(b. 18 April 1907 in Budapest, Hungary; d. 27 July 1995 in Los Angeles, California), composer whose urgently exotic music enriched the concerto literature and the soundtracks of such films as The Thief of Bagdad, Double Indemnity, Spellbound, and Ben-Hur (1959).
Rózsa was the elder of two children of Gyula Rózsa, the owner of a small shoe factory, and Regina Berkovits, a musician. Born in Budapest but raised partly on the family’s estate in northern hill country, Rózsa showed an early affinity for music and could compose before he could write words. Influenced by the nationalist school of Bela Bartok and Zoltán Kodály, Rózsa promoted their still-unfamiliar modern music while studying at the Realgymnasium (secondary school) in Budapest.
Against his father’s wishes, Rózsa steered a musical course. Compromising, he agreed to study chemistry at the University of Leipzig if he could also pursue musical studies there. Quickly enthralled by that German city with its culture of Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, and freed from what he regarded as a provincial and oppressive Hungarian atmosphere, Rózsa soon emerged as a promising composition student who was then allowed to transfer to the Leipzig Conservatory. There, in 1927 and 1928, he presented his first chamber compositions, a String Trio and a Piano Quintet. These earned Rózsa high regard and a publishing contract with Breitkopf and Härtel. Soon he essayed an hour-long symphony, for which he was unable to secure a performance. Disappointed, he suppressed the piece for sixty-three years.
Rózsa graduated with honors in 1929 and moved to Paris three years later. There he composed the shorter orchestral works that made his European reputation: Theme, Variations, and Finale (1933) and Three Hungarian Sketches(1938). For these compositions he received the Hungarian Franz Joseph Prize in both 1937 and 1938. Although he enjoyed growing esteem and the friendship of the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, Rózsa was still unable to make a living except by providing lightweight pastiches for cinema intermissions. The intensely serious Rózsa detested these assignments and wrote the tunes under such pseudonyms as “Nic Tomay.”
Fortune smiled on Rózsa when he moved to London in 1935. The Markova-Dolin Ballet commissioned a folk-pastiche score, called Hungaria, which enjoyed a successful run. Rózsa also became associated with the emigre film producer Alexander Korda, whose London Films nurtured many Hungarian talents. Rózsa’s first film score was Knight Without Armour (1936), and soon he was a regular composer for Korda. The elaborate Technicolor fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1940), with its lavish and exotically colored score, brought him international attention, including the first of his sixteen Academy Award nominations from Hollywood. When production of this film was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, the entire company moved to California in 1940. Rózsa stayed there, becoming an American citizen in 1946.
Following another exotic Korda fantasy, The Jungle Book (1942), Rózsa began to introduce a darker and more modernistic idiom to Hollywood films. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) initiated a more mature kind of filmmaking that eventually came to be called film noir. Rózsa’s accompaniment—terse, angular, violent, and close to his concert idiom—was disliked by the studio’s music director but proved to be an immense help to this influential picture. Spellbound (1945), about a schizophrenic psychiatrist, and The Lost Weekend (1945), a grim depiction of the horrors of alcoholism, also achieved great success, partly based on Rózsa’s introduction of an electronic instrument called the theremin, and partly owing to the familiarity of themes from Spellbound, which Cole Porter’s publishing company popularized as the Spellbound Concerto. Both scores were nominated for the 1945 Academy Award. When Rózsa won for Spellbound (The Lost Weekend was judged best picture), he had reached the top of his profession.
Throughout the remainder of the 1940s Rózsa became the dominant musical voice for stories of crime and psychosis. His titles of this period, chiefly for Universal and Paramount, are a virtual catalog of film noir: The Killers (1946), A Double Life (1947; Academy Award), The Strange Love of Martha lvers (1946), Brute Force (1947), Secret Beyond the Door (1947), The Naked City (1948), Criss Cross (1948), Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950). After Rózsa signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which lasted from 1949 to 1963, his assignments tended toward historical subjects and his music toward increased color and romanticism in such films as Madame Bovary (1949), Ivanhoe (1952), Knights of the Round Table (1953), Young Bess (1953), Julius Caesar (1953), and Lust for Life (1956).
Two scores stand out from the MGM period. Quo Vadis (1951) afforded Rózsa the opportunity to return to Europe and research the music of ancient Rome to a degree never before attempted in a historical picture. Ben-Hur (1959) mined deeply in this vein while adding darker music of Judaic character. This rich tapestry of dramatic leitmotivs and Roman marches earned Rózsa his third Oscar and has been honored as a film music classic ever since. The blend of adventure story and religious imagery touched sensibilities around the world. Until the time of his death Rózsa received letters from young people who had been deeply affected by the music of Ben-Hur. At least one of them, the English musicologist Christopher Palmer, was later inspired to undertake a musical career.
