Rózsa, Miklós (1907–95)
With the score to Ben-Hur both music for Biblical epics and Miklós Rózsa’s style came into their maturity. Dramatic vocalization was applied to a wider variety of subject matter, only to be literally emulated by other composers in subsequent films. According to the composer:
I had no difficulty conceiving the music stylistically. This time I didn’t go to first-century sources, but simply developed the “Roman” style I had already established in Quo Vadis to create an archaic feeling.1
The movie begins with a prologue showing the Nativity scene; the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem is signaled by a chorale-like melody, its sound enhanced by a wordless chorus. This leads, in the stable itself, to a delightful wordless carol, although director William Wyler originally wanted to use the traditional carol “Adeste Fideles” instead. Although it may seem odd that a movie about a Jewish prince should begin with the Nativity scene, it should be remembered that the full title of the film is Ben-Hur—A Tale of the Christ.
At the end of the movie, Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) reunites with his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), who have been miraculously cured of their leprosy after an encounter with Jesus (Claude Heater) on his way to be crucified. Wordless chorus accompanies this miraculous transformation, at first singing “Ah,” eventually transformed into “Alleluia” as a shepherd drives his flock past three crosses in the distance. Even though the chorus finally does have text, it remains outside the narrative space.
(Nauman 2009, 246–47)
Rózsa also used dramatic vocalization in the scores to The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The Red House (1947), Quo Vadis (1951), Julius Caesar (1953), Knights of the Round Table (1953), King of Kings (1961), and El Cid (1961).
This movie provides numerous places where dramatic vocalization could have been used to exquisite effect, as in other Biblically-themed films. Unfortunately, Rózsa fails to take advantage of such opportunities, much like Elmer Bernstein didn’t in the score to The Ten Commandments.
|Opening Scene and Birth of Jesus|
“Ben-Hur begins with a prologue showing the Nativity, and the apparition of the Morning Star is signaled by a chorale-like melody, its harmonies shaded by a wordless chorus, that later becomes Balthazar’s leitmotif. This yields, in the stable, to a charming carol with woodwind skirls which director William Wyler finally came—reluctantly—to prefer to his original idea of ‘Adeste Fideles’.” 2 This clip occurs prior to the opening credits. Rózsa also included dramatic vocalization in the Nativity scene in King of Kings (1961) two years later.
At the end of the movie: “The film’s main themes pass in review: Ben Hur’s, Esther’s, finally his mother’s. A shepherd in the foreground drives his flock past the three crosses sharply etched against a darkling horizon, and the Christ theme complete closes the picture as a peal of Alleluias rings out.” 3 Ben Hur reunites with his mother and sister, who have been miraculously been cured from their leprosy. A miracle of sorts, after all of Ben Hur’s struggles, the hero, etc. Unfortunately, the chorus, first singing “Ah,” eventually sings “Alleluia.” Yet, the non-diegetic nature of this music, plus its close affinity with other Biblically-themed movies, places this short example within the overall greater context of dramatic vocalization.
1 Miklós Rózsa, Double Life: The Autobiography of Miklós Rózsa (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1982), 177.
2 Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood (New York: Marion Boyars, 1990), 219.
3 Ibid., 220.