Far more people have heard the music of Miklós Rózsa than that of his countryman and fellow modernist Béla Bartók, but far fewer know his name.
For more than four decades, Rózsa divided his time between writing concert music and scoring commercial films. Among the latter were such highly successful productions as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945), Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949), and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). His work in Hollywood brought him three Academy Awards and made him one of the most financially successful composers of the last century.
But Rózsa paid a price for his worldly success. Although his concert music was admired and performed by distinguished artists like the violinist Jascha Heifetz, the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and the conductors Pierre Monteux and Bruno Walter, it was taken for granted by the vast majority of classical-music critics that a composer who wrote for Hollywood could not possibly be first-rate. There was an additional impediment to critical success: Rózsa refused to bow to postwar fashion and experiment with serialism and other avant-garde techniques. As a result, he became an increasingly marginalized figure. Today, six years after his death in 1995, none of his concert music has yet entered the standard repertoire.
He is, however, attracting a different kind of attention. With the breakup of the avant-garde monopoly and the subsequent revival of tonality, film music of the studio era has begun to find an independent audience and to be taken seriously by open-minded critics. Many of the scores of such noted Hollywood composers as Rózsa, Bernard Herrmann, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold have now been released on CD, some in digitally refurbished versions derived from the original soundtracks and others in new performances. Partly as a byproduct of this interest, most of Rózsa’s other works have also been recorded during the past decade. Though these CD’s have not yet brought about anything like a boom, some adventurous performers are now starting to program his concert music.1
Seventy years ago, such attention would not have been thought surprising, for Rózsa was then widely regarded as one of Europe’s most promising young composers. Not until he moved to the United States would critics conclude that there was less to him than met the ear.
In Double Life (1982), his wryly amusing autobiography, Rózsa describes a youthful career not greatly different from that of any other composer-in-the-making, though his start was somewhat slower. Born in Budapest in 1907, he began to play the violin at the age of five. But his father insisted that he receive a general education; when he went to the University of Leipzig in 1925, it was to pursue a degree in chemistry with a minor in musicology. Soon enough, however, he persuaded his father to let him become a full-time student of music at the Leipzig Conservatory. His first important large-scale composition, the String Trio, Op. 1, was premiered in 1927 and published shortly thereafter by the prestigious Leipzig firm of Breitkopf & Härtel.
Rózsa received a thorough grounding in the Austro-German musical tradition, but his own sympathies were considerably more wide-ranging than those of his teachers. From childhood on, he had been exposed to Hungarian folksong, and its sharp-cornered rhythms and strong modal coloration—particularly the major-minor fluctuation and flattened sevenths that can also be heard in the music of Béla Bartók, his senior by a quarter-century—would imprint themselves on his mature style. As he later recalled:
I felt this constant urge to express myself musically in the language of my patrimony and of my origins; it was a living source of inspiration. . . . However much I may modify my style in order to write effectively for films, the music of Hungary is stamped indelibly one way or another on virtually every bar I have ever put on paper.
Though Rózsa’s sweet-and-sour harmonic language bore a definite resemblance to that of Bartók, who was another folksong collector, his melodies were more overtly lyrical. For this reason his music initially appealed to a wider audience. His Theme, Variations, and Finale, Op. 13a, a twenty-minute orchestral showpiece written in Paris in 1933 and premiered the following year by Charles Munch, opens with a piquant oboe tune whose melodic contours are unmistakably Hungarian, followed by eight brilliantly scored variations and a whirlwind finale. “The theme sounded as if it might have been a folk tune,” Rózsa later recalled, “but it wasn’t; it just arose out of my feelings of nostalgia for the village where I had felt at home.”
This piece, one of the finest sets of orchestral variations composed in the 20th century, became Rózsa’s calling card, attracting the attention of conductors throughout Europe and America. (It figured prominently, for example, on the 1943 program with which an as yet unknown Leonard Bernstein made his New York Philharmonic debut) But it brought him no substantial income, and in order to earn a living Rózsa resorted to hackwork, churning out popular songs under the pseudonym Nic Tomay.
