The Film Score (Part One)

The following track-by-track analysis provides a general overview of Ben-Hur’s story and score. More detailed analyses and additional information can be found in other sources—particularly Ralph Erkelenz’s exhaustive study, “Ben-Hur—A Tale of the Score,” published in Pro Musica Sana and available (in part) on the Miklós Rózsa Society Web site. All references to the “score” in this analysis (and the description of alternates and album versions) refer to the conductor’s short score, in a studio copyist’s hand, housed in the Library of Congress.

Disc I

1. Overture
Rózsa raises the curtain with a medley of four principal themes from the picture. After the sonorous and commanding “Anno Domini” motive, the composer introduces his yearning theme for Judea in a unique setting quite unlike its treatment in the film proper. Woodwinds intone the melody against a background of pizzicato strings (simulating a large lyre). When the melody repeats, it moves to the string section, with violins playing on their lowest string to impart an especially warm color to the sound. Rózsa adds a woodwind countermelody built from stacked fourths (thus relating it to the “Anno Domini” motive) with arpeggios from harps and piano driving the music forward. The love theme follows, beginning in middle-register strings soon overtaken by full-throated, high-lying violins. This in turn yields to the theme for Miriam, with its countermelody (derived from the opening phrase of the principal tune) in violas and celli. The last theme the composer introduces here is the “Friendship” motive, its warm parallel triads leading to a hushed reprise (molto tranquillo) of “Anno Domini.”
2. Anno Domini
“Anno Domini” returns (in a new key) to open the narrative—its impact especially striking due to the atypical silence of M-G-M’s trademark lion, Leo. As a voiceover establishes historical context for the drama to follow, Rózsa develops his Judea theme with a countermelody that foreshadows a similar idea in the love theme from El Cid. After a sustained chord against which a vocal overlay suggests the chanting of temple priests, the theme resumes. A brief hint of the Christ theme appears when the narrator describes the people’s hope for a promised Redeemer.
3. Star of Bethlehem (0:00–1:26)
The film suddenly cuts to a night sky ablaze with stars. One, especially bright, moves purposefully across the dark blue firmament. The rich, hymn-like theme Rózsa introduces here will later be associated with Balthazar (Finlay Currie) and his search for the Christ, whose birth he now honors with his fellow Magi. Its stately, dignified progress is marked not only by a beautifully contoured melody with rich, modal harmonization, but by an active bass line that almost always moves in contrary motion. In typical Rózsa fashion, a short but significant contrapuntal idea adds to the texture throughout the cue.
Adoration of the Magi (1:26–3:31)
As the Wise Men present their gifts and prostrate themselves before the Christ Child, a simple, pastoral tune lends both dignity and innocence to the scene. The descending half-step figures at the end of each phrase echo the cows seen (and heard) on screen.
Unlike either the film or the earlier Rhino release of Rózsa’s score, FSM’s presentation of this Nativity sequence overlaps Rózsa’s two cues as the composer originally intended. FSM has also included the choral overlay throughout all of “Adoration” (the film delays adding voices until the middle of the cue).
4. Shofar Call
The sound of a shepherd’s horn echoes through the night, symbolically announcing the Redeemer’s birth.
5. Fanfare to Prelude (0:00–0:11)
While the camera holds on the dark blue sky, a fanfare from the full M-G-M brass section follows the sound of the ram’s horn. It commences with archaic open fourths but moves quickly to rich triadic harmony as the title card appears on screen.
Prelude (0:11–2:05)
The Christ theme in all its glory (marked triple forte and con tutta forza—with all force) greets the film’s subtitle, “A Tale of the Christ.” This leads directly to the introduction of Rózsa’s theme for Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), proudly proclaimed by violins, violas and horns over a flurry of woodwind figuration and harp arpeggios while the camera closes in on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. A segue to the love theme provides a contrasting B section with a greater emphasis on lyricism, but Judah’s theme returns. The cue concludes with “Anno Domini” as the title card bearing “Anno Domini XXVI” dissolves to the Judean countryside, where a column of Roman soldiers marches through Nazareth.
Marcia Romana (2:05–3:59)
An unvarying two-measure bass ostinato underpins the first of Rózsa’s Roman marches for the film. It anchors not only the march proper but also the introduction and coda, which reference the Judea theme in a martial variation. Because the music serves as underscore rather than emanating from an onscreen source, the orchestration includes strings—unlike the other marches in the film, which Rózsa scored for winds and percussion only.
6. Spirit and Sword
A hushed setting of the Christ theme accompanies Jesus (whose face is never seen) walking in the hills. The march returns as the Roman cohort approaches Jerusalem. This cue was a late addition to the score, written and recorded after the film’s previews. Rózsa had previously composed two cues (both entitled “His Father’s Business”) for this sequence, but never recorded them. One featured an alternate Christ theme that Rózsa eventually abandoned—except for a brief passage in the “Finale.”
7. Salute for Messala
Eight onscreen trumpets greet the Roman tribune, Messala (Stephen Boyd), as he arrives to assume command of the garrison in Jerusalem. An ensemble of trumpets, flugelhorns, French horns and trombones performed the cue in Rome. The first eight bars of the 16-measure cue do not appear in the film—or on this CD, as the only portions of the Rome recording that survive are those ultimately used in the picture.
8. Friendship
Messala, son of the former Roman governor, greets his boyhood friend, Judah Ben-Hur, at the Roman fortress. Rózsa infuses his theme for their friendship with warm triadic harmony and gently dotted rhythms. When Messala challenges Judah to a friendly spear-throwing contest, Rózsa prepares for the Roman’s thrust with a sequence of climbing triads that climax in a radiant F# major chord as Messala’s spear hits a crossbeam. The composer repeats the same musical idea for Judah’s attempt, building to an even more ecstatic B major conclusion. The music subsides as the conversation turns to politics and the first signs of conflict between the two friends appear. Rózsa reflects the change of mood with subtle alterations to the music, adding sevenths and ninths to the harmony and abandoning the confident dotted rhythms in the melody. (The finished film dropped the grim statement of Messala’s theme that opens this cue.)
9. The House of Hur
The friendship theme returns as the two men—still friends in spite of their differences—drink a toast. The scene shifts to Judah’s home, where his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), and his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), join him in welcoming Messala. Solo oboe introduces a new motive, somewhat Oriental in character, that weaves its way through the friendship theme and adds an exotic color.
10. Conflict
When Judah refuses to inform on malcontents among his people, the friendship comes to a bitter and abrupt end. Messala’s theme sounds forcibly as the tribune turns and walks away; the melodic line repeats but with softened harmony while Judah watches his former friend leave. This alternates with the friendship theme—minus its warm triadic accompaniment—as Judah joins his family and shares the sad news that they will never see Messala again.
11. Esther
Simonides (Sam Jaffe), a slave who serves as Judah’s loved and trusted steward, returns from Antioch with good news: his master is wealthier than ever. He asks Judah to grant permission for his daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet), to marry. When Esther appears, Rózsa introduces his love theme in a subdued setting, with muted violins carrying the melody. Solo oboe picks up the principal line in the B section (much of it cut from the finished film), but violins resume the melody when the A section returns. The restrained tone of the music speaks both to Esther’s submissive and resigned attitude toward her arranged marriage, as well as to the deep and profound effect she has on Judah. He grants her freedom as a wedding gift, but when he asks her if she loves her fiancé, Rózsa subtly inserts a hint of gentle discord with a new idea featuring solo clarinet echoed by celli. The principal theme returns as Judah gives Esther permission to marry.
12. The Unknown Future (outtake)
In this unused cue, solo clarinet continues the mood of the preceding B section until violas intervene with Messala’s theme. See Ralph Erkelenz’s analysis in Pro Musica Sana for a description of the cut scene Rózsa most likely intended this music to accompany. Erkelenz makes a strong case for programming this cue after “Ring for Freedom,” but FSM has followed the reel and part numbers (6M1), which places it after “Esther” (5M2) and before “Love Theme” (6M2); it also provides an effective musical contrast between two cues focused on the love theme.
13. Love Theme (0:00–2:06)
An understated presentation of the love theme for alto flute and harp plays quietly beneath dialogue as Judah and Esther begin to explore (and reveal) their true feelings for one another. Muted strings pick up the theme, but it remains low-key, gentle and mid-range.
Ring for Freedom (2:07–4:47)
Solo violin develops the theme while Judah and Esther recall their childhood. Rózsa makes a subtle shift to the minor mode when solo cello takes the melody (with a violin soloist adding poignant filigree). Tutti strings resume, and a bridge passage builds tension while Judah takes Esther’s slave ring and promises to wear it until he finds the woman he will marry. The theme (now returned to major mode) swells as they kiss, giving voice to the pent-up emotions they are unable to manifest.
14. Salute for Gratus
When the new Roman governor, Gratus (Mino Doro), arrives in the city, Messala and a small Roman contingent greet him—but, as Gratus observes, absent a welcoming delegation from the locals. Onscreen trumpets and drums sound a fanfare that prefigures the march to follow.
