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Ben-Hur and Music to Race Chariots By

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The following is a guest post from Senior Music Reference Specialist Robin Rausch.

“The Home of Ben-Hur,” or at least the author who wrote that book: Lew Wallace. Crawfordville, Indiana (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith)

A recent visit to a friend in Indiana took me to the quaint little town of Crawfordsville, Indiana, home of General Lew Wallace, author of the eternal classic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a book that has not been out of print since it was first published in 1880.  In Crawfordsville, you can tour Wallace’s study, a self-standing building that sits just north of his former residence, maintained today as a museum, with a back room devoted entirely to Ben-Hur memorabilia.

Wallace’s personal narrative rivals that of his famous protagonist.  He was a Civil War Union general, who took the fall for the huge number of casualties at the Battle of Shiloh after his troops arrived too late to be of much help.  He spent the rest of his life trying to redeem his reputation.  He sat on the commission that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators, served as ambassador to Turkey, and, as governor of the New Mexico territory, he pardoned Billy the Kid in return for the outlaw’s court testimony during the Lincoln County War.  The deal went awry when the district attorney refused to release Billy from jail.  The fugitive escaped and vowed revenge on Lew Wallace. But Wallace survived the threat and went on to complete the novel for which he is best known today.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was the best selling novel in nineteenth-century America; its only real competition was the Bible.   By 1900, it existed in thirty-six English language editions and had been translated into more than twenty different languages.

Cover of Edward Taylor Paull’s “Chariot Race or Ben Hur March.” Music Division, Library of Congress.

Many hoped to cash in on the Ben-Hur phenomenon, including composers.  One of the first was Edward Taylor Paull (E.T. Paull).  His Chariot Race, or Ben Hur March, published in 1894, became an instant hit.  Never mind that his chariots sound like they are racing on a carousel.  The piece was easy to play, and featured one of Paull’s trademark color lithograph covers, this one by A. Hoen & Company, Richmond, Virginia.  It was so popular that Sousa’s band recorded it for Victor Records in 1912.

Across the pond, British composer Thomas Facer wrote Ben-Hur, a dramatic cantata “founded on Lew Wallace’s novel,” with an original libretto by M.C. Gillington.   Published in 1903, the cantata features a rousing tenor solo, “Ha! How the chariots rocked,” sung by Ben-Hur, the denouement of the famous chariot race scene.

Page from the well-worn performance score of Edgar Stillman Kelley’s Ben-Hur, Tams-Witmark Collection. Music Division, Library of Congress.

The unprecedented popularity of Ben-Hur set the theater world clamoring to dramatize the story, but Wallace doubted it would work on stage.  He objected to an actor depicting Christ, and the climactic chariot race seemed an impossible obstacle.  Wallace’s reservations did not deter dramatist William Young, who suggested portraying Christ with a beam of light.  Wallace liked the idea and after continued lobbying by Young,and theatrical producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, he finally agreed to a stage adaptation.

Wallace’s publisher, Harper & Brothers, insisted that a composer of stature be contracted to write the music for the show.  The job was offered to Edward MacDowell.  But MacDowell disliked composing on demand and avoided works for hire.  He turned the job down and recommended his colleague Edgar Stillman Kelley.


General Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Ben-Hur opened at New York City’s Broadway Theater on November 29, 1899.   The theatrical extravaganza thrilled audiences with its amazing chariot race scene.  Real horses, trained to run on treadmills, seemed to hurtle toward the spectators as a cyclorama rotated in the background, creating the illusion of moving scenery.  The mega-hit ran for 6000 performances over twenty-one years, and was estimated to have been seen by more than 20 million people.  It made Lew Wallace, William Young, and Klaw & Erlanger rich men—but not Edgar Stillman Kelley.  He sold the rights to his Ben-Hur music for $750.

Though he reaped little financial reward, Kelley’s score cemented his reputation as a composer for musical theater and earned him international recognition.   In 1926, the Library of Congress received a pristine full score manuscript of Kelley’s music for Ben-Hur, copied by conductor Gustav Hinrichs.  Hinrichs conducted the 1913 performances of the show in Atlanta.  The score is accompanied by a letter from Edgar Stillman Kelley attesting to its accuracy:  “I have scanned its every measure with great care and regard it, humanly speaking, absolutely perfect.”


Motion picture lobby card for “Ben-Hur” (1927). Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Almost as soon as the curtain fell on the final stage performance of Ben-Hur in the spring of 1921, a cinematic production was in the works.  Billed as “the triumphant return of Ben-Hur in sound” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s silent film premiered in 1925 starring Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, with synchronized sound effects and live music adapted and arranged by David Mendoza and William Axt.   It earned rave reviews and was said to be the Ben-Hur to end all Ben-Hurs.  It was not.

In 1959, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reprised their success with a feature length film of the Ben-Hur story, starring Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur.   Miklos Rozsa composed the music, which at the time was alleged to be the longest score ever written for a film—not surprising since the film clocked in at 3 ½  hours.  Rozsa conducted the 100-piece M-G-M Symphony Orchestra in twelve recording sessions over three days to produce the sound track.  Several scenes in the film were cut to fit the score, rather than the score cut to fit the individual scenes, which was normal practice.  Miklos Rozsa’s music for Ben-Hur won him the Academy Award for Best Score, one of eleven Academy Awards the film received.

This past January, M-G-M announced they were going to remake Ben-Hur. Can a twenty-first-century Ben-Hur continue the streak of hits that began back in 1880 with Lew Wallace’s novel?  Online comments in general favor the idea, with Hugh Jackman a clear favorite for the role of Ben-Hur.    No word yet on who will compose the score.

Comments (4)

  1. As a film score collector, I was fascinated to read this amazing story. Mr. Heston was kind enough to sign my program during a film shoot, but I’ll bet he had no idea that his Ben Hur had such an illustrious backstory. Thank you for researching and writing this fine piece.

  2. I came across your blog while doing research for a story I was writing about the men who trained the horses that performed in Ben Hur at the “Thespian Horse College” in New York. I think you and your readers may enjoy it (I also have quite a few animals-in-the-theater stories on my blog that you may enjoy).

  3. I enjoyed the article immensely, though I wish you would have mentioned Carl Davis’ epic score for the 1925 film, which was commissioned by Thames Televsion and has been played with the movie in live performances.

    Furthermore, I would also like to call attention to a score I composed for Ben-Hur, in this case incidental music for Thomas M. Disch’s theatrical adaptation commissioned by the now-defunct RAPP Arts Center in New York back in 1989. The play is a combination of Wallace’s book and his own recollections as to how he wrote it and the circumstances that caused him to write it.

    The score I composed has also been adapted as a symphonic suite for string orchestra, its first movement premiered back in 1992 by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and performed by other American orchestras since.

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