• Stewart Copeland
  • BEN-HUR, A Tale of the Christ - MGM's silent classic film (2009)

  • Palmyra Music (World)

A film with live orchestra production of Fred Niblo's 1925 silent film, "Ben-Hur," with an original, percussion-driven score by Stewart Copeland. Contact Polyarts for worldwide bookings.

  • 3(pic).2(ca).3(bcl).2+cbn/4.3.2+btbn.1/timp.2perc/pf.hp.gtr(egtr)/str; sound effects
  • Drum kit
  • 1 hr 30 min

Programme Note

BEN-HUR, A Tale of the Christ
MGM’s silent classic film
Orchestral score composed and performed by
STEWART COPELAND, Drums and percussion

Act I (41')
Act II (49')

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Composer note:
When the 2009 Ben Hur Live arena production of the Lew Wallace novel finished its run in 2011 I felt strongly that the symphonic score I had composed for this project deserved a life of its own. I had seen Fred Niblo's classic original version of this famous story and had been overwhelmed by its scale. Even now, almost a century after it was made the film is enormous, even to modern eyes. Watching all of those same scenes that I had scored for a different medium, I couldn’t help but hear my music working with Ramon Novarro’s portrayal of Judah and Fred Niblo’s depiction of Wallace’s book. I felt that my new score would provide access for audiences to see the original masterpiece and learn more about the various iterations of Ben Hur, since it appears that most only know the Charlton Heston film.

I immediately began organizing the music for orchestral performance. I was looking forward to recreating on the concert stage the joy that I had had playing my drums with the big orchestra.

At that point, I turned my focus to a potential edit of the film. Mindful of those who might say the full 2 hours-plus original version is sacrosanct, I embarked on a respectful internal dialogue with Mr. Niblo (and Mr. Wallace) to arrive at the perfect concert length event.

The result is often more operatic than cinematic, which actually serves the 1925 acting style very well. While the seminal action scenes are untouched by my blade, the interaction between music and story creates its own pace, which at times can be quite different from the pace of Lloyd Nosler editing the film 80 years ago. Mr. Niblo certainly adapted Lew Wallace’s original material for his medium (film) with great respect and I have also approached the story for my medium (concert) with similar deference.

As Fred Niblo adapted the complex and multilayered Wallace novel for film, I have attempted to adapt this epic movie for the concert stage. Whole chapters and entire characters in the book were cut from the screenplay (even at 140 minutes!) and I have had to make similar decisions for the concert. Most affected is the Biblical message that was so important to Mr. Wallace but abbreviated somewhat by Mr. Niblo. Some of the back-stories (the Egyptian, Simonides, the Hur family) which occupy hundreds of pages in the novel are condensed to atmospherics in the film. By reducing these film scenes to the bare plot points I have concentrated on the relationship between Judah and Messala and the impact it has with Ben Hur’s spiritual epiphany. The religious aspect of the story actually stands out in sharper relief with this treatment.

Film-makers are a strange breed, and none more so than the editors. But during the twenty years I spent working closely with them in post-production they taught me a thing or two about cinematic story telling. Pace is crucial, and this is where my concert version will diverge most profoundly with the original cut. The full-length version of the film is very long, best enjoyed at rare screenings; and still packing a punch on a flat screen at home. But at a concert hall or festival, I believe the new version I have envisioned will be an excellent mix of story, film and symphonic performance.

— Stewart Copeland