Miklos Rozsa

Rozsa, Miklos

Miklós Rózsa (Hungarian:; 18 April 1907 – 27 July 1995)[1] was a Hungarian-American composer trained in Germany (1925–1931) and active in France (1931–1935), the United Kingdom (1935–1940) and the United States (1940–1995), with extensive sojourns in Italy from 1953 onward.[2] Best known for his nearly one hundred film scores, he nevertheless maintained a steadfast allegiance to absolute concert music throughout what he called his “double life”.[3]

Rózsa achieved early success in Europe with his orchestral Theme, Variations, and Finale (Op. 13) of 1933, and became prominent in the film industry from such early scores as The Four Feathers (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). The latter project brought him to America when production was transferred from wartime Britain, and Rózsa remained in the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1946.

During his Hollywood career, he received 17 Oscar nominations including three successes for Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947), and Ben-Hur (1959), while his concert works were championed by such major artists as Jascha HeifetzGregor Piatigorsky, and János Starker.

Rózsa was born in Budapest and was introduced to classical and folk music by his mother, Regina, a pianist who had studied with pupils of Franz Liszt, and his father, Gyula, a well-to-do industrialist and landowner who loved Hungarian folk music.

Rózsa’s maternal uncle Lajos, violinist with the Budapest Opera, presented young Miklós with his first instrument at the age of five. He later took up the viola and piano. By the age of eight he was performing in public and composing.[1] He also collected folksongs from the area where his family had a country estate north of Budapest in an area inhabited by the Palóc Hungarians. While deeply admiring the folk-based nationalism of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, Rózsa sought to find his own way as a composer. Fearing that Kodály’s dominance at the Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy tended to suppress individualism, he sought to study music in Germany. He enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1925,[1] ostensibly to study chemistry at the behest of his practical-minded father. Determined to become a composer, he transferred to the Leipzig Conservatory the following year. There he studied composition with Hermann Grabner, successor to Max Reger. He also studied choral music with (and later assisted) Karl Straube at the Thomaskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach had once been the organist. Rózsa emerged from these years with a deep respect for the German musical tradition, which would always temper the Hungarian nationalism of his musical style.

Rózsa’s first two published works, the String Trio, Op. 1, and the Piano Quintet, Op. 2, were issued in Leipzig by Breitkopf & Härtel. In 1929, he received his diplomas cum laude.[4] During the Leipzig years he essayed a single-movement Violin Concerto and a lengthy Symphony, Op. 6. Neither work was published, and Rózsa was discouraged on a trip to Berlin when Wilhelm Furtwängler did not find time to consider the Symphony. Rozsa suppressed both works, but eventually allowed the Symphony (minus its lost scherzo) to be recorded in 1993.

For a time he remained in Leipzig as Grabner’s assistant, but at the suggestion of the French organist and composer Marcel Dupré, he moved to Paris in 1931. There he composed chamber music and a Serenade for small orchestra, Op. 10 (later greatly revised as Hungarian Serenade, Op. 25). It was premiered in Budapest by Ernő Dohnányi, who had advised Rózsa to offer a shorter work than the Symphony. Richard Strauss was in the audience, and his approval meant more to the young composer than the presence of Habsburg royalty and the prince regent, Miklós Horthy. The subsequent Theme, Variations, and Finale, Op. 13, was especially well received and was performed by conductors such as Charles MunchKarl BöhmGeorg SoltiEugene OrmandyBruno Walter, and Leonard Bernstein.

Rózsa was introduced to film music in 1934 by his friend, the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger. Following a concert which featured their respective compositions, Honegger mentioned that he supplemented his income as a composer of film scores, including the film Les Misérables (1934). Rózsa went to see it and was greatly impressed by the opportunities the film medium offered. However, no film scoring opportunities presented themselves in Paris, and Rózsa had to support himself by reliance on a wealthy patron and by composing light music under the pseudonym Nic Tomay. It was not until Rózsa moved to London that he was hired to compose his first film score for Knight Without Armour (1937), produced by his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda.[1] Around the same time he also scored Thunder in the City (1937) for another Hungarian filmmaker, Ákos Tolnay, who had previously urged Rózsa to come to England. While the latter film was the first to open, Rózsa always cited the more prestigious Korda project as his film debut. He joined the staff of Korda’s London Films, and scored the studio’s epic The Four Feathers (1939).[1] Korda and the studio’s music director, Muir Mathieson, brought Rózsa onto their Arabian Nights fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1940) when the operetta-style approach of the original composer, Oscar Straus, was deemed unsuitable. Production was transferred to Hollywood when the war broke out, and Rozsa completed his score there in 1940.

The music earned him his first Academy Award nomination. While Korda remained in Hollywood, Rózsa was effectively the music director of his organization. In his capacity he supervised the scoring of To Be or Not to Be (1942) and contributed at least one sequence of his own music. His own U.S. scores for Korda included Lydia (1940), That Hamilton Woman (1941), and The Jungle Book (1942). From the last of these emerged The Jungle Book Suite for narrator and orchestra, which became popular as narrated by the film’s star, Sabu, and was soon recorded in New York by RCA. The 78-rpm album became the first substantial recording of Hollywood film music. It was later recorded with Rózsa conducting the Frankenland State Orchestra of Nuremberg and Leo Genn as narrator.

In 1943, now associated with Paramount, Rózsa scored the first of several collaborations with director Billy WilderFive Graves to Cairo.[1] That same year that he also scored the similarly themed Humphrey Bogart film Sahara. In 1944, his scores for a second Wilder collaboration, Double Indemnity,[1] and for The Woman of the Town, both received Academy Award nominations.

In 1944, Rózsa was hired by producer David O. Selznick to compose the score for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound. The scoring process was contentious, with producer, director, and composer all expressing considerable dissatisfaction with each other. Numerous changes were made in the editing by Audray Granville, Selznick’s assistant and de facto music director. The almost farcical history of artists at cross-purposes has been documented by Jack Sullivan (Hitchcock’s Music, 2006) and especially Nathan Platte (Making Music in Selznick’s Hollywood, 2018). Nevertheless, the film was a hit after its release in late 1945. The combination of lush melody for the romance and frenzied expressionism for the suspense scenes proved irresistible. Rózsa’s pioneering (for Hollywood) use of the theremin contributed to the effect, and the attention it generated likely influenced his Academy Award nomination. Two of his other 1945 scores were also nominated, The Lost Weekend and A Song to Remember, but the Oscar was awarded to Spellbound. Although Selznick was unhappy with the score, his innovative radio promotion of the music contributed to both the film’s and the composer’s success. Rózsa eventually arranged his themes as the Spellbound Concerto, which (in multiple versions) has enjoyed lasting success in concerts and recordings.

Rózsa earned another Oscar nomination for scoring The Killers (1946), which introduced Burt Lancaster to film audiences.[1] Part of the famed theme for the Dragnet radio and TV show duplicated part of Rozsa’s The Killers main theme, and he successfully sued for damages, and subsequently was given co-credit with Walter Schumann for the Dragnet theme. The affair is documented in Jon Burlingame’s TV’s Biggest Hits (1996).

Rózsa received his second Oscar for A Double Life (1947), in which Ronald Colman, as a Shakespearean actor playing Othello, becomes murderously disturbed in his offstage life. Rózsa later adopted the title for his own memoir, signifying his desire to keep his personal music distinct from his movie career. That same year Rózsa and Eugene Zador arranged music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for the film Song of Scheherazade, about a fictional episode in the composer’s life. Zador, a fellow Hungarian immigrant and a noted composer in his own right, assisted with the orchestration of most of Rózsa’s Hollywood film music. Also in 1947, Rózsa scored the music for the psychological thriller The Red House.[1]

Among other films scored by Rózsa during the 1940s were the prison drama Brute Force (1947), also with Lancaster, and The Naked City (1948), the latter also including music by Frank Skinner. Both of those films were directed by Jules Dassin.

Madame Bovary (1949) was Rózsa’s first important score for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which produced most of the later films that he scored. Other popular scores that he composed for MGM pictures include Quo Vadis (1951), Ivanhoe (1952), Plymouth Adventure (1952), Knights of the Round Table (1953), Green Fire (1954). Moonfleet (1955), Bhowani Junction (1956), Lust for Life (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961) and The V.I.P.s (1963).[1]

For Ben-Hur, Rózsa received his third and final Oscar. His final two nominations (one each for Best Original Score and Best Original Song) were for the Samuel Bronston film El Cid (1961).

In 1968, he was asked to score The Green Berets, after Elmer Bernstein turned it down due to his political beliefs. Rózsa initially declined the offer, saying, “I don’t do westerns.” However, he agreed to compose the score after being informed, “It’s not a Western, it’s an ‘Eastern’.” He produced a strong and varied score, which included a nightclub vocal by a Vietnamese singer, Bạch Yến. However, one cue which incorporated stanzas of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was deleted from the film’s final edit.

His popular film scores during the 1970s included his last two Billy Wilder collaborations The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Fedora (1978), the Ray Harryhausen fantasy sequel The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), the latter-day film noir Last Embrace starring Roy Scheider, and the time-travel fantasy film Time After Time (1979) for which Rózsa won a Science Fiction Film Award, saying in his televised acceptance speech that of all the film scores he had ever composed, it was the one he had worked on the hardest.

For his first film in English, Providence (1977), Alain Resnais turned to Rózsa whom he had admired especially for his work on the 1949 version of Madame Bovary. Rózsa later cited Resnais as one of the few directors in his experience who really understood the function of music in film.

After completing work on the music for the spy thriller Eye of the Needle (1981), Rózsa’s last film score was for the black-and-white Steve Martin film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a comic homage to the film noir films of the 1940s, a genre to which Rozsa himself had contributed scores.[1] Although Rózsa’s career as a composer for films ended following a stroke he suffered while on holiday in Italy later that year, he continued to compose various concert pieces thereafter; one of his last works being Sonata for Ondes Martenot, op. 45 (1989).[5]

He returned to California at the behest of his son, and remained sequestered at his home for the remainder of his life. Rózsa died on 27 July 1995,[1] and is buried at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills.[6] His wife, Margaret, died in 1999, aged 89.

Albums Featuring this Artist