I have been fortunate enough to hear quite a lot of film music performed in concert, but one of the most memorable moments of any concert was the opening to Elmer Bernstein's 80th birthday concert when the Royal Philharmonic gave a strident performance of his Prelude to The Ten Commandments. I haven't heard the sound of that much brass in a very long time; it gave even the most vibrant John Williams performance a run for its money. Unfortunately, recordings rarely do justice to music, even with the modern recording and reproduction techniques to imitate the concert hall and so I'll have to live with that memory, but can go some way to recreate it with the score album. Given its 1956 vintage, the original masters are no doubt a little worse for wear, so it is fortunate that we have this more recent recording conducted by Bernstein himself, years before film music re-recording became popular.
The director of The Ten Commandments, Cecil D. DeMille, was not a man prone to subtlety, even if by modern standards his work feels positively restrained. The scale of his films naturally extends to the music and the task ended up at the door of a young Elmer Bernstein after Victor Young was taken ill. Just one year after Bernstein's breakout score for The Man with the Golden Arm, his record to date didn't immediately suggest a composer able to tackle a Biblical epic. However, from the moment the imposing Prelude begins, it is clear he was more than ready for such an assignment. It has a brashness that isn't evident in the work of the masters of the era, Rozsa's Ben-Hur seems positively sedate by comparison. Bernstein didn't opt for Rozsa's pseudo-authenticity all over, but does present some quasi-Hebraic melodies which have the right feel, even if the rest is pure Hollywood.
Each character gets a theme, even God himself is represented by an imposing six note motif. Moses' theme is noble, but also slightly wistful in nature and the Egyptians are represented with a little authentic percussion, notably in Egyptian Dance. Like the film itself, Bernstein's music isn't very subtle, indeed there is a bracing stridency throughout, even the quieter sections seem incapable of calm. Bernstein merely uses smaller forces for these moments, but keeps the movement going. One of the most emotive portions is The Plagues, although the inclusion of a theremin seems like a slightly odd choice when some inventive, but more conventional orchestration might have seemed a little less gimmicky. The final half a dozen tracks are perhaps the most striking, each hitting a high dramatic point from the story, particularly the exodus sequence and the immortal Red Sea crossing.
It could be considered a film music heresy, but Hans Zimmer's more ethereal approach to some of the same moments as portrayed in the animated Prince of Egypt are perhaps more moving. It may not be better music, but in portraying the epic, Bernstein's music doesn't really always connect with the humanity of the story. True, The Ten Commandments is a story as epic narrative, rather a character study on Moses himself, but this style of composition doesn't leave room to feel really drawn into the drama at a character level. The irony is that Bernstein's gentle scores are some of the most achingly beautiful ever penned for the cinema, but clearly he was out to please DeMille and cement his reputation and who can blame him for writing something brash and striking if that is what was required?! That said, the music is still absorbing, the re-recording's performance just as exciting as the original, even though the mixing is surprisingly disappointing. There isn't quite enough depth for my liking, it's a little on the shrill side, plus there is noticeable hiss at times, which would be acceptable if it was from 1956, but this is from 1989. The liner notes are brief, but useful and the entire package is highly recommended.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad