4.35. Miklós Rózsa, film music ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’ (1959)

William Wyler’s film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959) with music by Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995) bears the name of its protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince and merchant, who lives in Jerusalem in the 1st century CE. *Ben-Hur (“Son of Ḥur”) has a meaningful name, which alludes not only to battle (the chariot race), but also to art (the film): Ḥur supports Moses’ hands during Joshua’s battle with Amalek (Exod. 17:12), as a result of which Joshua wins, whereas Ḥur’s grandson Bezalel is the main artisan designated by God to build the Tabernacle (Exod. 31:1-5). After 26 years, Ben-Hur again meets his childhood friend, the Roman Messala, who has been appointed as commander of the military garrison in Jerusalem. However, the old friendship does not last, because Messala believes in the invincible Rome, whereas Ben-Hur believes in the Jewish people. In Scene 10, “Judah’s Choice,” Judah Ben-Hur and Messala come to the conclusion that they have become irreconcilable enemies:

MESSALA: You live in the myths of the past. The glory of Solomon is gone; do you think it will return? Joshua will not rise again to save you, nor David. There is only one reality in the world today: look to the West, Judah! Don’t be a fool, look to Rome!
JUDAH BEN-HUR: I would rather be a fool than a traitor… or a killer!
MESSALA: I am a soldier!
JUDAH BEN-HUR: Yes! Who kills! For Rome! Rome is evil!
MESSALA: I warn you…
JUDAH BEN-HUR: No! I warn you! Rome is an affront to God! Rome is strangling my people and my country, the whole Earth! But not forever. I tell you the day Rome falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!

By means of a false accusation, Messala condemns his former friend to an existence in the galleys; in a sea battle Ben-Hur saves the life of his captain, who adopts him and takes him with him to Rome. There, Ben-Hur becomes a chariot driver; in a race he defeats Messala, who is seriously injured. However, Ben-Hur’s feelings of revenge disappear under the influence of the crucified Messiah Jesus. According to the classicist Monica Silveira Cyrino, who wrote a monograph about Ancient Rome in films, “Ben-Hur tells the story of a fictitious Jewish prince who comes to embrace Christianity[.]” *Silveira Cyrino, Big Screen Rome 66. However, Christianity as an organized religion developed well only after Jesus’ death and, therefore, it would be more precise to say that Ben-Hur is impressed by Jesus’ character and his message of peace. As a prisoner on his way to the Roman galleys, Ben-Hur is given water by the young Jesus; after his release and return to Jerusalem, he in his turn attempts to give water to the crucified Jesus.

Wyler’s film Ben-Hur (1959) was based on the novel of the same name (1880) by the American author Lew Wallace, which became “an enormous popular sensation, and was undeniably the most widely read and commercially successful of the nineteenth-century toga novels, coming in second only to the Bible on the bestseller lists for almost fifty years[.]” *Big Screen Rome 68. “Toga novels”: 19th-century novels, set in classical Antiquity, while reflecting 19th-century conservative Christian social and political attitudes. Cf. Mayer, Introduction to Wallace, Ben-Hur, Oxford University Press ix-xvi, xxvi. The Present of the film is indirectly directed by the Past of the novel; there are, however, considerable differences between the two works and one of them concerns the shofar. In the novel, the birth of Jesus is announced by “a ray of light,” interpreted by the Jews as the fires made by the shepherds to keep a lion from their flocks, or as the ladder their father Jacob saw in his dream. *Wallace, Ben-Hur 53-4. In the film, the star of Bethlehem is shown and at the same time the shofar is blown. In the 120 minutes of music—Miklós Rózsa’s film score was the longest to date *Big Screen Rome 72—the shofar is only heard for 20 seconds, but the two shofar blasts have a great symbolic significance.

