Thematic Transformation in Rózsa’s Score for Ben-Hur

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Miklós Rózsa won his third Academy Award for Best Music with the 1959 epic Ben-Hur. The music is often touted as Rózsa’s best film score and one of the finest in Hollywood’s history, in part due to “Rózsa’s ability to write in a contemporary musical idiom while maintaining a direct emotional appeal to general audiences,” as Roger Hickman observes in his book on the score for Ben-Hur. At the same time, Hickman points out that “in many respects, Rózsa’s music for Ben-Hur also represents the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood film music.”

Considering that Rózsa was a major figure in Hollywood’s Golden Age (and thereafter), it is no surprise that his score for Ben-Hur­ retains several practices from that era such as scoring for a large orchestra, the use of leitmotifs, and thematic transformation. The film music analysis below will examine thematic transformation in three prominent leitmotifs from the film: those for Esther (or the love theme), friendship, and hatred.

Esther / Love Theme

This theme is a leitmotif for both Esther and the love between her and Judah Ben-Hur. It is first heard when Esther is introduced as she elegantly descends a staircase while Judah looks admiringly upon her. In this form, the theme has a warmly romantic feel with its scoring for strings, slow rhythmic motion, and emphasis on the positive sound of major chords, all of which confirm the deep-seated love Esther and Judah have for one another (hear up to 0:47):

Later in the film, when Judah finally returns home after four years, he awaits Esther’s arrival in the very room where they proclaimed their love for one another. Here, the love theme’s character takes on a more apprehensive and lonesome quality with the melody sounded delicately in the alto flute overtop of a light tremolo accompaniment in the strings, as though to suggest Judah’s fluttering heart as he wonders whether Esther still loves him. Although this scoring remains as Esther enters the room, upon her reminiscence to her and Judah’s loving goodbye with the line “but now it seems as if only yesterday…”, the theme becomes warmer and more sure-footed. The tremolo disappears and the scoring returns to the romantic strings, indicating not only that Esther’s feelings for Judah are as they were before he left, but also Judah’s comfort in hearing this reassuring news. Here are these versions of the theme (from 13:59):

Only minutes later, the conversation between Esther and Judah turns to Judah’s former friend Messala, now a commanding officer of the Roman legion who sent Judah to be a galley slave and apprehended his mother and sister. At this point, another altered form of the love theme enters, this time to suggest how Judah and Esther’s love will be negatively affected by Judah’s hatred of Messala. Just as Esther looks concernedly at Judah and is about to utter Messala’s name, we hear growling, dissonant chords in the brass, which suggest the hatred Esther knows Judah feels. Then a distinctive figure (musically speaking, a “turn” figure) from the love theme appears repeatedly overtop, even obsessively, as though Judah’s fixation on revenge will destroy his relationship with Esther. Also, these figures are accompanied by a slowly descending chromatic line, again implying the negative effects this emotion will have, and perhaps even Esther’s own “sinking feeling” about Judah’s hatred. This version of the theme occurs below at 16:34:

The Friendship and Hatred Themes

Introduction of the Themes

These two themes and their transformations, particularly that of the friendship theme, musically describe the relationship between Judah and Messala and are given clear statements in their normal form before being transformed. At the start of the film, the two are delighted to revitalize their close friendship from childhood. The music here participates by announcing the friendship leitmotif, which is based almost entirely on the positive sound of major chords warmly scored in the sustained strings in a pleasing middle register (from 17:00):

Before long, however, Messala asks Judah to inform on any Jews who are opposed to the Roman Empire. When Judah refuses, Messala gives him an ultimatum: either he is for Messala or he is against him. After Judah is forced to admit, “if that is the choice, then I am against you,” we hear the hatred leitmotif, a theme that depicts this emotion through its dissonant harmony, dark colouring of the Phrygian mode, the melody’s low, sinister register in the cellos and basses, and the aggressive sound of muted trumpets in the accompaniment (from 22:55):

After the hatred theme is immediately repeated with the melody in the violins, Judah returns home to his mother and sister, and relays Messala’s attempt to extract the names of dissenters from him. At this point, the music wavers between the friendship and hatred themes. On the heels of the hatred theme, for example, the friendship theme reappears for two statements but now lacks its major-chord support, instead beginning with the dissonant interval of the tritone against the bass. Two statements of the hatred theme then return essentially in its original guise before yielding once more to the friendship theme, which is now harmonized with melancholic minor chords. Such quick alternations between the two themes, along with the transformation of the friendship theme, suggest an erratic emotional state in Judah, one in which his strong sense of friendship for Messala is being poisoned by his new-found hatred. Hear these versions of the themes below from 23:17:

The Death of Messala

After the famous chariot race in which Messala is fatally injured while trying to sabotage Judah’s chariot, Judah comes to visit Messala on his death bed. While we might expect the hatred theme to accompany this scene, it is actually the friendship theme that makes an appearance. Indeed, when Messala says to Judah, “triumph complete, Judah. The race won. The enemy destroyed,” Judah replies “I see no enemy.” The use of the friendship theme accords with this magnanimous statement better than the hatred theme would have. Even so, the friendship theme is transformed by its slower tempo, its harmonization with funereal minor chords, and its scoring, which is now in the low register of the violins and violas, doubled by the cellos and basses, with sustained chords in the horns. Thus, in its scoring, the theme has taken on aspects of the hatred theme, suggesting the devastating toll the hatred between the two men has had on their friendship. Listen below from 36:03:

The Crucifixion Scene

This scene presents the final transformations of the friendship and hatred themes in the film. As Christ is being nailed to and raised up on the cross, we hear the hatred theme. But when Judah enters the scene and beholds the crucifixion, we hear the same transformation of the friendship theme we heard with Messala’s death, but with one important change. This time, the tail end of the hatred theme is inserted as a repeating motif in the low trombones between the notes of the friendship theme. The use of these themes at all in this scene is surprising since Messala is no longer in the film at this point. It is possible, however, to hear the two themes as “broadening” in their associations, from the personal relationship of Judah and Messala to the relationship of Christ to the Romans and even humanity in general. The hatred theme, for example, can easily be understood as applying to the Romans and their hatred of Christ. Similarly, the transformed friendship theme could well represent the consequences Christ faces due to hatred of his teachings of a sort of friendship among all people, or more specifically, of a love and tolerance of others. At the same time, since Christ seeks to absolve the world of its sins through his own suffering and death, the simultaneous use of both themes in this scene suggests the toxic effect of hatred on the world’s friendships generally. This highly negative expression allows the “heavenly” Christ theme that ends the scene (and returns to end the film) to enter as though from the darkest of depths, the musical equivalent of a salvation. Hear the hatred theme, then its combination with the friendship theme below from 1:03:18:

Conclusion

Thematic transformation of leitmotifs was one of the central features of film scores in the Classical Hollywood style. Miklós Rózsa, who began scoring films in the Classical Hollywood era, continued to draw on many of these features into the post-Classical era (after 1950), thematic transformation being one example. Perhaps the greatest advantage of this technique is its ability to follow characters’ developments and clarify their changing emotional states throughout the course of a film. In Ben-Hur, the technique was particularly effective since it allowed for an enhanced understanding of Judah’s relationships to the two other characters with whom he interacts with the most—Esther and Messala.

Coming soon… Themes in Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (Part 1 of 3)

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Thematic Transformation in Rózsa’s Score for Ben-Hur — 6 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this excellent analysis. I’m wondering about the final moments of the film and the choral segment, where the shepherd is crossing the screen. That’s so very very modal to me and harks back to the music for the titles – the rest of the score is reminiscent of a sort of ‘eastern exotica’ if you will.

    An absolutely favourite score of mine and we are fortunate to have you to analyse this quite wonderful music. Thanks

    • Thanks for your comments, Sue. In the final shot where we see the shepherd walk across the screen, the theme we hear is actually a counterpoint to the theme for Christ and is set, as you say, in a mode. The precise mode is Lydian, which sounds like major but with the fourth degree of the scale raised by a semitone. This particular mode creates a less familiar sound than major, but one which sounds brighter and more optimistic because of its characteristic raised fourth. So it tends to occur with more positive situations, as in the theme for the character of E.T. (not the “theme from E.T.”, but the theme for the character), or at the end of the Columbia Pictures fanfare, or here in the Christ theme after the miracle has taken place.

  2. excellent analysis . Such a rich score. Proper opera. The harmony under the various changes to the hatred and friendship themes seems so critical. It would be nice to see that too.

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  3. Thank you for the analysis and for putting this music online. It gives us much in the realm of intense human experience, while retaining the sweetness of 1930’s film scores. Western rethinking of “Eastern exotica” (Arabic cliches) is more potent, polished and coherent than the folk originals. Leitmotifs also were beautifully realized in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” This music can be heard on YouTube in a “Proms” performance.

  4. Thanks for the analysis of the sore for my favourite film. Like you, I have wondered about Messala’s musical presence during the crucifixion scene. I realised recently that Messala and Jesus have an odd commonality, though: they have both literally saved Judah’s life. As boys, while out hunting, Judah was injured and saved by Messala (this is described in the book, yet only mentioned a couple of times in the film). And, of course, we know how Judah was saved by Jesus. It’s nicely appropriate, then, that in Judah’s mind, both have elements of goodness – both sustained him to ensure he witness the crucifixion which, as he says, “takes the sword from [his] hand”. Rozsa obviously was extremely smart to musically ‘exorcise’ Messala’s theme – it lends further depth to the sense of apotheosis.

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