha. The cue opens with an eight-note string prelude that introduces the second theme, which begins with an initial sad statement by woodwinds and a reprise by strings. But the melody is temporarily interrupted by a series of dissonant horn blasts before resuming, this time with harsh horn accompaniment. The melody becomes tortured as string dissonance returns with drum echoes. The tempo of the music begins to both slow and descend in the string register until the bass dominate. One feels that life is ebbing, that the end is near, and yet once again the theme returns rising out of the lower register. At the 7:00 mark in the “Recognition” cue Jesus falls a second time and Judah rushes to him with some water. As their eyes meet a profoundly moving connection is achieved as Judah comes to Jesus’ aid as once he did for him. This gesture by Judah is transforming and perfectly supported by Rózsa with the transient serenity of the Christ Theme. But the moment is short-lived as Jesus is brutally forced to resume his path, carried by the first Passion Theme.

As Jesus’ cross is hoisted and set, Messala’s Theme joins with the Friendship Theme in interplay. This was not Rózsa’s conception, as the themes here are incongruous, instead it represents a hack job by the editors – deplorable. In “Golgotha” Balthazar counsels Judah that this crucifixion leads not to death, but life. The radiant serenity of the Christ Theme supports his words, but the theme is severed by the brutality of the Roman Soldier Motif as the thief’s are raisefervent strings as we see in Judah’s face, an epiphany, which transforms him. The serenity of the Christ Theme supports the moment. At 0:50 we segue into “Calvary”, which offers Rózsa’s original conception, a solemn chorus singing a paean of peace. Regretfully it was never recorded for the film. At 1:09 we segue into “Afterthoughts” as the scene for Jesus’ expiation was cut and the music never recorded. At 1:38 in a scene change we segue into “”Shadow Of A Storm”, where Esther, Miriam and Tirzah make their way from Golgotha. As Tirzah attempts to fathom what has happened, the Christ Theme answers her. The remaining music of the cue for the pall of darkness and approaching storm was excised from the film. Rózsa composed an eerie and unsettling serpentine line, which ushers in a violent thunderstorm.

The discordant first 22 seconds of the penultimate cue “The Miracle”, which supported the storm were excised. The remainder offers a stirring score highlight, a profoundly moving and tear filled scene where Esther sees that Miriam and Tirzah’s lesions have been cleansed by the power of Jesus’ love. As they walk into the blessed rain spilled by Heaven following the crucifixion, their suffering is ended and hope restored. Rózsa provides us with a joyous and refulgent rendering of the choral supported Christ Theme, which resounds as horns brillante and bells join in a glorious celebratory statement. As we follow the travel of Christ’s blood as it joins flowing streams, the theme’s expression becomes transcendent, and glorious in its evocative power. At 2:04 our journey ends with the complex and wondrous “Finale”, which provides one of the most glorious film endings in cinematic history. We open with a plaintive rendering of the Judah’s Theme, which carries him across his home’s courtyard. Soon follows a muted and restrained return of a now transformed Anno Domini Theme, as he touches the mezuzah. When Esther greets him, his theme warms and become sumptuous as he moves to embrace her. He relates to hearing Jesus’ voice counsel him to forgive his enemies, of how Jesus lifted the sword from his hand, and brought him peace. Rózsa supports the poignant moment softly with a solo violin emoting a non-ethereal and therefore more accessible statement of the Christ Theme, which segues into the flute borne Love Theme as they are united in love. As the Love Theme progresses it in turn flows into a stirring and profoundly moving ascent on Miriam’s Theme, which is joined by both choral accompaniment when he sees the healed faces of Miriam and Esther. As he ascends the stairs in love to embrace them, Mariam’s Theme carries his progress ascending higher and higher to achieve a breath-taking climax, which culminates upon the Love Theme as Esther joins the three in a heartfelt embrace. We conclude with a grand and crowning statement of the Christ Theme that responds gloriously. The film closes with a choral flourish of Alleluias set to the Anno Domini Theme, which heralds a new age.

I must offer my heartfelt thanks and praise to James Fitzpatrick for yet another superb Tadlow Music recording, one which may mark his crowning career achievement. This exemplary restoration and rerecording of Miklós Rózsa’s masterpiece, is bold in its conception and brilliant in its execution. So as to empower the full evocative power of Rózsa’s vision, a massive orchestra consisting of 94 musicians was assembled, which included; 56 strings, 12 woodwinds, 15 horns, 7 percussion, 2 harps, celesta, vibraphone, pipe organ, an array of ethnic instruments and a chorus of 80 voices! The sound quality is superb and provides stunning, and dynamic 24-Bit 96kHz digital sound. Also praiseworthy is Nic Raine’s peerless conducting of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. This score is in my judgment the most thematically complex and melodically rich film score ever penned by the hand of man. The thematic interplay and sophisticated contrapuntal writing is extraordinary and sets Rózsa apart. In this grand effort the full spectrum of human emotions are captured, perfectly emoted, and expertly attenuated to the film’s imagery and narrative. This is a score you feel deeply, one that moves you, and ultimately, transforms you. I consider this score to be Miklós Rózsa’s Magnum Opus, one that I believe ensures his immortality. I highly recommend you purchase this superb recording and crowning glory of the Golden Age for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to the tactual recording session of the magnificent Overture by Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=15&v=TlXTPX5cXsc

