Dramatic Vocalise Database

Rózsa, Miklós (1907–95)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The use of dramatic vocalization to signify the supernatural occurs in the score to the movie The Thief of Bagdad (1940). While filming The Thief of Bagdad in 1939, the outbreak of war forced producer Alexander Korda to transplant the entire production team from England to Hollywood. With little incentive to return, the film’s Hungarian-born and classically-trained composer, Miklós Rózsa (1907–95), decided to stay in Hollywood.

Two scenes from The Thief of Bagdad illustrate Rózsa’s approach to dramatic vocalization in this movie. After finding a bottle containing a djinn (Rex Ingram) imprisoned by King Solomon, Abu (Sabu) rides on his back as they fly to “the highest mountain of the world where earth meets sky.” The music accompanying their flight, including wordless chorus, complements the vastness of the visual imagery, the backgrounds having been shot on location in the Grand Canyon. Later, in the “Golden Tent” scene, white-bearded patriarchs acclaim Abu as the Messianic innocent who can regenerate them. Chords from both harp and celesta accompany the King’s discourse, followed by floating melismas from an “offstage” female chorus.

The use of dramatic vocalization to suggest a religious or numinous interpretation developed as a theme during the course of the 1940s. This can be seen in the following movies: The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Joan of Arc (1948).

(Nauman 209, 242–43)



Opening Credits/Opening Scene

“The fanfares of the title music represent Prince Achmad (John Justin) in his regal capacity, but then the same phrase blossoms into a full-hearted lyrical melody—the song of Achmad the lover. We plunge into a tumult of excitement as a galley with rust-red sails cleaves its way into Basra [sic Bagdad] harbour through a blue-green sea. This galley belongs to Jaffar, the villainous Vizier (Conrad Veidt), whose tritone-based theme shortly comes into prominence. Sailors are heard singing at their work, and one of them tells of his love for the sea with its blessed freedom from human contact.” 1

Wordless vocalization sung by female chorus occurs in the opening credits as a component of Achmad’s love music. The following scene includes wordless vocalization by male chorus that eventually accompanies the paean to the sea. It could be assumed that both song and accompaniment are sung by the sailors, however they are never shown singing. The music is modal in nature, including parallel-fifth motion. This style later reappears in Rózsa’s “Biblical” period, including such film scores as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).

Love Song

“In the shimmering noonday heat the Princess rocks in a kind of suspended divan whose swaying is exquisitely synchronized with the dove-like humming of the female chorus, while an old nurse (Adelaide Hall, a favourite Duke Ellington vocalist) sings a love song which must rank as one of Rózsa’s most beautiful inspirations.” 2

Flight to the Highest Mountain of the World

“On the beach Abu finds a bottle containing a djinn imprisoned by King Solomon; when released he can expand to monstrous proportions, but can also retract to the size of an insect. He performs both both feats for Abu’s benefit, and both are realized in the music. Then the djinn tells Abu of ‘the highest mountain of the world, where earth meets the sky’, to which they must fly. The music accompanying their flight (with wordless choir) suggests awe and vastness. The backgrounds were shot on location in the Grand Canyon, one of the mightiest spectacles in the world; no wonder Rózsa was moved to compose music of quasi-visionary splendour.” 3

The All-Seeing Eye from the Goddess of Light

“After Abu’s victory (with the spider hurtling chromatically to his doom) and, finally, his wresting of the all-seeing eye from the Goddess of Light, Abu’s theme is free to soar amid flickering trills and tremolos until a monumental climax, the film’s turning point, is reached with the entry of the great gongs and the wordless men’s choir.” 4

Golden Tent Scene

Rózsa calls upon another set of colours in the Golden Tent scene. Transported to a land of infinite shining distances, Abu is acclaimed by white-bearded patriarchs as the Messianic innocent who can regenerate them. Spread harp and celesta chords accompany the old King’s discourse, and the floating melismas of the female chorus (derived from Abu’s theme) add their own dimension of magic timelessness. Here the music is suffused with a quality which Elmer Bernstein has called ‘unsophisticated mysticism.’” 5

Final Scene and Ending Credits


1 Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood (New York: Marion Boyars, 1990), 193.

2 Ibid., 194.

3 Ibid., 195.

4 Ibid., 195–96.

5 Ibid. 196.