The Ben-Hur Legacy


  • Roger Hickman CSU Long Beach



Melodrama, Edgar Stillman Kelley, William Axt, Miklós Rózsa, Ben-Hur


Lew Wallace completed his third literary effort, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in 1880. The work quickly became America’s top selling novel of the nineteenth century, and a spectacular melodrama was staged in 1899. After watching a rehearsal, Wallace remarked, “My God, did I set all of this in motion?” One can only imagine what his reaction might have been to the two major films based on his novel produced by MGM in 1925 and 1959. According to one historian, Ben-Hur was the “most dependable theatrical war horse of the twentieth century.” The melodrama Ben Hur created an enormous sensation. It is estimated that it was performed over 6,000 times for an aggregate audience of twenty million people, making this the most widely seen dramatic presentation by an American author. Part of the success of this theatrical blockbuster is Edgar Stillman Kelley’s original musical score, which includes orchestral excerpts, choral numbers, and a solo song. This study provides an historical overview of the Ben-Hur story, including the background of the novel and stage play, a comparison of the melodrama and early epic films, and the general similarities between Kelley’s incidental music and the two subsequent film scores.

Author Biography

  • Roger Hickman, CSU Long Beach

    Dr. Roger Hickman is the Director of Musicology at the Cole Conservatory of Music at CSU Long Beach. Among his publications are the textbook Reel Music: Exploring 100 Years of Film Music, the monograph Miklós Rózsa’s Ben-Hur: A Film Score Guide, and the commentaries for The Norton Scores. Active as a performer, he is the music director of the Long Beach Ballet Company and the Four Seasons Youth Orchestras, and he has guest conducted a number of symphonies, including those from San Diego, Indianapolis, and Dallas.


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Sachs, Curt. 1943. The rise of music in the ancient world east and west. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Solomon, Jon. 2001. The ancient world in the cinema. New Haven: Yale University Press.






How to Cite

Hickman, R. (2013). The Ben-Hur Legacy. Journal of Film Music, 5(1-2), 41-48.