In 1935, desperate to find a more dignified way of subsidizing his serious work, Rózsa moved to England, where he wangled an introduction to the Hungarian movie producer Alexander Korda. Korda hired him to score Knight Without Armour, and Rózsa found the work unexpectedly congenial. When Korda moved his production company to Hollywood in 1939 to finish The Thief of Baghdad, Rózsa went along, and within four years had established himself as a key figure in film music.
Until recently, few of the hundreds of composers who worked in Hollywood during the studio era had received more than passing notice from classical-music critics. Nor did many of them deserve it: most of the musicians who wrote film scores in the 30’s were true hacks, and their work was as utilitarian and unmemorable as the movies it adorned.2 With the sole exception of the Vienna-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who like Rózsa had distinguished himself on the European classical-music scene long before moving to America, Rózsa found his new colleagues to be poorly trained and stylistically unadventurous:
Each score was credited to a different composer, but the music all sounded much the same. . . . The general idiom was conservative and meretricious in the extreme—diluted Rachmaninoff and Broadway.
Fortunately, a few producers and directors were as open as their British counterparts to new musical ideas. Aaron Copland had already come to Hollywood in 1939 to score the film versions of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and his much-remarked example helped make it possible for such composers as Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann to work in a more modern idiom.
By his own reckoning, the first film in which Rózsa broke decisively with Hollywood’s prevailing musical blandness was Double Indemnity (1944), in which the director Billy Wilder, working in collaboration with the mystery novelist-screenwriter Raymond Chandler, laid the groundwork for the disillusioned, morally equivocal style of moviemaking now known as film noir. Wilder encouraged Rózsa to compose a score consistent with the film’s cynical tone, and Rózsa responded by introducing (in his words) “certain asperities of rhythm and harmony which wouldn’t have caused anyone familiar with the serious musical scene to bat an eyelid, but which did cause consternation in certain musical quarters in Hollywood.” Indeed, several studio executives at Paramount Pictures were shocked by what they heard, but Wilder insisted that Rózsa’s score be recorded exactly as written, and when Double Indemnity became a hit, both men were vindicated.
Rósza’s Gripping score for Double Indemnity may have sounded jokingly dissonant by the ultra-cautious standards of Hollywood in the 40’s, but it was, as he readily acknowledged, less adventurous than his concert music. Unlike Copland and Herrmann, he was prepared to temper his distinctive style in order to make it acceptable to untrained ears—though he never diluted it beyond recognition, as did more pliable composers like George Antheil.
How did he feel about his “double life”? According to the film-music scholar Christopher Palmer, who worked as his assistant, “Rózsa needed to write the kind of music films demanded of him; it was a side of his musical personality that had to find an expressive outlet.” Be that as it may, in the pages of Double Life Rózsa speaks with unmixed pleasure of only a few of his film scores. Although he calls the richly expansive Ben-Hur “very close to my heart,” more typical is this remark:
I actually never liked the cinema very much, but for me, as for many other composers, it was a source of income, and once committed to it we did our best. . . . Did I betray my heritage? My view is that I did not, inasmuch as I never lost sight of my real profession: that of composer, not of music to order but simply of the music that was in me to write.
Nor did he ever slacken in his output of music made not “to order” but for his own pleasure or on commission from a select number of prominent soloists and conductors. Most notable among these was Jascha Heifetz, for whom Rózsa wrote the Violin Concerto, Op. 24 (1956), by common consent the greatest of his concert pieces. In this three-movement work, a particularly striking example of his expressive self-discipline, he invariably flavors his warmly romantic, modally colored melodies with a pinch of harmonic acerbity. Once again one hears a family resemblance to Bartók’s much better-known violin concerto of 1938, but there is no question of derivation; nor would Bartók ever have written anything as frankly emotive as Rózsa’s central movement, marked Lento cantabile.
Alas, few critics seemed able to distinguish the well-paid craftsman from the dedicated artist who retired to a villa in Italy each summer to devote himself to serious composition. Especially in the wake of his scores for such big-budget costume epics as Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis (1951), King of Kings (1960), and El Cid (1961), he found it all but impossible to get a fair hearing, and though his concert music was played with some frequency, it tended not to be heard in major venues. When Pinchas Zukerman, André Previn, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed his Viola Concerto, Op. 37 (1979), Rózsa observed matter-of-factly that it was “the first time a major concert work of mine had been given in my hometown for some twenty years.”