15. Gratus’ Entry to Jerusalem
Rózsa’s march for the governor’s parade of Roman might through the city streets is austere and brutal. Built mostly from open fifths, its martial character is terse, foreboding and inexorable. The melodic inspiration for the first subject was the same fragment from “Hymn to the Sun” (attributed to Mesomedes of Crete) Rózsa used for the “Burning of Rome” sequence in Quo Vadis. The abrupt, clipped phrases of the trumpets and horns, answered by timpani, initially span an ominous tritone. Judah and Tirzah watch from their rooftop, and when she inadvertently causes a loose tile to fall on the governor, the procession (along with the music) comes to an abrupt halt. (FSM has included the complete march on disc III.)
16. Arrest (outtake)
Soldiers act quickly to arrest Judah and his family, while he proclaims their innocence and tries to explain that it was an accident. Although it went unused in the finished film, Rózsa composed a bustling orchestral cue for this scene, reminiscent of his 1940s film noir scores. Shifting meter and harsh dissonance (often derived from simultaneously sounding triads either a tritone or a half-step apart) drive a terse dotted figure that moves throughout the orchestral spectrum (from mid-range horns to upper woodwinds and, eventually, to cellos and basses).
17. Reminiscences
After soldiers take away Judah, Miriam and Tirzah, a thoughtful Messala inspects the roof and confirms the presence of loose tiles. Rózsa’s sad, mournful development of the friendship theme begins with solo oboe and proceeds to violins and clarinet, the warm triadic harmonies clouded with chromaticism and troubling dissonance, imparting a doleful tone that sounds an elegy for a lost friendship.
18. Condemned (outtake)
At the Roman prison, a soldier informs Judah that he has been condemned to the galleys. Violas introduce a terse motive that continues in the bass even as violins develop a longer, syncopated line. When Judah tries to break away, the music erupts in a resolute Allegro that quickly concludes on a dissonant sting as a soldier knocks Judah down. This cue went unused in the finished film.
19. Escape (outtake)
Another unused cue has the music resuming immediately, exploring the same (and similar) material as Judah eventually breaks loose and makes his way through the fortress, the music following him with alternating passages of suspenseful dissonance and agitated rhythmic activity. A development of Judah’s theme with distorted intervals leads to a powerful climax as he locates Messala and threatens him with a spear. The music ceases abruptly when the tribune calls off his men and confronts Judah alone.
20. Vengeance
Messala ignores Judah’s plea to spare his mother and sister. As soldiers take Judah away, a forthright statement of Messala’s theme segues to a troubled development of the friendship theme when the camera briefly passes over the crossbeam where the two men’s spears had joined during their first scene together.
21. The Prison—Part One/The Prison—Part Two (partial outtake)
Simonides and Esther arrive to see Messala and appeal for Judah’s release. A descending line in low tremolo strings, piano and bassoon repeats underneath a dotted motive as they pass through the fortress gate. Rózsa intended the material to resume (after a brief pause while they cross a courtyard) and conclude with Messala’s theme as the tribune enters—but only the first part of the cue appears in the finished film. (The composer wrote another cue, “Behind Grills,” for an earlier and slightly different version of this scene, but apparently never recorded it.)
22. The Desert (0:00–2:09)
Unmoved by Simonedes’ entreaties, Messala orders him held for questioning. The tribune’s stark theme leads to a new motive (characterized by a precipitous major-seventh drop) as the scene shifts to the desert, where a column of soldiers leads Judah and other prisoners on an agonizing trek toward their future life in the galleys. Dissonant, lugubrious, repetitive and unrelenting, the music perfectly reflects the sweltering desert heat and the prisoners’ sense of despair. As the column passes through the village of Nazareth, the camera’s point of view changes—it now looks out from a carpenter’s shop. The motive moves into the bass, and continues there like a nagging ostinato as violins and violas commence a low-lying line that, in typical Rózsa fashion, struggles to rise but keeps falling back on itself.
Exhaustion (2:10–3:51)
As the column halts at a well, Rózsa introduces a new melodic idea, initiated by a triplet figure. It, too, struggles to rise, and builds toward a powerful climax featuring Judah’s theme as soldiers help themselves at the well and villagers offer water to the parched prisoners. A guard taunts Judah, preventing him from receiving any water, and the hapless prisoner collapses, pleading, “God help me.”
The Prince of Peace (3:52–6:31)
A man (whose face remains unseen) approaches Judah, pours water on his face and offers him a drink. The Christ theme appears in its most ethereal guise—tremolo strings (including a “halo” of four high-lying violins), celesta, vibraphone, organ, trombones and bassoons—leaving no doubt about the man’s identity. When the guard begins to intervene, a subdued but powerful string line (over a steady timpani beat) accompanies his silent confrontation with Christ—from which he backs away in resigned defeat. The Christ theme returns as Judah looks up, mesmerized, at his savior. An animated, hopeful version of Judah’s theme follows, building to an exultant, powerful statement of the Christ theme while the column moves on and Judah looks back. Although he fails to realize it, his life has changed forever.
Roman Galley (6:32–7:31)
A bold, assertive new motive accompanies long shots of the Roman fleet. It quickly transforms into a theme for the rowers as the scene shifts aboard a vessel and into the hull. This theme combines a lumbering motive in the bass (with slithering glissandi) and a hammering, repetitive mid-range figure. The music subsides when an officer commands the hortator to halt the ship.
23. Salute for Arrius
The Roman commander, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), is “piped on board” with an onscreen fanfare for four trumpets. Although Rózsa composed (and presumably recorded) this fanfare in Rome, he revised and re-recorded it in Culver City. While the original Rome composition consisted of 37 measures, the Culver City recording includes only the first 16 bars.
24. Quintus Arrius
Arrius visits the hull to inspect the rowers and encourages them to “row well.” When he departs, the rowers pick up their oars and resume their task. The rowing motive returns, but segues to a new, edgy motive (with tremolo strings and a descending chromatic bass line) for Arrius as he speaks to his soldiers on deck. He explains their mission: to find and destroy a fleet of Macedonian pirates. Rózsa composed another bold statement of the fleet motive to accompany a long shot of the Roman galleys, but the finished film replaced it with an awkward cut to a fragment from the next cue. The composer wrote and recorded “Quintus Arrius” after the film previews, probably in response to a re-cut version of the scene. (Due to a clerical error, studio paperwork incorrectly titled this cue “Quintus Arrives.”)
25. Roman Fleet (partial outtake)
Following “Quintus Arrius,” the film uses three measures (heard at 0:42–0:53 of track 25) from Rózsa’s original cue for this sequence, “Roman Fleet,” which feature a variant of the fleet theme in celli, piano and bassoon. Rózsa intended “Roman Fleet” and “The Galley” to overlap, but FSM chose to let the well-known “Rowing of the Galley Slaves” sequence be programmable as a separate track.
26. The Galley
Arrius returns below deck to observe the rowers put through their paces by the hortator. Rózsa recorded his music in four segments, each at a faster tempo than the one before: “Normal Speed,” “Battle Speed,” “Attack Speed” and “Ramming Speed.” The rowing motive continues throughout (almost exclusively in the bass, although it moves into mid-range briefly during the final section). The composer develops the “hammering, repetitive figure” with increasing intensity and complexity, adding additional figures to thicken the texture and pile on musical weight. The music partners with the visuals to create an impression of overwhelming physical exertion. When Arrius gives the command to rest, the music abruptly ceases, concluding on a sustained note from two French horns.
27. Rest
A subdued development of the rowing theme leads to Arrius’ edgy motive as the commander exchanges looks with Judah, the high-spirited slave he knows only as “No. 41.” (The finished film dials out this first portion of the cue.) A cut to a long shot of Roman galleys under a lowering sky brings in the fleet theme, followed in turn by Arrius’ motive as the scene shifts inside the commander’s cabin. Arrius lies asleep, but Judah enters and approaches. The motive transforms to a pizzicato bass ostinato, while tremolo strings and trumpets suggest tension with a terse dotted figure. The cue concludes on a mildly dissonant sting chord as Arrius awakes and discovers Judah standing over him. In the ensuing dialogue, Judah refuses Arrius’ offer to train as a gladiator in Rome.
28. Battle Preparations (0:00–1:58)
When a soldier brings word that the enemy is near, Arrius issues a command to quickly ready the ship’s crew and soldiers for the fight. Over a sinuous, chromatic bass line, Rózsa introduces an ominous “battle” motive, answered by short figures in trumpets. The rowing theme returns when Arrius descends into the hull, and his own motive accompanies his fateful order to “unlock 41.” A development of the rowing material leads to Ben-Hur’s theme as Judah comprehends the fact that he is no longer chained to the ship. The Christ theme provides a moment of calm reflection as Judah recalls the stranger who helped him in the desert.
