Film composers have the difficult task of choosing music that correctly fits the intended mood of a particular scene or action sequence. But on a rare occasion, the composer will make the decision to give a scene no music at all, because doing so would actually detract from the moment.
Credit to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
A good case in point comes in William Wyler’s 1959 epic Ben-Hur. Scored by film composing legend Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995), the film broke a record for winning 11 Oscars at the Academy Awards, a feat that has never been surpassed (though Titanic and Return of the King have since matched it).
Rozsa’s score contains a number of musical moments: the “Overture” (covered in Soundtracks); the “Rowing of the Galley Slaves”; “Parade of the Charioteers”; and the ever beautiful “Nativity.” However, what many consider the action climax of the film, the chariot race in Part II, has no music at all after the initial “Parade of the Charioteers.”
Rozsa considered for a long time whether or not he should give the actual race any music, but he quickly determined that the action itself would be “music” enough.
The chariot race of Ben-Hur was an event over two years in the making. Not only did the race track have to be built from the ground up, but also the horses had to be trained to run in groups of three and four, the various stunts had to be planned out, and the chariots had to be built and tested to make sure they would hold up under stress. Once everything was ready and the cameras were rolling, the entire race was filmed in one take. The production had become so expensive that it was only possible to do the entire race once.
The entire clip runs for about ten minutes, but it is well worth it to watch all the way through. One moment in particular that always stands out to me comes at 5:35 when Ben-Hur’s (Charlton Heston) horses (in white) and Messala’s (Stephen Boyd) horses (the blacks) are running stride for stride down the track. And on a quick side note, the moment when Ben-Hur nearly falls out of his chariot was NOT scripted. The jump over the fallen chariot was planned, but Heston’s stunt double refused to wear a harness, insisting that he could ride the jump without it (oh was he ever wrong).
Please watch the race here: Ben-Hur Chariot Race and note the complete lack of music, diegetic or otherwise until the race is over. In my opinion, the true test of a film composer’s talent comes when they have to decide when NOT to use the music. Enjoy!
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When the music says everything: The “Lepers!” scene from Ben-Hur (1959)
“Overture” from Ben-Hur by Miklos Rozsa
Miklos Rozsa conducts Ben-Hur suite (1979)
*Everything is copyright to MGM Studio