Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) - the dark and the epic

Miklos Rozsa - photo taken by his son Nicholas Rozsa Miklos Rozsa was born in Budapest in 1907 and from an early age demonstrated his mother's same affinity for music. (His mother had trained as a pianist at the Liszt Academy.) He learned the violin, the viola and the piano and was publicly performing Mozart at the age of 7. A musical career awaited, and he was inspired by Bartok, Kodaly and Liszt among others, and shared their liking for Hungarian folk music. He studied formally at the University of Leipzig and there he composed a number of classical works including his first Violin Concerto. He continued composing after moving to Paris and won the attention of Richard Strauss and Dohnanyi. He studied further in London's Trinity College and his first film music was for European films by directors Jacques Feyder and Alexander Korda. When war broke out in Europe, Rozsa moved to the U.S. where his music for "The Thief of Bagdad" brought him instant attention and an oscar nomination. He continued his work in hollywood with a distinguished and prolific career scoring numerous well-known movies. Among these are several examples of classic "Film Noir" before he carved out a new reputation with several notable scores for historical and/or biblical epics such as Ben-Hur, "Quo Vadis" and "El Cid". He was also a music tutor to Jerry Goldsmith.

Ben Hur - the essential Miklos Rozsa CD soundtrack cover Rozsa's musical style is generally big and direct, though he is also capable of underscoring more delicate scenes. Some of his music has a religious feel to it as befits some of the biblical epics for which he provided the soundtrack, including for example his simple yet powerful setting of The Lord's Prayer for "King of Kings" which didn't appear in the movie but was written solely for the original soundtrack. His versatility allowed him to move effortlessly between Historical Epics and Thillers, Film Noir or Psychological Dramas such as "Double Indemnity", "The Lost Weekend" and "The Killers". In many ways his technique was a fore-runner for the music of Bernard Herrmann, not only when you consider his score for Hitchcock's "Spellbound", the schizophrenic waltz from "Madame Bovary", and the mythical adventure yarn "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" but also simply his powerful, darkly atmospheric but charismatic soundscapes. Incidentally, Rozsa adapted his oscar-winning music for "Spellbound" into a piano concerto.

Miklos Rozsa - photo from album cover Rozsa conducts Rozsa Rozsa's Film Noir style is so closely associated with this type of film that it has been much borrowed and parodied, even to the extent that it now sounds almost cliched. The 4-note motto used in "The Killers" was employed (though not intentionally) on the TV series "Dragnet" and later also on the movie version with its dead-pan form of parody, and Steve Martin's "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" with its many ingenious clips from classic Noir films seemed to demand a Rozsa score. This was ironic since Rozsa had scored at least three of the original movies from which clips were taken, including "Double Indemnity", "The Lost Weekend" and "The Killers", so Rozsa ended up with something of a self-parody calling the score "Dead Men's Bolero". For "The Lost Weekend" (and also for "Spellbound"), Rozsa used that early electronic instrument the theremin to depict the mysterious attraction and effects of the Demon Drink, in much the same way as other composers have used this sound for B-movies of alien invasion.

Miklos Rozsa: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes soundtrack CD cover Despite this versatility in his writing, it is impossible not to think of Rozsa without bringing to mind the Historical Epics for which he is justly famous. These soundtracks accompanied gargantuan spectacles with thousands of extras and demanded large and powerful orchestral forces to project fanfares and dark march themes. These depicted not just the scale of the movies but the sheer impact that these stories have had on succeeding generations, whether from the cultural influence of these past civilisations or the importance to the founding of some of today's leading religions. Throughout his years in film music, Rozsa continued to consider opportunities to create music for the concert hall. He composed another Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz in 1953 for example, and his "Sinfonia Concertante" for Violin, Cello and orchestra is essentially a double concerto for Heitetz and Gregor Piatigorsky. He later wrote a full Cello Concerto for Janos Starker, and his concert version of his music for "Spellbound" is very much in the form of a Piano Concerto. His health declined in later years and one project to create Choral Suites from the Biblical Epics was interrupted by his death in 1995, though completed by friends and pupils of the composer - see Miklos Rozsa: Three Choral Suites.