Nevertheless, he soldiered on, even after a stroke in 1982 paralyzed the left side of his body, forcing him to give up both large-scale composition and film work. (The latter had in any case dried up as American filmmakers lost interest in the big-orchestra scores of the studio era, opting instead for pop-music soundtracks.) He spent his later years working on a series of sonatas for various unaccompanied instruments. Though failing eyesight finally forced him to stop composing in 1988, he lived long enough to hear the first in a series of new digital recordings of his orchestral music, and to know that a small but fervently loyal cadre of younger artists would carry the torch for his music after his death.
Rózsa set forth his artistic credo on the last page of Double Life:
Like [the conductor] Sir Thomas Beecham I have no time for any music which does not stimulate pleasure in life, and, even more importantly, pride in life. . . . I am an unashamed champion of tonality. Its possibilities were supposed to be exhausted at the turn of the [20th] century; yet today, 80 years later, composers are still finding new and vital things to say within its framework. . . . Tonality means line; line means melody; melody means song; and song, especially folk song, is the essence of music, because it is the natural, spontaneous, and primordial expression of human emotion.
Even as late as 1982, when these words were published, Rózsa’s unswerving belief in the central position of tonality in Western music would have struck many influential musicians as reactionary, if not absurd. As much as his “double life,” it was this staunch commitment to tradition that kept him from receiving the attention he deserved.
Today, however, things are thankfully different, and Rózsa’s concert music is due—overdue—for a thoroughgoing revaluation. For all the impeccable craftsmanship and dramatic appropriateness of his film scores, it is in pieces like his concertos for violin, viola, and cello, the two string quartets, and the marvelous Theme, Variations, and Finale that the best of Rózsa is to be found. These are major works by any reckoning, strongly individual yet unfailingly accessible. It can only be a matter of time before their chronically undervalued composer wins the recognition he deserves as a master of modern music.
Rózsa on CD: A Select Discography
A fine conductor, Miklós Rózsa recorded most of his own orchestral music, but none of his performances is currently to be found on CD (except for a few soundtracks). Here are seven currently available recordings of some of his concert works and film scores, arranged according to date of composition:
1933: The Theme, Variations, and Finale was performed by James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as part of a series of CD’s devoted to Rózsa’s complete orchestral music. According to Rózsa, who heard a tape two years before his death, “the orchestral playing combines passion with discipline in exactly the way my music demands” (Koch International 3-7191-2H1).
1944-46: Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony have also recorded suites from three of Rózsa’s best film scores of the 40’s: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and The Killers (1946). The playing here is adequate but shows signs of insufficient rehearsal (Koch International 3-7375-2-H1).
1956: Jascha Heifetz’s “creator” recording of the Violin Concerto, made with Walter Hendl and the Dallas Symphony six weeks after the world premiere, remains the benchmark performance of that masterly work (RCA Victor Gold Seal 7963-2-RG). Also available is an outstanding new digital recording by Robert McDuffie, Yoel Levi, and the Atlanta Symphony, coupled with an equally good performance by Lynn Harrell of the Cello Concerto, Op. 32, composed in 1968 for Gregor Piatigorsky (Telarc CD-80518).
1959: The complete musical soundtrack to Ben-Hur, conducted by Rózsa, is now available on compact disc (WEA/Rhino R2 72197, two CD’s).
1979: Rózsa’s last major work for orchestra was the intense, dark-colored Viola Concerto, composed for Pinchas Zukerman and recorded by Paul Silverthorne, James Sedares, and the New Zealand Symphony (Koch 3-7304-2H1).
1981: The bracingly astringent Second String Quartet, Op. 38, is available in a fine reading by the Flesch Quartet, coupled with the more lyrical First Quartet, Op. 22, composed in 1950 and dedicated to the actor Peter Ustinov, who appeared in Quo Vadic (ASVCDDCA1105).
1 Recommended recordings of key works by Rózsa (including his film scores) are listed in the selected discography at the end of this article.
2 For a more extensive discussion, see my essay, “I Heard It at the Movies,” in COMMENTARY, November 1996.