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CD Review

Miklós Rózsa

Film Music

  • Quo Vadis – Music from the film
  • Ben Hur – Music from the film *
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Miklós Rózsa
* National Philharmonic Orchestra/Miklós Rózsa
Dutton Vocalion CDLK4332 2CDs 87:34
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A welcome return.

I once read a really good book on Gottschalk (Bamboula! by S. Frederick Starr) and learned that early 19th-century audiences didn't take music quite as seriously as we tend to do. The concert hall that heard the première of Beethoven's violin concerto enjoyed far more the between-movement antics of the violin soloist, Franz Clement, who among other things played his violin behind his back and upside-down. Shades of Hendrix! Of course, by mid-century seriousness had begun to creep in (Beethoven's concerto, after decades of neglect, started to enter the standard repertory in 1844), as art replaced religion as the source of revelation and the artist became the new priest, rather than the craftsman or the entertainer. I like the Bartók string quartets as much as anybody, but at times I simply want my aural pleasure centers stroked.

In general, Rósza belonged to that group of film composers who led Hollywood from a Wagnerian or Tchaikovskian idiom into the twentieth century. French composer Arthur Honegger got him his big movie break, and I believe this influenced how Rósza went about his movie work – less as an accommodating flunky, more as an artist in his own right. Often his scores are far better than the movies he wrote them for.

One could hardly call Rózsa's music for Quo Vadis (1951) a feast for the mind, but it does satisfy nevertheless. The movie itself just about defines Hollywood excess. Even the photography seems drizzled in Lyle's Golden Syrup. Rózsa's music is far and away the best thing in the movie and indeed influenced the genre of pseudo-religious epic, at least in Hollywood. Franz Waxman, Elmer Bernstein, Bronislau Kaper, and others did their own variants on Rózsa's tropes. Unfortunately, it typecast Rózsa as a "Kapellmeister to God," at least until epics faded from public interest. Until then, he had more or less specialized in fantasy and film noir. After the epic hiccup, he went on to produce some of his most interesting movie music, especially the score to Resnais's Providence.

Despite the occasional "out-Heroding Herod" moments practically endemic to the genre and the pomp that exceeds Respighi's finale to The Pines of Rome, Quo Vadis stands out from Rózsa's other epics in that one gets the sense of the composer discovering something new. Of course, no music from the time of Jesus or even Nero exists, and Rósza perforce had to create something out of at least half-cloth. He took parts of plainchant, Hungarian folk music, and Middle Eastern folk dance, and tended to harmonize in open fifths, evoking medieval organum, for the sound of Genuine Archaic. Musical tags abound: the "Quo vadis" theme itself, like a plainchant; the "Roman" theme, usually martial, but occasionally surprisingly tender, as in the love music for Marcus and Lygeia, where the composer attaches it to Marcus; the "grisly death" theme, and so on. The themes are so memorable, they may stick in your head for quite a while. The "Quo vadis" stuck in my head for so long that I forgot where it had come from and started to write a piece that used it. Fortunately, a buddy of mine pointed out the source. The gorgeous scoring comes from Rózsa's favorite orchestrator, fellow Hungarian emigré Eugene Zador. Zador, a composer very interested in orchestral sound, in general orchestrates more clearly than Rózsa, as one can hear in those films Rózsa composed without Zador, as well as in Rósza's concert works. Zador's original music, however, comes nowhere near Rózsa's in inspiration.

Ben-Hur, from 1959 and also orchestrated by Zador, shows greater assurance with the new idiom as well as dramatic extensions. Rósza still uses tags – the might of Rome, Ben-Hur, Jesus, Messala, Esther, and instrumental "alleluias" all over the place – but he also shades into Leitmotiv. For example, the "Friendship" cue which underscores the reunion of Ben-Hur and Messala becomes harsh and acrid in "The Burning Desert," reminding us not only of the former friendship but of Messala's treachery as well. Rósza handles the divine elements of the story with greater restraint than in Quo Vadis, and sometimes also with unlikely humor. "The Adoration of the Magi" – perhaps my favorite cue in the entire score – boasts a meltingly beautiful tune, whose sweetness is offset by the occasional moo and quack in the orchestra (this is, after all, a stable). Rósza and director William Wyler had a row over that cue. Wyler wanted "O come all ye faithful." Rósza pointed out that the melody was 1800 years out of date. Wyler had a temper, but Rósza stuck to his guns, thank goodness. "Arrius' Party" continues the vein of the Quo Vadis "Middle Eastern" music, while "Parade of the Charioteers" is yet another example of the earlier movie's "Hail Galba." "The Rowing of the Galley Slaves," however, stands out as one of the most original and effective sequences in film. From the script, Rósza got the idea of four tempi, to correspond to the four successively faster rowing speeds of the naval battle, and reportedly even visited the set to get a clearer idea. Rósza throughout his career came up with classic cues, but few so intimately tied to their screen images.

These are the best performances of both scores. Certainly it's the most complete of Quo Vadis, and the Ben-Hur outstrips the original soundtrack album. The difference comes down to the orchestras. Rósza usually recorded with third- and fourth-stringers. Here, he leads the Royal Philharmonic and the National Philharmonic, the latter a recording orchestra of the cream of British players. The original sound came from the legendary Decca/London Phase 4 engineers, who tended to record a lot of Stokowski as well. They designed it to impress, and do they ever. The remastering by Michael Dutton if anything improves upon the sound by investing it with more layers, resulting in greater clarity while retaining the splendor of it all. Crank up your rig and enjoy.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz