Ben-Hur – The 1925 film version directed by Fred Niblo with music by Carl Davis [Philharmonia Orchestra: Review A]


A screening of Fred Niblo’s 1925 silent-film Ben-Hur with music by Carl Davis [orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews]

Philharmonia Orchestra
Carl Davis

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 9 June, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Carl DavisCarl Davis has an enviable reputation amongst composers for being able, within a few bars, to illustrate musically visual action to a nicety. It is a rare gift, and no composer is more successful than he in accomplishing such a task. From Davis’s earliest days in Britain, almost 50 years ago now – his television opera A Christmas Carol overdue for revival – to one of the more recent manifestations of his ability in this regard, with the score he has prepared for the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur, starring Ramón Navarro, he has carved out a first-class musical career for himself.

Having previously given this score (also accompanying the film) with the London Philharmonic in 2008, it was the turn of the Philharmonia Orchestra, concluding an otherwise musically unadventurous season, to invite Davis to conduct his music with this remarkable film (which contains several adventurous – for the time – authentic colour sequences).

Previous silent-movie scores by Carl Davis have proved enormously successful, and that for Ben-Hur is another remarkable achievement. The film is one of the great classics of the silent era, the most expensive silent film ever made at that time, produced by Louis B. Meyer and directed by Fred Niblo. In many ways, the film is a masterpiece, and works perfectly well without music, and although it is a long movie (141 minutes), there is no doubt that music adds a great deal to the telling of the story, and in Davis’s case, a very great deal.

'Ben Hur'. Director Fred Niblo, the cameraman and camera, and a stuffed camel in the centre. The lady is May McAvoy and the gentleman to the right of her, with the squared flower pattern on his robes, is Francis George Packer.In the first part (70 minutes) of the film (it was given with an interval) some may not have been entirely convinced by the music and its appropriateness to certain scenes, perhaps not quite as convincing as Davis’s earlier silent-screen scores – in particular for Napoléan – but as Ben-Hur progressed, it became clear that Davis was perhaps seeking deeper psychological undertones to give gravitas to his music, relying less upon a kind of Wagnerian/Korngoldian leitmotif dramatic thread, even if phrases – such as a Siegfried-like trumpet idea, applied to various events and aspects – were occasionally more apparent.

Ramon Novarro and Frances X. Bushman from 'Ben-Hur'For any composer, it must be difficult (no doubt) to avoid subconsciously referring to the opening sixty seconds of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra – certainly earlier in the film, and as the last week of Christ’s life on earth unfolded – but Davis is successful in circumventing any direct quotation.

It was in the astounding chariot-race sequence – in filmic terms, so much more exciting than in William Wyler’s re-make with Charlton Heston 34 years later – that Davis comes into his own, by way of a thrilling and splendidly extended stretch of music of considerable dramatic impact: for many, this was undoubtedly the highlight of Davis’s impressive score, and his use of solo strings – occasionally solo viola for Tirzah – to octet, and a subtle use of string orchestral strength using just half the number of players, was highly appropriate, making a hugely successful partnership of film and music, fully justifying the resuscitation of outstanding film-making of almost a century ago.

Davis was fortunate to have the Philharmonia Orchestra at his disposal: it played extremely well throughout the continuous stretches of music, totalling close on two-and-a-half hours, and Davis’s sparing use of the vast forces available – the RFH Organ, much percussion including a (for once) quite musical thunder-machine (!) – meant that the fullest forces were reserved for those sequences that truly call for them.

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