There are a handful of composers who are undisputed masters of a specific film genre. Bernard Herrmann was most of all the master of suspense (partially thanks to his collaboration with Hitchcock), Erich Wolfgang Korngold the father of what we understand as Hollywood swashbuckling and surely the unrivalled king of historical or sword-and-sandal epics was Miklós Rózsa, who wrote perhaps his most famous music for films like Quo Vadis (1950), Ben-Hur (1959), El Cid (1961) and King of Kings (1961). The final film and score in the composer’s run of these spectacles was the 1962 Sodom and Gomorrah, which was a notorious clunker of a movie but even that didn’t keep the Hungarian born maestro from composing majestic and expansive music for it, that just might be the only saving grace of the film. The score has been released several times in the past, most recently by the Italian Digitmovies label, who re-issued a limited set of all the available original tracks from the score in 2014, although that presentation was still not truly complete. But now the full majesty of Rózsa’s music is all the more apparent with the latest Tadlow Music/Prometheus Records re-recording performed resoundingly by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the precise baton of Nic Raine. Running for more than 2 hours it is truly the most comprehensive presentation of the music and in brilliant vibrant modern sound performed by an ensemble who has proven to have remarkable enthusiasm and affinity for Rózsa’s music.
Miklós Rózsa was not originally attached to the project but took over the scoring duties of Sodom and Gomorrah from another Hollywood composer known for his own unique sturm-und-drang, Dimitri Tiomkin. Fate intervened as he was indisposed due to an emergency eye surgery, so Rózsa agreed to step in when one of the producers sought his services. Tiomkin might have gotten the longer end of the stick in this case, as soon after agreeing to do the score Rózsa to his dismay found out how bad the film really was. In his autobiography he confesses it had very little redeeming qualities and most distressingly it needed close to two hours of score. Having just completed both El Cid and King of Kings the previous year, the composer was exhausted and looked to the task ahead with trepidation. But as the consummate professional he was, the composer soldiered on despite the shortcomings of the movie and produced a fitting grand finale to the era of epics in his career.
While listening to Rózsa’s highly romantic and ebullient music one would not think that there was any lack of inspiration or enthusiasm on the composer’s part during the scoring of the film. Only in places the reliance on familiar chord progressions, wisps of before-heard melodies and orchestral effects might hint at the fatigue of the maestro at the time of composing but otherwise the score burns with passion and no small amount of drama. The different story threads and characters are addressed with their own themes as was the composer’s wont and the two central loves themes stand as particularly fine inventions even by his standards. The score is sprawling, complex, colourful and like most of the composer’s works, big, bold and arrests the attention of the listener from the first chord.
One of the qualities Rózsa’s music for these movies was famous for was the meticulous research he undertook before each and every one of them to find the authentic flavours for the periods and cultures they were set in. Since the bygone eras have not necessarily left many musical vestiges in the form of notation, melodies or even instruments, much of the composer’s work is part rough approximation of the mode of music in question and part sheer invention. While he often coined melodies from older extant sources like the Spanish Cantigas de Santa Maria for El Cid, the music invariably ended up sounding nearly 100% like Miklós Rózsa when filtered through his fertile imagination. With Sodom and Gomorrah Rózsa turned to the works of the famed Jewish music scholar Abraham Zevi Idelsohn who had collected an extensive library of music from the Near East including the music of Yemenite and Babylonian Jews, which the composer utilized for some of his themes and the choruses performed on-screen.
Like Quo Vadis, this score also contains a number of choruses, this time for the Hebrews and people of Sodom and here Rózsa employs material from the Idelsohn collection to give the music a sheen of genuine antiquity. ‘The Desert’ presents the first of these, a solemn hymn-like piece for mixed chorus while the latter half of ‘Children’s Game’ contains a joyous chant for a children’s ensemble. ‘The Prayer’ for male voices sounds like one would expect, austere and solemn, almost plainsong-like. ‘The Quarry’ shows the composer integrating one of his own themes into source music when the stern Hebrew theme is transported into the male chorus for a work song reflecting heavy toil. Later Rózsa turns the Hebrew march theme in ‘Victory March’ into an unabashed piece of pomp and circumstance for operatic male chorus and orchestra.
As usual there is also a plethora of diegetic or source music performed on-screen by the actors, and the composer again weds his European sensibilities with faux-Near Eastern stylings to produce little musical interludes for small ensembles or for single instruments that always retain a sense of drama to them, often even stating the main themes in the process. Good examples include the prototypical piece of such material in ‘The Gates of Sodom/Palace Dance’, where woodwinds dance exotically to the rhythm of the percussion ensemble reminding the seasoned listeners of Rózsa’s other epics, ‘Lyre Music’ with harp performing the duties of the ancient instrument, ‘The Queen’s Bath / Lyre Music II’ where Sodom theme is heard suggestively on solo guitar and the lengthy and more dramatically charged ‘Dance of the Twins/Dance of the Sinners’ with its little musical peaks and valleys, where the drive is carried notably by a gorgeous and deft flute solo.
In the tradition of the great road show spectacles of old the score for Sodom and Gomorrah contains ‘Overture’, ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Epilogue’ that were heard at the opening, during the intermission and after the film. Thus Rózsa was afforded the luxury of actually penning self contained musical statements containing the main thematic material of the score and introducing them to the audience during the showing. More on these later. And speaking of thematic introductions the new Tadlow re-recording opens with another concert suite ‘Theme and Answer to a Dream’ presenting the two love themes of the film, first for the leader of the Hebrews, Lot and the slave woman Ildith and another for Lot’s daughter Shuah and Astaroth the prince of the city of Sodom. The first is a sweeping affair painted by the composer with a broad brush, full of grand emotional gestures while the second has a more lyrically pensive quality to it but both are equally beautifully crafted.
The above mentioned ‘Overture’ comes next and contains the introduction to the theme for the Hebrews and their leader Lot, which is a stoic and stern melody injected with orientalisms in the rolling melisma figures, giving it a slightly exotic edge but mostly focusing on proud and steadfast progressions showcasing musically the piety of the Hebrews. It’s actual introduction in the score itself comes in grand and formal fashion in ‘Jordan’ where it is stately and fervently performed by the whole orchestra. Henceforward the theme becomes another major fixture of the score and leads the way through the soundtrack up until the ‘Finale’ where it really achieves biblical proportions through the use of choir and an organ and sweeps the score to a truly ecstatic conclusion.
‘Intermezzo’ in the middle of the second album focuses almost solely on the darker opposing musical elements of the score, the imperious, wicked and gloomy progressions for the depraved city of Sodom itself and its cruel queen and prince Astaroth and the piece simply oozes fatal musical menace and villainy. While this piece ushered people back from the intermission half way through the picture, the themes for Sodom are first heard on the first disc when they are thunderously introduced in ‘Prelude/Tamar Rides Out’ where the curtain raising heavy brass leaves no question of the nature of these two cities and their people. The fateful chords carry the same often doom-laden feel of Rózsa’s film noir output, denoting the villains, depravity and darkness in no uncertain melodramatic terms. The composer adeptly gives countless variations of these ideas from those Stentorian fanfares (‘The Will of Jehova/Jealousy’, ‘Escaping Slaves/Astaroth and Lot Conflict’) to languid and seductive woodwind readings (‘The Queen’s Favourite’) but as the prominence of the evil of these vile twin cities grows so does the frequency with which this music appears and it becomes ever weightier and violent until it culminates in the harrowing ‘Exodus/Hebrews Leave Sodom/The Destruction Of Sodom’, where it is taken to manic heights as these people are brought low by the divine wrath helped enormously by Rózsa’s grand and swirling musical firestorm.
The more heroic side of the Hebrews is represented by a full-blown march, a rousing melody used when they go to battle in ‘Farewell and March Of The Hebrews / Hebrews’ March Into Sodom’ and contains all the pageantry Rózsa can muster, especially when later performed by full male chorus as they emerge triumphant in ‘Victory March’. A singular musical moment worth a special mention is when the composer illustrates the higher power and presence of god first through sparkling orchestrations and then suddenly brings in wordless chorus in the beautifully understated and serene ‘Messengers Of Jehovah / Lot Freed’ which evokes a wondrous sense of majestic awe with masterfully economic means.
For the enemy of both Sodom and Gomorrah and the Hebrews, the Elamites, Rózsa penned a very typical martial piece, best heard in ‘March of the Elamites’, carrying clear shades of his brash and overbearing brass and percussion led militaristic music for the Romans in his other sword-and-sandal epics. This bellicose idea is pitted spectacularly against the Hebrew music in the ‘Battle of the Dam’, heard here in its world premiere release in full form, which runs for a mammoth 14 minutes (more if you count the other battle music surrounding it) and it is one of the longest continuous pieces of such music the composer ever wrote. It is a raucous and highly hectic tour-de-force of dramatic and action writing rivalling the setpieces of Ben-Hur and El Cid with Rózsa expertly weaving his themes for the Hebrews, Sodom and Elamites together as they go to a musical war on each other. It is a grand and aggressively energetic set of cues, where the music deftly illustrates the different turns of events through the thematic interplay in a classic fashion. And while it admittedly is aurally a rather taxing piece of sturm-und-drang due to its frenetic nature, it is none the less an impressive and rewarding action sequence, made all the more impressive by the vibrant performance by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, who have over the years and several Rózsa projects developed a true sensitivity to the composer’s music.
The two aforementioned love themes emerge slowly in the actual score, some 45 minutes into the first CD, where the Astaroth/Shuah love theme is first stated with delicate lyricism in ‘Answer to a Dream’ by solo oboe and strings and is truly among the most ravishing melodies this great melodist ever penned. Soon after, in ‘Hand Reading’, Lot/Ildith melody emerges with equal emotional sensitivity but having more straightforward romantic sweep to it. ‘River Pastorale / Lot’s Proposal / Ildith’s Fear’ offers a respite from the turbulent and troubled music that has preceded it, vintage romantic Rózsa underscore with another new gently lilting, a touch sensuous melody, which soon leads to a full Lot/Ildith love theme and is capped by an ominous trickle of the Sodom theme on oboe to capture all the conflicting emotions of the scene. These two themes are really the heart and soul of the score and carry the emotional weight of the drama extremely elegantly as they appear frequently throughout the score and the Lot/Ildith theme leads the listener to the dramatic finale of the soundtrack as it appears in an impassioned and rousing concert version in ‘Epilogue’ meant as the curtain closing music when people are leaving the theatre. For this release the score reconstruction expert Leigh Phillips provides one additional treat for the listener, a special version of ‘Answer to a Dream’ arranged for solo violin and orchestra to close the score presentation, a fittingly sumptuous and superbly lyrical send-off at the end of the second disc featuring the sensitive and emotional violin performance of the concert master of the Prague orchestra, Lucie Svehlova.
Sodom and Gomorrah is truly as traditional as such epic can get in style and sound and I would say a must for those well versed in Rózsa. It doesn’t offer many curve balls or surprises in terms of style and expression as the score is really a continuation and culmination of his epic sound but as such comes with a hearty recommendation to the fans of the composer and to other Golden Age film score buffs as it does impress with the way Rózsa realigns his patented sounds, with its extremely well crafted thematic material and architecture and how the composer adds just a hint of variety to the formula through the application of the historical Jewish musical idiom. The excellent performance by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir where all of Rózsa’s musical passion really comes out and the modern improved sonics are major reasons to consider investigating this double disc set as I doubt this music has ever sounded better. And kudos have to be given to the producer James Fitzpatrick for embarking on this recording odyssey in the first place.
For more casual listeners, I would perhaps recommend El Cid, Quo Vadis (both available as superb Tadlow re-recordings) or Ben-Hur first, but in the same breath I have to note that Sodom and Gomorrah is very much a branch from the same tree and equally worth investigating if you feel inclination for some Golden Age melodrama and rousing full orchestra fireworks. This score, reconstructed almost from scratch with impeccable skill by the expert Leigh Phillips, shows without the shadow of a doubt the composer’s undisputed mastery of the historical epic in the expansiveness of expression, the variety, the colour and the sheer spectacle of it all. While in the above paragraphs I merely scratched the surface of this score with my description of some of the highlights, in this music is contained a whole musical world, which I strongly recommend people to investigate and immerse themselves in and reap the ample rewards Rózsa’s last epic has to offer.
Sodom and Gomorrah is out now from Tadlow/Prometheus Records