The film begins with the birth of Jesus and already before the Credits, the “Nativity Prologue” takes the viewer to the stable in Bethlehem where the three Magi come to honor the newborn child. The orchestra and the wordless choir perform the hymnic theme “Star of Bethlehem,” merging into the “Adoration of the Magi.” In the 20 seconds between 10:56 and 11:16, *Wyler, Ben-Hur DVD one of the spectators outside the stable turns around and blows the shofar. The first blast proclaims Jesus’ birth to the residents of Bethlehem; the second blast sounds as though it is further away, and at the same time, the nightly heaven appears with the star over Bethlehem. Whereas the first shofar blast is a “Jewish” blast in the chronotope of Bethlehem, the second is a “Christian” blast in the chronotope of the world. The added reverb creates a distanced zone around the shofar and stresses the authoritative character of the blasts. As Bakhtin puts it: “The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone . . . It is given (it sounds) in lofty spheres, not those of familiar contact. Its language is a special (as it were, hieratic) language.” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 342.

Immediately thereafter, a third chronotope is introduced: Rome, the oppressor of Judaea, which overrules the shofar blasts with massive fanfares. The Roman marches are heard from 11:17 to 11:50, even past the beginning of the Credits at 11:23, and finally, a cymbal strike with the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ, marks the return of the Christian chronotope with the “Christ Theme.” So there are two “brass fanfares” in the film: the shofar blasts proclaiming Jesus’ birth and the Roman military fanfares; both, whatever their differences, are the authoritative discourses of ambitious ideologies, whereas the cymbal strike can be interpreted as both the triumphant beginning of the film and the symbol of the inevitable clash between the two ideologies.

The composition of “Roman” music must have been a problem for Rózsa. He was already confronted with this in 1951 when he composed the music for Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis, another film about the confrontation of Christianity and the Roman Empire in the 1st century (64-68 CE). Rózsa stated:

As the music for QUO VADIS was intended for dramatic use and as entertainment for the lay public, one had to avoid the pitfall of producing only musicological oddities instead of music with a universal, emotional appeal. For the modern ear, instrumental music in unison has very little emotional or aesthetic appeal; therefore I had to find a way for an archaic sounding harmonization which gives warmth, color, and emotional values to these melodies. *Rózsa, “The Music in QUO VADIS.”

There were images avaiblable of Roman brass instruments, but no written compositions. Therefore musicologists knew what was possible on these instruments, but not what was actually blown. For Ben-Hur, Roman trumpets and horns were reconstructed, that were carried along many times without being blown. The theme of the Roman fanfare in the “Nativity Prologue,” following the shofar blasts, is built on triplets and upward 4ths, common stylistic elements in 20th-century brass music, which are also used by Ernest Bloch in his Psalm 114. *Chapter 4.7.

On the other hand, the composition of the shofar blasts will not have worried Miklós Rózsa, because the shofar tradition was still alive in all Jewish communities, and thanks to the halakhic laws, preserved since the first millennium CE and possibly even much longer. *The oldest graphic notations of shofar blasts have been found in the Siddur of Saʿadiah Gaon (10th century CE) and these blasts do not differ from modern ones. Cf. Chapter 3.3. However, for the non-Jewish “lay public,” the monophonic shofar blasts might have as little “emotional or aesthetic appeal” as the Roman “instrumental music in unison.” Therefore the shofar blast, “stranger among sounds,” *The Reform prayer book Gates of Repentance 215 had to lose something of its strangeness or “musicological oddity” in order to become an attractive antagonist of the Roman trumpet. Rózsa reduced the tekiʿah in Ben-Hur to one single tone, an F4, that was given a darker tone color with less noise, resembling the tone of a modern fluegelhorn or French horn.

The spoken word from Jewish mouths, too, had to sound familiar in the ears of the American audience, and therefore William Wyler had the oppressed Jews played by American actors and the oppressive Romans by British actors. In addition to this, the Romans were connected to the color red, not by chance the predominant color in the flags of Nazi Germany—the enemy in World War II—and the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and their allies—the enemies in the Cold War. In this way, the shofar from the “usable Past” of the Jewish-Christian-Roman confrontation was altered by the Present of the capitalist-communist confrontation.


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