By Greg Ehrbar
As a movie, The Ten Commandments is as big as DeMille could have commanded it to be in 1957. What isn’t as well known is how big a break it was for Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein. Victor Young seemed the clear choice, but his health was failing (his Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days was posthumous). Bernstein, whose credits had been primarily at the “B” level, was only supposed to create various dance music and other pieces, but he ended up composing the entire score.
For the first time, the entire score—everything, even incidental musical moments and choral sections—have been collected on three CDs by Intrada on a new boxed set.
The original soundtrack was not recorded in full stereo, so Dot Records released the soundtrack album in mono. When stereophonic discs became a home entertainment must a few years later, instead of “rechanneling” the mono tracks for stereo effect, Bernstein actually brought an orchestra back into the studio to record it again in 1960. In doing so, he was able to stay true to the original while making adjustments here and there (those creative people!).
The Intrada set contains both of those albums, plus a third visit to the recording studio with Bernstein, this time in 1966, for a fresh United Artists Records take on the score. Like the finest classical music conducted in different venues in different time periods, all three versions are each distinguishable and fascinating.
For the new soundtrack, Intrada located as many component tracks as possible so a semblance of true stereo is possible most of the time. The listener can now experience something that even DeMille might have not heard. The result is immense and almost overpowering (in a good way). For those who relish the score to today’s spectacles, it’s not a stretch to perceive at least partial inspiration. Some of it is downright chilling, particularly the underscoring the oozing pestilence. Mostly, though, it’s just big—and classic Hollywood gold–in the DeMille tradition.
The final bonus tracks feature Bernstein himself, playing the key themes on piano—naming each theme before he plays. My recommendation is to listen to each of these in advance, then listen to the other material and enjoy the ways each melody was woven throughout the score. This is a pricey set, but to paraphrase the big-budget movie cliché, “you hear every cent right up there in your headphones.”