Miklos Rozsa: El Cid - Special Limited Collectors Edition CD box-set cover Among the items released to mark the composer's centenary year in 2007, are the book A Composer's Notes: Remembering Miklós Rózsa and the limited collector's edition CD of his music for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes based on his violin concerto and including a number of tracks unused in the film's final cut. In late 2008 Tadlow Music brought out the definitive recording of Rozsa's masterpiece "El Cid". There is a 2 CD version but it is worth seeking out the Special Limited Collectors Edition whose 3rd CD contains bonus tracks from El Cid and other films, plus footage and interviews from the recording sessions. Rozsa's music is amazing and perfectly captured by the new recording. This youtube video shows excerpts from the recording sessions, and the triple album can be found at these links: Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Films by Miklos Rozsa:

    Miklos Rozsa: Three Choral Suites film music CD cover
  • The Thief of Bagdad - getting the first of many Oscar nominations with its love theme, a few songs and use of chorus to augment the orchestration
  • Jungle Book - (1942), not the Disney cartoon
  • Five Graves to Cairo - Rozsa's first collaboration with director Billy Wilder
  • Double Indemnity - again with Billy Wilder
  • The Song of Scheherazade
  • Madame Bovary - an historical drama directed by Vincente Minnelli based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert, Rozsa delivers his first major assignment for MGM, a romantic yet tempestuous score, the waltz music for a key scene is a highlight and very possibly modelled on Ravel's La Valse (though not quite so demonic at the end) - here is the complete dance scene on youtube as Emma Bovary allows herself to be swept off her feet by a stranger while her husband gets drunk
  • Providence - drama with John Gielgud as a bitter writer
  • The Asphalt Jungle
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers - film noir with murder, guilt and love, starring a young Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin
  • The Lost Weekend - Billy Wilder's psychological drama starring Ray Milland as an alcoholic
  • Quo Vadis - a love story between a high-ranking Roman and a Christian during the time of Nero
  • The Light Touch - for this caper movie Rozsa uses an Italian style theme with mandolins, which becomes a song with lyrics for the end titles
  • Ivanhoe
  • King of Kings - the story of Jesus Christ with much choral music
  • Plymouth Adventure - Rozsa incorporates a number of Psalm tunes into this story of the Mayflower's crossing to the New World
  • Crisis - the score focuses on Spanish sounding music with acoustic guitars
  • Beau Brummel
  • The Story of Three Loves - an unusual film in 3 segments, Rozsa wrote original music but also made extensive use of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
  • All the Brothers were Valiant - apart from some flute music for the natives of the South Sea islands, the music is even more stormy (in an emotional sense) than the Pacific.
  • Young Bess - a royal epic, whose music is remarkably varied and includes a powerful rendition of the Dies Irae
  • Valley of the Kings
  • Spellbound - best music Oscar for this Hitchcock film with the Dali dream sequence, the soundtrack is dominated by a love theme but with some suitably eerie Theremin sounds for the psychological mystery
  • Desert Fury
  • A Double Life - a title which later gave its name to the composer's autobiography
  • The Killers - there is a scene near the end of the movie where some boogie-woogie style piano gets mixed with the 4-note killers theme
  • Julius Caesar
  • Something of Value - set in Kenya with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier, the soundtrack is mostly singing either unaccompanied or minimally accompanied - the African sound is perhaps not totally authentic but it does give the movie a unique sound
  • Tip on a Dead Donkey - functional soundtrack, but the light Spanish music on bassoon is wonderful
  • Miklos Rozsa: King of Kings - Tadlow double album cover
  • Knights of the Round Table
  • Ben-Hur - one of the best film soundtracks ever for this huge epic, and in some footage from 1979 here is Rozsa conducting his Suite from Ben-Hur
  • El Cid - very romantic Spanish/Moorish-sounding music, the love theme is something like Rimski-Korsakov's Scheherazade
  • Sodom and Gomorrah
  • The Power - contains various music styles including some gypsy music
  • The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes - a nice mix of material for this Billy wilder film, and even including some Scottish songs
  • The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
  • Time after Time
  • Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid - borrowing and adapting his earlier film noir style
  • Dragnet - lending the motto to the movie version of the TV series scored by Ira Newborn

TV themes by Miklos Rozsa (or not):

The interesting story behind the Dragnet theme is that it was composed by Walter Schumann, but unknowingly he used a 4-note motto which Rozsa had previously written for the movie "The Killers". When people noticed the similarity there was a law suit, and Schumann agreed to pay half the royalties for his Dragnet theme to Rozsa.

  • Dragnet - actually composed by Schumann but associated with Rozsa due to that 4-note motto and the resulting law-suit

Miklos Rozsa Recommendations:

CDs to look for include a number featuring his epic themes to Ben-Hur and El Cid, and the Dragnet theme can also be found. Check out the mfiles reviews and links below:

Rozsa wrote an autobiography called "A Double Life". The book can be hard to obtain now but can sometimes be found on Amazon and similar sites. However, a interesting book has been published shortly before the centenary of Rozsa's birth (on April 18th, 1907). Called "A Composer's Notes: Remembering Miklós Rózsa", this includes the personal remembrances of author Jeffrey Dane and uses a wealth of private correspondence between Dane and Rozsa over a period of more than 20 years. To highlight the book's publication we present some extracts and illustrations from it, and further information can be obtained at Amazon.com.

Also by Jeffrey Dane is the article A visit with Miklos Rozsa which describes the author's meetings with the composer, with several rare photographs of Miklos Rozsa and his home in the Hollywood Hills.

Miklos Rozsa Memorabilia:

Our thanks to writer Steve Vertlieb for his kind permission to publish the photos below, and to republished the following article which Steve wrote in June 2007 for Film Music Review. Another article by Steve Vertlieb with a comprehensive summary of the life of Miklos Rozsa Steve and his major scores can be found on The Thunder Child site.

Remembrance of Rozsa by Steve Vertlieb

It was somewhere around 1957, as I recall, that I first discovered the music of Spellbound. I was eleven years old and in the hospital with a severely infected ingrown toe nail. I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, and the television was playing the G.E. College Bowl, hosted by Allan Ludden. The question being asked of the contestants concerned music from the movies, and panelists were asked to identify themes and match them to the films they were written for. When the theme from Spellbound was played, I astonished my more adult room mate by identifying both the theme and its composer. Two years later, in 1959, I first heard the glorious strains of the overture from Ben Hur and I knew once and for all that Miklos Rozsa was to be an important presence in my life.

Miklos Rozsa and Steve Vertlieb - photo 1 Somewhere around 1968 or 1969 I discovered that Miklos Rozsa was to perform at The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, where he would conduct his Piano Concerto with Leonard Pennario at the keyboard. My brother, Erwin, and I managed to get Orchestra seats for the concert and arrived, quite excited, on the evening of the performance. I had started writing professionally about films and film music, and so was able to obtain a set of free tickets to the Academy, as well as a back stage pass for the two us. It was thrilling, to say the least, to see this legendary composer live on stage conducting before our eyes. We were determined to meet him after the concert and steadfastly made our way behind the curtains as the concert hall busily emptied. There were many other admirers of the composer gathered about him as we entered the reception area, all armed with photographs and record albums to be signed. I recall one young fan carrying a Ben Hur album, and handing it to Dr. Rozsa. Erwin and I introduced ourselves to our hero, and were both immediately impressed by his kindness and genuine humility. After the other "fans" had dispersed and left the Academy, Eugene Ormandy, along with Leonard Pennario, adjourned to the street and began the stroll back several blocks to The Bellevue Stratford Hotel with Miklos Rozsa. As Ormandy and his guest pianist walked ahead, Erwin and I took advantage of the moment and walked together with Dr. Rozsa, talking excitedly of his scores and enormous musical legacy. I can recall watching the elderly Eugene Ormandy turning back in concern to see if his guest composer had been abducted by these nefarious, young brothers. Rozsa was quite charming and cultured, as I recall, and obligingly wrote down his mailing address for me when I asked, somewhat impertinently, for it. There began a twenty five year friendship and correspondence.

Miklos Rozsa and Steve Vertlieb - photo 2 In 1979 I was managing the film and video tape departments at WTAF Television in Philadelphia. I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business one weekday afternoon, when the telephone rang. Dear friend and noted author Harry Geduld was on the line. Harry, along with his partner Ronald Gottesman, had edited The Girl in The Hairy Paw three years earlier for Avon Books in New York. The anthology was the first volume dedicated entirely to King Kong. My work on the making of the film was chosen by Harry and Ron to lead off their series of essays by both popular and unknown writers. Needless to say, I fell into the latter category. At any rate, Harry telephoned me at work to invite me to a film seminar being held that week at the main campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, where Harry chaired the film and comparative literature departments. I thanked him for his kind invitation but explained that I was very busy at work and couldn't get away. He told me that his friend, and respected critic, Molly Haskell was attending the conference. As much as I would like to have met Ms. Haskell, I politely declined. Harry then rubbed a little salt into the wound by informing me that famed Science Fiction/Fantasy producer/director George Pal was also coming to the seminar. I nearly said "yes" at that point since George Pal was one of my boyhood heroes. Still, maturity and dedication to duty prevailed, and my work ethic stood proudly above any childish temptation I may have momentarily encountered, leading me to throw caution to the wind. It was then that Harry paused and said... "and, oh yes, there is one other person attending... Miklos Rozsa." "Let me call the airport and make reservations," I said.

I stayed with Harry and his wife, Carolyn, during the two day conference. As we stood and talked in the crowded hallway of the university, I turned around suddenly to see a familiar face approaching. "My God," I thought. "It's really him walking toward me. It's Miklos Rozsa." With an ever deepening smile and racing heart, I moved toward my favorite composer and said "Dr. Rozsa, it's Steve Vertlieb." He shook my hand warmly, and I told him how nice it was to see him again. During the course of a two day seminar, I spent eleven hours at his side. We ate together, talked together, and attended a concert of his music together. On the final morning of the conference, I was speaking with Dr. Rozsa in virtually the same spot I had first encountered him the day before. He was waiting to be ushered into a private dining area where members of the Miklos Rozsa Society, headed by President John Fitzpatrick, would share an intimate... by invitation only... luncheon. I was not yet a member of the Indiana based society and so I gracefully stepped aside, and allowed him to be escorted into the dining area. As the doors closed behind him, I walked over to Carolyn Geduld, wistfully recalling some of the magic of the rapidly expiring experience. Suddenly, the doors to the restaurant burst open and John Fitzpatrick came running out, looking most concerned. "My God, John," I said. "What's the matter? Is Dr. Rozsa all right?" "Everything is fine," said John. "We sat down at our tables. Dr. Rozsa looked up, somewhat puzzled, and asked 'Where's Steve?'" I thought my heart would stop. John ushered me into the dining room, and I was seated once again next to Miklos Rozsa.

As the conference concluded that afternoon and Dr. Rozsa prepared to leave for Indianapolis Airport, he took both my hands in his... looked into my eyes... and said "I feel that you are very sincere." Fighting back tears, I told him how much he meant to me, and wished him a safe journey home to Los Angeles. My own journey to the airport was shared by George Pal in a private limousine. During the one hour trip, I had an opportunity to speak at length with Mr. Pal about Miklos Rozsa's score for his production at MGM of "The Power". Pal disclosed that he had the master tapes in his possession, and that he was donating them to the Rozsa Society to make available to the membership, and to all of Rozsa's fans and admirers.

In the years that followed, my respect and affection for Miklos Rozsa continued to grow and to flourish. Toward the end, when a debilitating stroke impaired both his sight and his ability to write, Juliet Rozsa read her father my letters while he would dictate his response to her. I would write two published articles in tribute to his career and artistry including, most recently, Time After Time: The Life of Miklos Rozsa. I remain in touch with his daughter, Juliet, and recently attended a concert honoring what would have been his 100th birthday at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Miklos Rozsa passed from this singular reality on July 27th, 1995. He was eighty eighty years old. Knowing him was one of the most profound experiences of my life, while his music continues to give voice to my heart and illuminate my soul.