Alex North and the Ancient Lowly

1960 spartacus movie posterI’ve always been just a bit absent minded, and sometimes I’ve had to think a moment or two to recall a name or a word, but as I progress into late youth those tendencies have accelerated and now it’s often far more than a moment that I have to struggle to recall a name.

But for some reason, whenever I try to remember the name of the composer of the film score for the movie Spartacus, the name Alex North nearly always pops instantly into my head.

I first became aware of this during a Seinfeld episode when the subject of the composer of the score of Spartacus was mentioned, and I immediately knew it was Alex North—and then I spent the rest of the episode wondering how I knew that piece of trivia.

This is odd because I feel no special kinship to Mr. North’s music, fine as it is. He certainly rates as one of the finest composers of film music of the twentieth century, and thus, one of the top composers of the century period. But although I enjoy his music when I hear it, it does not resonate with me the way the music of certain other composers does. So it’s a mystery to me why his name is always on the tip of my tongue.

His music for Spartacus is probably as good as any he wrote. It has echoes of several Russian composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, and I think I hear the influence of Copland. In fact, there is at least one passage that I think would be more at home at a Western hoedown than an ancient Roman slave camp, but that’s probably just me.

Here is the most famous melody to emerge from his score, the Love Theme. Many jazz musicians have riffed on this over the years.

In one of the commentary tracks for the Criterion Collection, Howard Fast mentions that his main research for his novel was in a late nineteenth century multi-volume book entitled The Ancient Lowly. First published in 1888, it was a meticulously researched study of how the common folk, or lowly to use the author’s term, lived in the centuries before the advent of Christianity, the author being a clergyman. The book was very rare in Fast’s day and difficult to find, but thanks to the Internet Archive it is now online for anyone to peruse.

Here is a link that will take you directly to the chapter on Spartacus: The Ancient Lowly Chapter XII Spartacus

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