The Music of Ben-Hur

The majesty of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur has been captured in music a number of times over the years. The 1899 stage production of Ben-Hur had music composed for it by Edgar Stillman Kelley. Born in 1857, Kelley was an American but received much of his training in Germany. He incorporated non-Western influences in his romantic style works. Kelley based his score for Ben-Hur on Greek influences; it was the most popular of his works and was said to have been performed more than 5,000 times.

Ben-Hur Music

In 1894, E.T. Paull wrote and published his “Chariot Race or Ben Hur March”, which was respectfully inscribed to General Lew Wallace. Paull, who was born in 1858, is generally considered a minor American composer and publisher. He used short phrases or “descriptives” to tie the music to the cover illustration. In the case of Ben-Hur, he quoted a section from Lew Wallace’s chariot race:

“On Atair! On Rigel! What, Antares! Dost thou linger now? Good horse – Oho, Aldebaran! ‘Tis done! ‘Tis done! Ha, Ha! We have overthrown the proud, ours the glory! Ha, Ha! The work is done Soho! Rest!”

In actuality the 1925 silent film version was far from silent, with the dramatic score composed by William Axt. Axt was a composer of great note in Hollywood. He was credited with creating memorable scores for movies between 1919 and the early 1940s such as: The Prisoner of Zenda, Don Juan, Camille, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, The Thin Man, Libeled Lady, and David Copperfield, among others.

Miklos Rozsa’s Movie Score

Grandest of all was the music composed by Miklos Rozsa for the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. Rozsa conducted a 100-piece orchestra for the MGM recording, which stretched over 12 sessions and 72 hours. Ultimately the final recording for the movie used over 2.5 hours of original music which, until 2001, made it the longest score ever recorded for a motion picture. Rozsa won his third Academy Award for the score and it proved so popular that it was recorded for the public on three LP albums. Subsequently a one-album version of the score was released, making the Ben-Hur film score the first to be released in its entirety and also as a separate album.

More recently, percussionist Stewart Copeland of The Police fame has been added to the list of musicians associated with Ben-Hur. In 2009 Copeland, who is also a talented composer responsible for several film scores, operas, and ballets, wrote the score for Ben Hur Live, an arena spectacular complete with live horses and burning ships. Last year Copeland also totally re-scored the 90-minute 1925 silent film. The Virginia Arts Festival is hosting a performance of Copeland’s score over Easter weekend in April.

If you manage to catch a performance of Copeland’s work, let us know what you think! In the meantime, we’ll be in the Carriage House, listening to Miklos Rozsa.


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