Ben Hur is just the third of more than thirty scores which composer/conductor Carl Davis has written to accompany silent films. Although it was written as far back as 1987, the music still has enough power and originality to impress.
Like the 1925 film epic it was written for, Ben Hur is composed on a huge scale. The eighty-two players of the Philharmonia Orchestra crammed the Royal Festival Hall stage, with a large (though not enormous) silver screen displaying the film behind them. Under Davis’ exacting direction, their timing was impressive. Each musical and cinematic scene unfolded with near perfect precision, and certain sound effects — cracking whips and chariot crashes, for example — came in right on cue. Even the odd split-second miss added to the authenticity of the silent era cinematic experience.
The score itself is more than a mere aural accompaniment. Davis weaves a two hour symphonic poem out of distinct musical themes for the principal characters and their struggles. The biblical scenes, which include Christ’s birth, sermons and final crucifixion, are built on a Lutheran chorale which was also quoted in works by Mendelssohn and Wagner. Grand set pieces, like the Roman naval battle and the famous chariot race around the arena in Antioch are appropriately grand and energetic. Some elements of the scoring work less well — such as the cow bells used to indicate the passing of donkeys and camels. What the audience could clearly see on the screen didn’t need to be so crudely emphasised in the music. Elsewhere, there were more effective tongue-in-cheek touches: shades of Strauss’ Salome in the swankily exotic feasting scene; and plaintive organ solos during the New Testament tableaux.
Whether the score would stand up on its own in the concert hall is debatable, although a suite of highlights would certainly work well. The enthusiastic reception of the audience bodes well for the South Bank’s next outing at the silent cinema next year, when Davis and the Philharmonia will present the 1924 classic The Thief of Bagdad.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk