The Music of Ben-Hur


This paper surveys musical compositions inspired by Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) and composed between 1886 and 1909. The novel’s three lyrical passages were set as art-songs by distinguished American classical composers, and as parlor pieces by lesser known composers. Wallace’s detailed description of the Antioch chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala suggested a descriptive symphonic poem to John Philip Sousa and a rag-style march to the lesser known E. T. Paull. The latter’s popularity proliferated in many of the newly invented mechanical means of reproducing music. In addition, initiation rituals of The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur employed their own music. Lastly, the music of the Ben-Hur Cantata and Edgar Stillman Kelley’s incidental music for Klaw & Erlanger’s Ben-Hur are briefly discussed.