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Ben-Hur At 60 And The Immortality Of Miklós Rózsa
James Hanton , November 22nd, 2019 13:53

The staggering achievement that is Ben-Hur must be celebrated on its 60th birthday, but there's one major player history hasn't always been kind to. Before John Williams, there was Miklós Rózsa, finds James Hanton

When it comes to the grand-scale epics of the ’50s and ’60s, a number of different films spring to mind. Spartacus (1960), The Ten Commandments (1956), Cleopatra (1963). But none quite match the reach and ambition of Ben-Hur (1959). It won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, a feat that has not been beaten to date. The scale of the film was like nothing ever witnessed before in Hollywood up to that point. Even now the numbers remain staggering; 10,000 costumes, 8,0000 extras and 30 extravagant sets, including the scene for the still breath-taking chariot race. It had a budget in 1959 of $15.75 million. In 2019, that translates to just below $140 million. This biblically-charged Hollywood odyssey featured enslavement, revenge, salvation – all the key ingredients you’d want in a 1950s epic, turned up to 11.

William Wyler’s crowning glory is now over 60 years old. The appetite for these religiously-fuelled odysseys doesn’t quite exist anymore, at least in European and American markets. Yet one aspect of Ben-Hur cannot be overlooked – Miklós Rózsa’s sensational score has aged spectacularly well. Still the longest score ever composed for a single movie, according to Jon Solomon, it proved so popular in its own right that it has been rereleased on its own several times. It represents the peak of Rózsa’s film composing career – quite a statement for a composer so acclaimed. Yet Rózsa is not talked about in the same breath as other Hollywood composers such as John Williams or Danny Elfman. Time has not been kind to Rózsa, as it has not been kind to much of Hollywood’s self-indulgent grandeur from the 1950s and ’60s. It’s an injustice, since this is a composer whose influence on what audiences see, and hear, on screens today is impossible to ignore.

Rózsa was born in Budapest on 18 April 1907. He started out as a concert musician, an artistic loyalty that would never waver. Moving to London in the 1930s, he began composing for films, starting out with Jacques Feyder’s Knight Without Armour (1937). It was the first of over 100 credited scores, including his landmark recording for The Jungle Book (1942). Following the release of a 78-rpm vinyl, this became the first substantially recorded piece of Hollywood music.

Rózsa then went on to collaborate with Billy Wilder on five different occasions, starting with Five Graves to Cairo (1943). During this time he established himself as a key musical figure in film noir, a far cry from the arenas and spectacles of historical epics. He also scored for Alfred Hitchcock, stepping in to record the music for Spellbound (1945) after the original composer, Bernard Hermann, could no longer commit to the project. It is yet another milestone attributable to Rózsa, for it was the first film score to make substantial use of the theremin – an instrument that requires no physical contact to play it. His innovation earned him his first of three Academy Awards. He continued to score films throughout the 1940s and, by the following decade, became heavily affiliated with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – who released Ben-Hur after Rózsa began composing film scores. At this point, he moved on from film noir to scoring grand, soaring musical numbers for the most dramatic hits of the time.

Rózsa composed music for a range of historical epics during the ’50s. For these, he conducted scrupulous research into antiquity to ensure that his music had the authenticity that he wanted. More so than any other film composer before or since, Rózsa demonstrated staggering meticulousness when it came to recreating Greco-Roman music. As Solomon explains, many of Rózsa’s scores feature a heavy emphasis on brass instruments. They also use almost identical modal constructions as the composers Igor Stravinsky and André Jolivet less than ten years before him, composers commonly associated with the neoclassical movement. Rózsa also became adept at reconstructing and appropriating authentic melodies from what records survive of music from antiquity.

Except for Ben-Hur, Rózsa does not directly quote any Greco-Roman melodies throughout the entire 212-minute running time. Perhaps there was no need, for by this point the sound of the era must have come almost naturally to him. He started work on Wyler’s epic in 1958, and it occupied most of his creative energy for the next year and a half. Thanks to Ben-Hur’s considerable budget, Rózsa had some of the best musical equipment of the day at his disposal, and he commanded an entire symphony orchestra to produce a marathon score of entirely his own design.

While it is not the music of the period, it is nonetheless integral to the feeling of being taken back to the time of emperors, gladiators and chariots. William Darby and Jack Du Bois argue that Rózsa consistently seems more at ease scoring music to the backdrop of marching armies or grand ceremonies, rather than for more intimate moments – yet it never stops feeling like his music belongs in the moment. Rózsa’s score is significant because it fully realises its role in convincing the audience that this is not just an incredible story, but one that is authentic. This is despite, paradoxically, including no authentic Greco-Roman music at all, but then even the most avid historian would likely concede that recreating the past in its entirety is impossible anyway. The story is lifted to grander heights by the score, and the music remains Ben-Hur’s greatest strength.

Such is Rózsa’s pioneering influence that no other composer from that era has had quite the same influence on film music today. John Williams, for one, owes a lot to Rózsa’s pioneering efforts. Like Rózsa, Williams realised the importance of audience response over genuine authentic recreation. For Star Wars (1977), recreating the sound of deep space is even less plausible than reconstructing the music and soundscape of Roman times. So, like Rózsa, Williams uses his orchestra to complement the visuals, generating immersion like few others could manage. Williams’ scores continue to have their intended effect, even four decades after they were originally penned. In the same sense that biblical epics are almost unimaginable without Rózsa, Williams is near inseparable from the sound of a galaxy far, far away.

Beyond Williams, the best scores today have that same evocative quality that Rózsa set a benchmark for. For Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), a film that re-popularised the historical epic at the beginning of the 21st century, Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard change up the score at various points throughout the film, swapping between evoking the realm of the afterlife and the world of Rome. Their music for the battle scene at the start of the film makes substantial use of brass instrumentation, specifically French horns and trumpets. Using these instruments in this historical setting marks a tradition that can very easily be traced back to Rózsa. As with Ben-Hur, the score for Gladiator feels at its best when capturing the moments of awe and battle.

In First Man (2018), composer Justin Hurwitz relied heavily on the theremin. Hurwitz used it to great effect, capturing the alienating void of outer space and never leaving Neil Armstrong’s side as he finally walks on the moon. While Williams is concerned with space’s awesomeness, Hurwitz is more interested in its cold, isolating qualities. But both construct a sensational feeling of location that follows in Rózsa’s footsteps. It is, quite literally, thousands of miles from a thundering chariot race or a vicious colosseum brawl. Yet despite this difference in subject matter, Williams and Hurwitz are just two of many modern day composers that, like Rózsa, favour immersion and enchantment over cold hard accuracy.

Rózsa’s scores have such musical merit in themselves that, like John Williams, concerts of his music disembodied from the films they originally accompanied are not uncommon. Yet this arguably overlooks the way that the music welds itself to the visuals in such an evocative way. By prioritising the emotive response of the audience as opposed to rigorous authenticity, Rózsa composed a score that transports its audience back two millennia, and may remain a milestone of cinema music for two millenia more.