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Míklos Rózsa led a double musical life

By David Amos

SAN DIEGO–You may not recognize the name, but you certainly have heard his music. He lived to the age of 88, and died in Los Angeles in 1995 after a long illness.

To the music world, he was recognized as one of the greatest film composers of all time. He composed music for nearly 100 films; with many nominations to his name, he won three Academy Award Oscars, and he stands together with an elite group of composers of film music, together with Bernard Hermann, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, Bronislav Kaper, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of the industry’s founding fathers.

I personally knew Míklos Rózsa, and have always admired and enjoyed his music, both his more serious kind, and the fabled scores he composed for films. But first, here is a brief biography.

Born in Hungary in 1907, he studied composition with Hermann Grabner at the Leipzig Conservatory (1926), and received his doctorate in musicology from the same institution. In 1937, at a time when his early concert and chamber works had already brought him critical acclaim, he began writing film scores in London for Alexander Korda. Three years later he moved to the United States, and in Hollywood, where he found continuous employment writing for major films, while at the same time composing symphonic and chamber works, most of which have been recorded. For twenty years he was a faculty member at the University of Southern California.

He composed major pieces for Heifetz and Piatigorsky. An interesting related story is that at Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated debut with the New York Philharmonic, as a last minute substitution for an ailing Bruno Walter, in 1944, the concert included Rózsa’s Theme, Variations, and Finale.

I was introduced to Dr. Rózsa around 1987, and visited him at his Hollywood Hills home a few times. His house was a literal museum of music and film memorabilia. He also owned an incredible collection of original pieces of the Roman and Greek civilizations. I had the unique pleasure of examining and holding his three (surprisingly heavy!) Oscar awards.

In his own words to me, he always enjoyed writing for films, but desired to have recognition in the serious music world. And this was the purpose for our encounters. As we would expect it, his film work was so successful in that it brought him fame and fortune. By definition, his orchestral and chamber music took a back seat. This is unfortunate, because his serious works are magnificently crafted, exciting, brilliant, colorfully orchestrated, and composed with true inspiration. On this theme, he wrote a book called Double Life, which details the two sides of his music-making, with many descriptive anecdotes of the many luminaries from the worlds of show business, film music, and classical music with which he came in contact.

His Oscars were for Spellbound, 1945, A Double Life, 1947, and Ben Hur, 1959. Charlton Heston was quoted as saying, “Míklos’ scores for El Cid and Ben Hur were significant creative contributions. Neither film would have been what it is without them. He did the same for dozens of other films”.

Some of the other film titles you may recognize include, The Thief of Bagdad, Jungle Book, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Madame Bovary, Quo Vadis? The Asphalt Jungle, Ivanhoe, Julius Caesar, Lust for Life, King of Kings, The Green Berets, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Time After Time, Last Embrace. There are many more.

My favorite is El Cid. The music depicts Medieval Spain so vividly, and you can even hear traces of Sephardic and Moorish thematic material. This is no coincidence, because aside from his raw talent and training, a lot of Rózsa’s success in his famous epic films is that he painstakingly researched the style of music he was portraying. For example, whenever he was assigned to write music for a film taking place in Roman times, he spent time in libraries, museums, and even at the ruins in his preparation, to best depict the way the music may have sounded in ancient times.

Interestingly, during the golden age of film-making, with the bigger-than-life film moguls, with stars bearing long term exclusive contracts, studio composers were usually on a payroll, and showed up to work ( to compose) at the studio at regular hours to do their work. They were salaried. After the work for a film was done, the sketches needed to be orchestrated and the score recorded for the soundtrack, usually conducted by the composer himself. 

This process is beautifully detailed by Oscar Levant in his book A Smattering of Ignorance.

(I remember once hearing Elmer Bernstein, recalling when he was composing the score to The Ten Commandments. He received a late-night call from producer Cecil B. DeMille, asking him to compose “G-d’s Theme” for the film, and have it ready in the morning. And, yes, one more thing: It has to be exactly 32 seconds long!) 

Back to Rózsa. In one of our meeting in the late 1980’s I was in the midst of preparing three albums for recording world premieres and lesser known music with London orchestras for the Harmonia Mundi label. (They are now available through Kleos). I asked him if there was a particular work of his which merited to be recorded. He told me that his Tripartita for Orchestra, one of his better pieces, was constantly being performed in Europe, but no one had recorded it. The Tripartita was one of conductor Antal Dorati’s favorite works. The result of this conversation is that I recorded the Tripartita with the London Symphony Orchestra. This magnificent three-movement suite is rich with colorful orchestration and Hungarian folk material, reminiscent of Bartók and Kodaly. It also turned out to be one of the most difficult, but at the same time most successful and satisfying compositions which I have conducted in recordings.

Most of the time when you and I are watching a movie, we get carried away with the drama or the comedy, and the music, as good as it might be, adds to the moment, but becomes only a support to the scene we are seeing. It stays in the background. Try once in a while to separate yourself from what is on the screen, and listen to the sound track. You may be amazed at what may be there. Hollywood has turned out many wonderful film scores, but Míklos Rózsa’s creations are indisputably among the best.

Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego, and has guest conducted professional orchestras around the world.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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One Response to “Míklos Rózsa led a double musical life”


  1. […] David Amos has written of Rózsa, “To the music world, he was recognized as one of the greatest film […]

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