Sunday, April 17, 2011

Elmer Bernstein, Cecil B. DeMille and a Love Story Named Ten Commandments (Film Music Review for General Public)

Bernstein, DeMille, and a Love Story Named "Ten Commandments"
By: Payman Akhlaghi
April 17th, 2011, Los Angeles
First Published as a Note on

50th Anniversary DVD Release
Includes both 1923 & 1956 Versions
And Interviews

It's a testament to Cecil's uncanny eye for talent, who at 75, entursted his 2nd take on the "Original Testament" into the hands of a young Elmer (34), whom he ironically deemed as "a second Wagner!" The gamble paid off, as the composer managed to weave leitmotifs of glory & romance, passion & mystery, into what's ultimately a love story - the story of humanity's unceasing love for life & freedom.

The Affair of a Lifetime

The 1956 film "Ten Commandment" was indeed director Cecil B. DeMille's second adaptation of the Biblical story of Moses. Even today, the earlier 1923 silent adaptation surprises us by its own share of admirable technical achievements for the period. The "parting of the sea", for instance, is a marvel for its time, as the "creation of the tablets" is a memorable spectacle within its contemporary limitations . In retrospect, it's clear that the director's appreciation of the dramatic values of these two scenes would linger on through the following decades.

The 1923 version, as recovered and restored in recent years, is further notable in that it was a bi-partite film, the second part of which left the costumes era for a simple story set in modern times. It was a didactic attempt at making the Commandments "feel relevant" to our times. But it also took away from the momentum, and the overall impact, of the film. This was a mistake which DeMille would not repeat in his second take on the story.

By mid-1950's, sound and color, the advancement in blue screen techniques, and wide screen cinematography (in this case, VistaVision horizontal 35mm format) allowed the prolific director to share his vision of the story more vividly. To bring the drama to life, however, he still had to rely on the music.

Charlton Heston as Moses (1956)
The Music

When composer Victor Young had to be excused from the picture, due to failing health [1], Bernstein's original one-week contract turned into a full time assignment, landing him the part of the composer. As Bernstein himself recalled in an interview, the assignemnt didn't seem to resemble another typical studio-style music process of the time, as DeMille worked with him very closely, for months, citing examples from Puccini to Wagner to Egyptian music, and examinging each new theme, as Bernstein played them for him on piano.

The composer Elmer Bernstein (1922- 2004) was Jewish, and he himself in a short interview considered the comparison with Wagner, known for his anti-Semitic opinions, rather ironic. But the director Cecil B. Demille (1881-1959, himself partly of Jewish descent) meant it as a compliment, and he did have Wagner's music in mind for his film. [NB: I have an affection for Wagner's music, even as I understand the sad racial overtones associated with it, due to his writings, and later Nazi appropriations.]

Anne Baxter as Quenn Nefertiti (1956)
The final music, of course, has conspicuous signs of Wagnerian aspirations, even as it draws on many other sources, for period or atmospheric associations. The Leitmotif technique, first introduced in Wagner's operas, was put here to effecive use, when recognizable, contrasting themes, several of each introduced in the Prelude (cf. the link) are associated with certain characters, concepts, or events -- sometimes heard simulataneously, in convincing contrapuntal superimpositions.

All things considered, Bernstein did go beyond the origian assignment. The result is a unified whole, and his own personality and strong technique does come through amid the requirements of stylistic adaptation. In particular, I find the permeating theme of the music to be rather inspired. It's not made of fearful or dissonant thematic material; neither is it a Church inspired choral or hymn; nor a bombastic epic fanfare. Instead, it's a love theme, an overspreading love from the point of view of an invisible narrator, which in my view, gives voice to the viewer's most sublime aspirations. It's simply beautiful.

© 2011, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

[1] Empire of Dreams, p. 464, Scott Eyman, in Googlebooks Searc.

Other sources:

(*) The 50th Anniversary DVD release. It contains both the 1956 and the 1923 versions, as well as interviews with surviving cast and crew, including Elmer Bernstein.

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