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One thing that must be understood about “classic” Hollywood films (usually anything made before 1960) is that in those days, the large epic films were constructed very much like an opera or a play would be. By this I mean, they would have separate screens labelled “overture” (as Ben-Hur does above), “Intermission” and also “Exit Music” (music that would play while the audience left the theatre).
This overture was composed by the Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa for the 1959 epic Ben-Hur. He won the Academy Award for Best Score and many cite it as being one of the greatest film scores of all time. The image is an extreme close-up of the figures of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Above is the first eight measures from the beginning of the overture (from the original score)
I love this overture because of how it begins, with this attention-grabbing fanfare from the brass and woodwinds. The call repeats three times and swells at the last moment before the brass breaks through with the immortal “Hallelujah” motif (my term for it), the timpani thundering in the background. The motif repeats again, and again, building and swelling and then…dying away into the main love theme and other side themes that recur throughout the film. That’s a technique seen multiple times in film overtures: beginning with a brassy motif and transferring to strings (*cough* think of Star Wars *cough*)
The overture ends as it began, with the brass and woodwind trumpet call, more firm this time. This signals that the overture is ending and the main story is about to begin.
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