Miklos Rozsa

1907 1995

Miklos Rozsa



Miklós Rózsa was a 20th century Hungarian composer, first influenced by traditional Hungarian music and later drawn to the cinema. He was a spokesperson for new Hungarian music and later also pushed the boundaries of music in Hollywood. He was greatly successful in both genres.

Miklós Rózsa was born in Budapest in 1907. His father was a land-owning industrialist with liberal tendencies who ensured that Miklós grew up comfortably with culture and affection. The family owned a country estate located north of Budapest at the foot of the Mátra mountains in the village of Nagylócz in the county of Nógrád; the capital of this county was Balassagyarmat. The indigenous people of this area were the Palóc, who had their own dialect, customs, and clothing style. Tales from the author Mikszáth tell about these people. The music of the Palóc people that could be heard from the fields and local festivities greatly inspired Rózsa; he was fascinated by their expression and rhythm. Rózsa wrote down many of the songs he heard, though without text, but was never a methodical folksong collector likeKodály orBartók. Sometimes he would play violin with the gypsies for fun and would create elaborate improvisations full of improper harmonies. His folksong collection is lost, but it included music from the Palóc villages of Rimócz and Hollókõ among others, which all had similar music.

Rózsa’s musical training began at the age of 5 when he started violin lessons with Lajos Berkovits. He later played the viola and piano also. By the age of 8, he was performing publicly and composing. He was president of the Franz Liszt Society in high school, and to the horror of the school authorities, he would organise “modern music” concerts. He gave a speech at his high school condemning all of the pseudo-Hungarian gypsy music as represented byLiszt and Brahms. He also condemned the nationalistic styles of Erkel, Mosonyi, and Hubay. He stated that none of this music represented the true Hungarian nationalistic style and declaredBartók and Kodály the founders of the authentic Hungarian nationalistic style. The next day, he was promptly informed by the school authorities that the music of Bartók and Kodály were not acceptable choices for the Franz Liszt Society. His work as the spokesman for this new Hungarian style was eventually appreciated, and he won the society’s prize for his compositionHungarian Twilight for flute, oboe, and cello; the composition was based on a poem he wrote with the same title. He was later censured again for his modernity with his setting of the works by the symbolist poet Endre Ady. Though Rózsa greatly admired the work of both Bartók and Kodály, he felt that other methods were more fitting.

Rózsa began to dislike Budapest society more and more and wanted to see what Europe had to offer so he went to Leipzig to study chemistry. He later quit, and with the support of Hermann Grabner, Reger’s former pupil, he enrolled as a music student. His Piano Quintet (1928) drew the attention of Karl Straube, the Cantor at the Thomaskirche, who introduced him to Breitkopf & Härtel, where he was immediately offered a publishing contract; his String Trio (1927) and Piano Quintet (1928) were his first publications. During his final years of study, he deputized, along with Wolfgng Fortner, for Grabner. In 1929 he received his diplomacum laude. He stayed after his studies to assist Grabner and also composed several works including pieces directly related to his folksong collection, Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song (1929) and North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances (1929).

After a concert of his chamber music at the École Normale de Musique in 1932,  Rózsa decided to settle in Paris. There, he published his first orchestral work,Hungarian Serenade (1932) for small orchestra (originally op. 10 and later renumbered op. 25). This piece was conducted by Dohnányi in Budapest and grabbed the attention ofRichard Strauss. Shortly thereafter, he composed his Theme, Variations, and Finale for orchestra op.13 (1933), which was very successful; this work was the result of a long, unpublished symphony. Walter had suggested that he write a new orchestral work, but of much more modest dimensions, as the original lasted more than an hour. The result was very successful and was conducted throughout America and Europe by conductors such as Munch, Böhm, Schuricht, Swarowsky, Walter, Stock, Solti, Ormandy, and Bernstein.

In 1934 Rózsa gave a concert, together with Arthur Honegger, at the Salle Debussy in Paris. Upon hearing that Honegger had written the score toLes Misérables,he attended the performance, resulting in his first contact with the cinema. He then got the opportunity to work in cinema when he was invited to composeHungaria (1935) for the Markova-Dolin Company in London. The ballet in one-act is filled with Hungarian folk songs and traditional tunes; it also included the originalRádóczy March. The ballet was very successful and had a run of two years at the Duke of York’s Theatre. He later wrote forKnight without Armour(1937) and Thunder in the City (1937). He was then invited to join the staff of Sir Alexander Korda’s London films where he had his first big international success withThe Four Feathers (1939). Though Rózsa enjoyed great success in the film world in the late 1930s, his success was not limited to that genre. He also composed theThree Hungarian Sketches for orchestra (1938), which was very well received at the Baden-Baden International Music festival in 1938. His other chamber works were also consistently being performed. In both 1937 and 1938, Rózsa won the highest musical honour the city of Budapest had to offer, the Franz Joseph Prize of the City of Budapest for composition.

Rózsa moved to Hollywood in 1940 where he achieved success with the Korda film, Jungle Book (1942); he recorded the suite for narrator and orchestra in 1943, which was the first commercial recording of a U.S. film score to ever be released. By 1946, Rózsa was firmly established as one of the leading composers of the film industry though he found Hollywood to be too conservative in terms of its compositional style. He opposed this and composed the music toDouble Indemnity (1944), which introduced rhythms and harmonies that shocked Hollywood. He once stated that it was difficult “to maintain any decent level of musical integrity in the Hollywood of those days.” He went on to say, “people with a ‘serious’ musical upbringing such as Herrmann,Korngold, and myself were the exception rather than the rule.” Rózsa went on to win the Academy Award three times, between the years 1945-1959, for his scores to Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1948), and Ben Hur (1959). He also received numerous other awards.

In 1946 Rózsa joined the faculty of the University of Southern California as the Professor of Film music and in 1948 he also joined the staff of MG pictures, scoring many of the major productions in the 1950s.

Later visits to Italy inspired music such as his Violin Concerto (1953). Other “serious” compositions during this times included his Concerto for Strings, various concerti for solo instruments, and The Vintner’s Daughter Variations  (1952).

Though briefly forgotten in the 1970s to a pop-oriented Hollywood, Rózsa experienced a comeback in later years. He ended his film career in 1982 due to deteriorating health and focused on solo.

Header image: courtesy of the BBC Other images: courtesy of Janos Sebestyen and icollector