The Pirate Fleet (1:58–3:05)
The two rowing motives signal the beginning of the action as the hortator announces “normal speed!” The battle theme accompanies long shots of the two fleets approaching each other. Rózsa adds a new musical idea—an ascending/descending arabesque figure in woodwinds and harp—to represent the flaming torches launched by the Romans against the pirate ships.
Attack! (3:05–4:32)
The music slows slightly as Arrius orders the slaves to temporarily withdraw their oars. But the same material—the rowing motives, the battle theme and the arabesques—continues in a heady brew as the battle rages on. When enemy flames hit Arrius’ ship, the commander orders “ramming speed.”
Ramming Speed (4:32–4:50)
The rowing motives dominate the next brief segment, featuring a melodic and rhythmically offbeat extension of the lower theme.
Battle (4:50–7:57)
The exciting and agitated battle music that follows (recorded in three overlapping parts) is a complex mélange of themes. It begins with a straightforward statement of the two rowing motives as the hapless slaves look on in horror at the approaching pirate ship. Rózsa mimics the proximity of the opposing vessels with a development of the battle theme in canon—the two strands only half a measure apart. After that, the music bursts out in an Allegro feroce in which the composer employs rhythm (syncopations, offbeat accents) as a primary musical tool. The principal melodic material consists of an extension of the battle motive and Judah’s theme (particularly as he overcomes a guard and moves to free his fellow slaves). Rózsa develops this material in an unrelenting onslaught that musically mimics the onscreen chaos. A passage of hammered accents from brass, xylophone and piano leads to an especially forceful statement of the Ben-Hur theme (three trumpets, four horns, one trombone) against a typically offbeat Rózsa accompaniment as Judah hurls a spear at a pirate about to slay Arrius. When the commander subsequently falls overboard, Judah plunges into the water to rescue him. (Rózsa composed—and presumably recorded— a cue entitled “Trumpet Calls for Sea Battle” in Rome. Consisting of eight fanfares for solo trumpet and one for two antiphonal trumpets, he may have intended them to sound at various points throughout the battle, but they went unused in the film.)
Rescue (7:57–9:50)
A considerably calmer passage developing the second phrase of the Ben-Hur theme in the bass accompanies Judah as he lifts Arrius onto a makeshift raft. Solo English horn leads to Arrius’ motive while Judah removes the commander’s armor. The two exhausted men view the devastation and apparent defeat of the Romans, the fleet theme alternating with a struggling chromatic line while Judah overpowers Arrius when the Roman attempts suicide. The music, too, collapses on the stroke of a gong and a final gasp of the fleet theme in low brass.
29. Roman Sails
Judah and a despondent Arrius float adrift in the open sea. Further development of the second phrase of Ben-Hur’s theme—beginning in an urgent Allegro and transforming into a fanfare-like figure—contributes excitement when Judah spies a sail on the horizon. A variant of Arrius’ theme limns the suspense as Judah strains to determine if it is a Roman or Macedonian vessel. It is Roman, which means rescue for Arrius and a return to the galley for Judah, as Rózsa suggests with a reprise of the rowing theme.
30. The Rowers
An officer aboard the rescuing ship informs Arrius that the Romans have won the battle—Arrius has a victory! The Roman commander offers a cup of water to Judah before drinking himself and, putting his hand on Judah’s shoulder, walks with him across the deck. As they pass the grated opening into the hull, Judah sees the dark forms of the galley slaves as Rózsa’s theme sounds ominously against low string trills.
31. Victory Parade
The scene shifts to Rome, where Arrius rides in a triumphant parade celebrating his great victory. Judah stands at his side as their chariot approaches the throne of the emperor, Tiberius (George Relph). Rózsa’s magnificent march provides a perfect example of his Roman style: scored for brass, woodwinds and percussion (represented on screen by carefully reconstructed copies of original Roman instruments), it rides over a steady tonic-dominant bass. Harmonization is sparse—open fourths and fifths (with some parallel triads)—with decorative counterpoint (usually so vital a component of Rózsa’s music) simplistic and minimal. Because the composer wrote and recorded the march in Rome, prior to filming, he created both a “short” and a “long” version to accommodate the final cut. This FSM track replicates the film version, which edits components of both versions together with the conclusion of “Victory Finale” (see below).
32. Victory Finale
Tiberius awards Arrius a baton of victory. He encourages his commander to speak with him later about Judah. The ceremony concludes with a fanfare for trumpets, flugelhorns, trombones and horns and a short reprise of the “Victory Parade.” (The first eight measures of this “Finale” cue, unused in the film, have—sadly—not survived.) —