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  • Stefan Riedlinger

Elmer Bernstein - The Ten Commandments - Soundtrack Review

This week, let’s discuss another epic score for an epic movie of Hollywood’s Great Times. Normally, these movies will be shown around Christmas holidays, but I was in the mood to discuss this score this week, and I did not talk so much about one of my favourite composer - Elmer Bernstein - on my blog so far. Therefore, it is time for another score by him, this week “The Ten Commandments”.

The movie

I watched the movie when I was a teenager and still like it. Cecil B. DeMille did a remake of his own movie, and Charlton Heston played the first time a role of these ancient times before he played the leading role in the famous “Ben Hur”. At the time of the release, “The Ten Commandments” was the most expensive movie. Here is the trailer:

In 1957, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including “Best Picture”, and winning the Academy Award for “Best Visual Effects” by John P. Fulton. Yul Brynner won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor for his role as Rameses, and the movie is also one of the most financially successful films ever made, grossing approximately $122.7 million at the box office during its initial release. According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition it is the seventh most successful film of all-time when the box office gross is adjusted for inflation.

The parting of the Red Sea was considered the most difficult special effect ever performed up to that time. This scene took about six months of filming and combined scenes shot at the Red Sea in Egypt with scenes filmed at Paramount Studios of a huge water tank split by a U-shaped trough, as well as the filming of a giant waterfall, also built in the studios to create the effect of the walls of the parted sea.

Find the scene and Bernstein’s music here:

The music

Victor Young was the favorite composer of Cecil B. DeMille, but Young was already too ill at that time and felt he had not enough energy to do the score. Elmer Bernstein said in an interview that Young recommended him, and therefore, Bernstein did exactly what he thought DeMille would expect. The result is one of the best soundtracks ever and really amazing movie music. An interesting fact is that Bernstein was at that time more know for his Jazz scene, so there is the story going around that DeMille came to Bernstein and said that he liked his Jazz scores, but he should not do this for this movie!

After some auditioning and interviews, DeMille asked Bernstein, "Do you think you could do for film music what Puccini did for opera?" After considering the question, the composer's reply was, "I can't be sure -- but I would love to try.” I love this honesty of Bernstein, really a great guy.

Bernstein pointed out at the time: "I hope to continue to grow as a musician, but at this moment I cannot even dream of ever again obtaining as important and challenging an assignment as composing the music for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS . . . It was a very complex problem since the composition had to express scripture, history and drama in music. The score is composed of symphonic themes, identifying momentous events and significant personages as well as the great mass of people through whose trials and triumphs history moves. The music attempts to enhance the experience of actuality and to add to the atmosphere of authenticity. I hope that it also helps to suggest the lasting truth of the film's inspired message . . . Of all the arts, I strongly feel that music is closest to religion. It is hard to explain what happens in the magical moment when suddenly there is music in my heart and mind and I can go to the piano and express it in sound. That is why I feel that music above all other arts can come closest to expressing religious experience and conveying it to others” (You can find a great resource for this work on

As Richard Wagner in his opera’s, Bernstein used the leitmotiv technique and created for the most important characters individual motifs. In addition, Bernstein also used some unusual instruments, mainly in the interests of authenticity. A good example is the Exodus sequence: Here you can hear a shofar (ram's horn), symbolizing the slaves' freedom after 400 years in bondage. According to Hebraic tradition, this was the instrument that heralded the Exodus from Egypt thirty-three centuries ago, and it is still used today.

The score is very majestic such as Miklos Rosza’s score for “Ben Hur”, but I like Bernstein’s score more. The “Prelude” introduces the majestic main theme. This score is unusual for Bernstein’s later scores. I think he never wrote such kind of majestic score with such heavy emphasis on the brass section, but for this movie and its deep emotions and theatrical approach it is quite right and works perfectly.

With “Love and Ambition”, you have a wonderful love theme, played mostly on strings. “I Am What I Am” is underscoring when God talks to Moses, one of the best tracks of the score. You can find out a little similarity to Puccini’s or Verdi’s way of creating heavy emotions, but what I really like in this track is the usage of the strings to create a kind of … yes, let’s name it: atmosphere of spirit, heaven, and presence of God… Call it what you want, but after listening to this track, I always have this piece of music in my mind when entering a church for the first time.

“Overture” is introducing the second part of the movie after the break, a lovely piece. “The Exodus” is another highlight. Listen to the fanfares at the beginning that shows that the journey will finally start. “The Pillar of Fire” underscores the scene when Ramses starts to follow the former slaves, and when a wall of fire stops the Egyptians. “The Red Sea” is another highlight that underscores the scenes when the Hebrews start to enter the Red Sea.

We have now the last two tracks “The Ten Commandments” – Moses receives God’s rules – and the last track “Go, Proclaim Liberty”. This is another majestic piece of music and highly enjoyable with the percussion in the end. If you consider that this soundtrack is now 60 years old, it is really astonishing how timeless this music is. For me, Bernstein created not only amazing movie music with this score, he created a sound that you will have in mind when you go to church or read episodes of the Bible. This is, sorry for my passion, holy sound, and one of the best soundtracks ever.

I found a very nice soundtrack suite here, enjoy it:

And here is a piano version:

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2016, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.


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