Buy the Ben-Hur soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (6:15)
  • Anno Domini/Star of Bethlehem/Adoration of the Magi (5:09)
  • Fanfare and Prelude/Marcia Romana/Spirit and Sword (5:05)
  • Salute for Messala/Friendship – Friendship Continued (5:01)
  • The House of Hur (2:24)
  • The Conflict (1:54)
  • Esther/The Unknown Future (4:24)
  • Love Theme/Ring for Freedom (5:28)
  • Salute for Gratus/Gratus’ Entry into Jerusalem (4:26)
  • Arrest (1:28)
  • Reminiscences (2:05)
  • Condemned – Escape/Vengeance (3:42)
  • The Prison Part 1 – Behind Grills/The Prison Part 2 – Silent Farewell (2:23)
  • The Desert/Exhaustion/The Prince of Peace/Roman Galley (7:37)
  • Salute for Arias/Quintus Arius/Roman Fleet (2:29)
  • The Galley (The Rowing of the Galley Slaves)/Rest (Extended Version) (4:31)
  • Battle Preparations/The Pirate Fleet/Attack!/Ramming Speed!/Battle/Rescue/Roman Sails/The Rowers (11:05)
  • Victory Parade/Finale (2:47)
  • Fertility Dance (1:58)
  • Arrius’ Party (1:22)
  • Nostalgia/Farewell to Rome (2:27)
  • Judea/A Barren Coast (3:52)
  • Balthazar/Balthazar’s World (3:51)
  • Harun Al Rozad (2:19)
  • Homecoming/Memories/Hatred (5:24)
  • The Dungeon/Lepers (3:23)
  • Return/Promise/Sorrow/Intermission (7:34)
  • Entr’acte (Original Version) (3:34)
  • Panem et Circenses (1:11)
  • Circus Fanfares (0:44)
  • Fanfare for The Circus Parade/Circus Parade (3:34)
  • Ben-Hur Crowned/Bitter Triumph/Aftermath (2:55)
  • Valley of Lepers/The Search/The Unclean (5:36)
  • Road of Sorrow/The Mount/The Sermon/Frustration (5:29)
  • Valley of the Dead/Tirzah Saved (4:13)
  • The Procession to Calvary/The Bearing of the Cross/Recognition (7:56)
  • Golgotha/Calvary/Afterthoughts/Shadow of Storm (2:36)
  • The Miracle/Finale (5:29)
  • Love Theme from Ben-Hur (3:00)

Running Time: 136 minutes 20 seconds

Tadlow Music 026 (1959/2017)

Music composed by Miklós Rózsa. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Original orchestrations by Miklós Rózsa, Eugene Zador and Alexander Courage. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Score produced by Miklós Rózsa. Album produced by James Fitzpatrick.

  1. Karoly Mazak
    September 18, 2017 at 9:13 pm

    I also think this is the best film score ever written. It ensures Miklós Rózsa, my countryman, immortality.

  2. Carmelo Galea
    September 18, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    I agree with Karoly Mazak about Ben-Hur being the best film score ever written. I started being very interested in film music around 1969, and Ben-Hur left a lasting impression on me about Miklos Rozsa, who for me is the best ever film music composer. The latest score reconstruction and re-recording of the score of Ben-Hur, by the great City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra will be the best thing that happens for film music for this year (2017).

  3. Michael Stanwick
    September 19, 2017 at 3:14 am

    I agree with the previous two comments. It also goes to show that the world is replete with coincidences. I too became interested in Film music around 1969, after listening to television themes when I was much younger. Miklos Rozsa was heavily imprinted on me, so much so that I collaborated on a project regarding film music and Miklos Rozsa when I was at Uni. in the early 70s.

    This release will be a milestone for golden age film score afficiandos

  4. H Verrijt
    November 13, 2017 at 8:39 am

    I cannot think of another score which equals the qualities and grandeur of Miklós Rózsa’s Ben-Hur. Even the great John Williams, though more versatile in his larger output did not reach the heights of Ben-Hur. It will, I believe, remain the pinnacle of film music scoring.

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