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Stewart Copeland

Publisher: AMP

BEN-HUR, A Tale of the Christ - MGM's silent classic film (2009)
Work Notes
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.
Palmyra Music
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
1 Hour 30 Minutes
Drum kit
Programme Note
Stewart Copeland BEN-HUR, A Tale of the Christ - MGM's silent classic film (2009)

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')

Learn more:

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

View Full Score Act 2

The music—performed by full orchestra and Copeland on drum set and a battery of percussion that would make Neil Peart green with envy—is eastern modalities meeting blaxploitation fun, which, in meticulous build of tension, melds with the visuals of the Copeland-trimmed-and-edited film and achieves a powerful and surprisingly affecting, epiphany-filled ninety minutes.”
Ben Finane, Listen Magazine,11/11/2014
Those in attendance perhaps expecting a sedate evening of old fashioned movie-making and symphonic music were certainly in for a surprise. The piece opened with a percussive fury from the moment the MGM lion roared to announce the opening credits, assuring everyone that they were in for a truly raucous night. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is just about the perfect vehicle for Copeland’s style of music: hugely dramatic, sometimes over-the-top and bombastic, yet with intense emotional moments that can hurt your heart with their tragedy and beauty. The many scenes set in and around Jerusalem and Antioch gave Copeland a chance to draw upon Arabic musical influences, which he always utilizes so well and were perfectly suited for this piece....Of course the chariot race was a thrilling spectacle to behold, but even more amazing to me was the pirate battle scene: brutal, bloody, frenetic, and real in a way no cgi-enhanced modern action sequence seems capable of achieving. Indeed, as much as I was there to watch and listen to Stewart, it was hard to tear my eyes away from the screen....Between the action on the screen and Copeland’s music, the audience was left almost breathless and in a state of shock by the end of the sequence; the intermission that followed it was truly necessary for everyone to recover and prepare for the darker and more thoughtful second half....…it truly is an infectious work. I can honestly say as a longtime fan not just of Stewart Copeland the rock drummer but Stewart Copeland the composer, this may be my favorite complete composition of his performed to date. The amount of work he has put into this product (not just the music but his meticulous efforts to “clean up” the film print) and his passion for it is evident.
Sockii, Spacial Anomaly,22/04/2014
Copeland, whose energy was infectious, used gong drums, chimes and a darbuka (a drum used in Middle Eastern and North African music) to good effect. His amazingly varied career has ranged from rock classic to opera, ballet and, most important here, film scores…. Copeland’s brave new work faces perhaps unjust comparison to the long history of this classic work, dating back to the novel by Gen. Lew Wallace … No one who experienced this evening can write it off as less than extraordinary.. It is the kind of ‘event’ that the Virginia Arts Festival is becoming known for—unexpected and daring.”
Mal Vincent, The Virginian-Pilot,21/04/2014
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