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CLASSICAL  December 2008

CLASSICAL December 2008

Subject:

Hollywood at Prayer, Sort of

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 12 Dec 2008 11:22:29 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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Miklos Rozsa
Soundtracks

*  Quo Vadis
*  Ben-Hur*

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus,
* National Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/Miklos Rozsa
Dutton Vocalion CDLK 4332 Total Time: 87.34

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 premiere 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 Bartok string quartets as much as anybody,
but at times I simply want my aural pleasure centers stroked.

In general, Rosza 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 Rosza 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 Rozsa'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.  Rozsa'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 Rozsa's tropes.  Unfortunately, it typecast
Rozsa 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 Rozsa'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 Rosza
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 Rozsa's favorite orchestrator, fellow Hungarian
emigre Eugene Zador.  Zador, a composer very interested in orchestral
sound, in general orchestrates more clearly than Rozsa, as one can hear
in those films Rozsa composed without Zador, as well as in Rosza's concert
works.  Zador's original music, however, comes nowhere near Rozsa's in
inspiration.

Ben-Hur, from 1959 and also orchestrated by Zador, shows greater
assurance with the new idiom as well as dramatic extensions.  Rosza
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.  Rosza 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).  Rosza and director William Wyler had a row over that
cue.  Wyler wanted "O come all ye faithful." Rosza pointed out that the
melody was 1800 years out of date.  Wyler had a temper, but Rosza 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, Rosza 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. Rosza 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.  Rosza
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.

Steve Schwartz

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