Ensconced as the screen voice of antiquity and legend, Rózsa followed with comparably gigantic scores for King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961), and Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), all written within three years of Ben-Hur in an astonishing burst of creative energy. By that time, however, Rózsa suddenly found his music out of fashion in a Hollywood that was inclining toward youth-oriented popular tunes.
In August 1943 Rózsa married Margaret Finlason; they had two children. (Little is known of an earlier German marriage to Emma Sauerbrey that ended in divorce in 1939). During his first decade in America, as Rózsa worked to establish his career and family, he produced little music outside of films. He did teach, however, and in 1945 inaugurated America’s first university-based film composition course at the University of Southern California, where he continued to teach for some twenty years. A lean String Quartet (1950), composed in the wake of Quo Vadis, served to cleanse his musical palate, and Rózsa’s rediscovery of his European roots led to renewed concert activity. Leasing a modest cottage on the Ligurian coast of Italy, he began a determined “double life” by composing personal works there every summer. The 1953 Violin Concerto, introduced by Jascha Heifetz, was his greatest success. Amid a total of some fifty chamber, orchestral, and choral works (amid his nearly 100 films), his most prominent scores were the concertos for Violin and Cello (Sinfonia Concertante, 1966), Piano (1967), Cello (1968), and Viola (1979). These works earned the support of distinguished soloists and have been recorded several times. Critical response to them was mixed. The young rebel of Budapest was now seen as a conservative—and one who noisily rejected the prevailing academic serial orthodoxy of the day. (In King of Kings he went so far as to assign a twelve-tone theme to the devil.) By the 1960s Rózsa found himself branded as a competent craftsman rather than an original talent. Concert fashion had turned away at the very moment he was embracing absolute music. Hollywood experience was seen as tainting any composer who succeeded there, and film music itself was completely ignored by the critical establishment.
In the 1970s, however, Rózsa was rediscovered by a new generation of filmmakers to whom he represented the last link to a classic age of moviemaking. The New Wave director Alain Resnais even brought him back to Paris for Providence (1977), for which Rózsa received the César award from the French film academy. His last score was Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a farcical homage to the very noir genre that Rózsa himself had helped to create forty years earlier. A stroke ended Rózsa’s film career in 1982, and he struggled to compose for solo instruments until failing eyesight finally stilled his pen in 1988. By then, others were attending to the revival and re-recording of both his film and concert music. The long-suppressed Symphony was recorded in 1993. Rózsa societies were established in several countries in recognition of the extraordinary impact his music exerted on people around the world. Immobilized during his final years, Rózsa found himself lionized by a Hollywood that he had disdained but of which he was now perceived as an avatar. He died of heart failure and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery beneath the Hollywood Hills, where he had lived since 1944. At his funeral a band of musicians sounded the “Parade of the Charioteers” from Ben-Hur. In the words of journalist Robert Horton, “If we went back in a time machine to ancient Rome and heard their actual music, we’d probably complain that it didn’t sound like Miklós Rózsa.”
Rózsa’s papers are at the George Arents Research Library of Syracuse University. His Életem történeteiböl (1980) is an informal series of anecdotes related to the harpsichordist János Sebestyén for broadcast in Hungary. The formal memoir Double Life (1982, 1989), written with Christopher Palmer, displays a mellow and distanced view of his twin musical careers. Palmer, an influential English musicologist whose career was partly inspired by Rózsa, became the composer’s assistant and advocate during his last two decades. His sleeve notes for numerous recordings are a valuable source, as is the monograph Miklós Rózsa: A Sketch of His Life and Work (1975). Valuable biographical information is in a dissertation by Steven D. Wescott: “Miklós Rózsa: A Portrait of the Composer as Seen Through an Analysis of His Early Works” (University of Minnesota, 1990). Accounts of the composer’s activities in later years, together with discographies, reminiscences, and reviews, appear in the Miklós Rózsa Society’s Pro Musica Sana (1972-). For Rózsa’s place in the history of Hollywood film music see Tony Thomas, Music for the Movies (1973) and Film Score: The View from the Podium (1979); William Darby and Jack Du Bois, American Film Music (1990); and Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood (1990). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (28 July 1995) and New York Times (28 and 29 July 1995).