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Cineconcert: 5 Questions with Ben-Hur Composer Andrew E. Simpson
May 13, 2014

The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery are excited to welcome acclaimed pianist Andrew E. Simpson to the museums this Sunday to premiere his original score for the 1925 version of Ben Hur, a film that nearly disappeared from history. Dr. Simpson has performed at the museums before, wowing audiences with his original compositions for Wings (1927) and The Wind (1928). Ben Hur with Andrew E. Simpson will screen Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 1 p.m., McEvoy Auditorium, Lower Level. Free tickets in the G street Lobby at 12:30 p.m. Limit 2 tickets per person. In anticipation of the program, Programs Coordinator Alli Jessing chatted with Dr. Simpson about the film, his music and "lost cinema."

Ben Hur Movie Poster

Poster for Ben Hur (1925)

When we think of Hollywood's Ben Hur, we think of the epic 1959 action-adventure film starring Charlton Heston, directed by William Wyler, one of cinema history's greatest directors. But did you know it's not the first attempt to adapt the story for the screen?

The first film version of Ben Hur was 15 minutes long, made in 1907. It was based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. In 1925, another version of the film, also based on Wallace's book, was produced by Louis B. Mayer and directed by Fred Niblo. One of the earliest action movies, Niblo's Ben Hur was one of the most expensive and extravagant productions of its time, but notable for both aesthetic and technical achievements that set it apart from its contemporaries. Niblo seamlessly recreated a long-lost world with thousands of extras, monumental sets and carefully hand-crafted props and costumes. The cinematography is done with a painterly touch, sensitive to every light and shadow in even the most action-packed scenes. The viewer becomes immersed in the spectacle of the narrative, which was created by skilled hands and camera tricks almost a hundred years before CGI was the standard operating procedure. Some scenes in the film employed a 2-color Technicolor process, while the black and white footage was color-tinted and toned. Though silent, the film was screened with a prerecorded score or with live music.

The film was nearly lost to time when the Technicolor segments became lost. Fortunately, Turner Entertainment discovered the lost footage in a Czech archive in the 1980s, and the company restored the film to resemble the original release. Take a look at the trailer for the restored film.

Eye Level: We are only able to see Ben Hur today because lost footage was uncovered in the 1980s in a Czech film archive. Are there any other "lost films" that you would like to see reconstructed and have an opportunity to work with?

Andrew Simpson: A few years ago at the National Gallery of Art, I accompanied the surviving fragment of The Divine Woman (1928), starring Greta Garbo and directed by Victor Seastrom (who directed The Wind). This scene, under 10 minutes long, is the only portion of the film known to exist, takes place in an apartment in World War I Paris. Garbo's lover, played by Lars Hanson, is a soldier about to leave for the war; her reactions to his news, and the quickly shifting emotions of the scene, were very moving, and I would love to see what the rest of the film holds.

London After Midnight (1927, starring Lon Chaney) is a horror film and very famously lost (on many people's "Most Wanted" list of lost films). Horror films offer a particularly wide scope for extended musical effects and colors, and so I am always interested in providing scores for these.

And, for personal reasons, I'd like to see John Ford's 1919 setting of The Outcasts of Poker Flats, based on Bret Harte's short story. I have a one-act opera based on this story, and would dearly love to see Ford's film version.

EL: Ben Hur is a lot of things, but chief among those titles is that it's one of the first epic action movies. Do you have a favorite scene in the film? One that you find particularly visually striking?

AS: The chariot race is intense, hard-edged, and thrilling. Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) and his Roman rival Messala (Francis X. Bushman) battle fiercely. The chariot race includes an actual accident which it was decided to keep in the film: it certainly looks real. Throughout the film, I find that the acting is more intense than in the 1959 sound version: Novarro is strong and charismatic throughout, such as in the scene when he is enslaved on the Roman galleys and proclaims his defiance of Rome. Bushman's Messala is powerfully arrogant and nasty, as well.

EL: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the film, and its relationship with your music?

AS: Ben Hur has engendered a strong musical legacy. Composer Miklos Rosza is famed for his score to the 1959 version, and the chariot race is probably the film's most famous scene. What is forgotten (including by me) is that there is NO MUSIC in that scene: only sound effects! Of all scenes in film, this one would seem to be the one which offers the best opportunity for uninterrupted music.

Composers William Axt and David Mendoza created a compiled score (essentially a medley of separate pieces, some original, and some pre-existing pieces) for a 1931 re-release of Ben Hur with a synchronized musical soundtrack. This version of the chariot race does contain music throughout, in a galloping, nonstop compound meter.

My own score for the chariot race will also be continuous, since the scene demands it. It is also a scene which lasts several minutes. Continuous fast playing, especially over several minutes, can be a true endurance test, and so this will be a great challenge for me, probably the most difficult part of the film to accompany.

Although the film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," Christ has a very small role in the film. In fact (as in the sound film), he is only shown from behind or in part, and (in the sound version) is never heard speaking. The real focus of the story is the tension between the Jewish populace (of which Judah Ben-Hur is a privileged member) and the Roman occupiers (of which Messala is a privileged member). These two men, raised together, were friends who became bitter enemies through Messala choosing his duty to the Roman Empire over his friend's family. Thus, two cultures, Jewish and Roman, are set in contrast and conflict with one another. This provides a point of departure for my musical accompaniment, as I will incorporate different musical materials and styles for "Roman" and "Jewish" scenes. However, the musical score as a whole must be organic, and not simply shift abruptly from style to different style. I won't so much have a "theme" for Ben-Hur and a "theme" for Messala as contrasting sound worlds for each which serve the story, set up scene changes, etc. Having a theme for each character can be actually be quite daunting: what theme, for example, could (or should) accompany Christ's appearances?

Ben Hur provides moments of great sorrow and tenderness as well as action, and so it is in this respect a very wide-ranging film. This invites the accompanying music to have a similar sweep and scope. I'm really looking forward to taking this epic journey!

Posted by Jeff on May 13, 2014 in Five Question Interviews, Post It


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