Miklos Rozsa Biography

18 April 1907, Budapest, Hungary, d. 27 July 1995, Los Angeles, California, USA. An important composer for films from the early 30s until the early 80s, who had an equally distinguished career in the world of classical music, Rozsa began to play the piano at the age of five and soon added the violin to his studies. He gave his first public performance when he was seven, playing a movement from a Mozart violin concerto and conducting a children’s orchestra in Haydn’s ‘Toy Symphony’. In his teens Rozsa attended Leipzig University and, during his four years there, completed his first serious compositions. His big breakthrough came in 1934 with his ‘Theme, Variations, And Finale (Opus 13)’. A year later he moved to London to write a ballet, and was invited to compose the music for Alexandra Korda’s film Knight Without Armour, starring Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich. The successful outcome marked the beginning of Rozsa’s five-year association with Korda, which, in the late 30s, produced The Squeaker, The Divorce Of Lady X, The Spy In Black and The Four Feathers.

In 1940, Rozsa went to Hollywood to finish work on The Thief Of Baghdad and then scored Sundown and The Jungle Book. All three films gained him Oscar nominations, and together with The Four Feathers, were designated as his ‘Oriental’ period. Rozsa was nominated again, for Lydia, before Korda shut down London Films for the duration of World War II. Rozsa moved to Paramount where he provided the ‘stark, powerful, dissonant score’ for ‘the archetypal film noir of the 40s’, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), followed by other Wilder movies such as Five Graves To Cairo and The Lost Weekend (1945). In the latter, Rozsa introduced a new instrument, the theremin, ‘an ideal accompaniment to torture’. It was one of around 10 ‘psychological’ movies with which Rozsa was involved during his career. Another, in the same year, was Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, for which Rozsa won his first Academy Award for a ‘bleak and exciting’ score. In the late 40s, besides Paramount, Rozsa worked mostly for United Artists and Universal on films such as Because Of Him, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, The Killers (Burt Lancaster’s first movie), The Red House, The Macomber Affair, Brute Force, The Naked City (with Frank Skinner) and A Double Life (1947), for which he won another Oscar.

At the end of the decade Rozsa began to work for MGM, and embarked on his ‘religious and historical epic’ period, with monumental scores for Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Julius Caesar, Knights Of The Round Table, Valley Of The Kings and Ben Hur (1959 - his third Academy Award, and his last major assignment for MGM). Rozsa pursued the epic into the 60s with the blockbusters King Of Kings and El Cid (1961), both of which were made in Spain. By no means all of Rozsa’s scores in the 50s and 60s were of such gigantic proportions; he also provided the music for movies with a wide variety of subjects, such as The Asphalt Jungle, Crisis, The Story Of Three Loves, Moonfleet, Tribute To A Bad Man, Bhowani Junction, Lust For Life, Something Of Value, The World, The Flesh And The Devil, The V.I.P’s, The Power, The Green Berets, and many more. In 1970 Rozsa made his last film with Billy Wilder, The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, and played a cameo role as a ballet conductor. His other 70s film music included The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, The Secret Files Of J. Edgar Hoover, Fedora, The Last Embrace, Time After Time and Providence, described as his ‘most inspiring project for years’.

Somewhat ironically, during the 70s and 80s, when the demand for elaborate orchestral movie scores had declined, to be replaced by a montage of pop records, renewed interest in Rozsa’s earlier classic film works caused record companies to make new recordings of his scores. In 1981, Rozsa’s music for Eye Of The Needle, suggested, for some, shades of Korda’s The Spy In Black over 40 years earlier, and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a parody of the 40s film noir which included footage from classics of the genre, found Rozsa writing music for scenes that he had originally scored many years previously. Even though he was partially paralyzed by a stroke in 1982, he continued to compose classical works and, on his 80th birthday, was presented with a Golden Soundtrack Award by ASCAP. The anniversary was declared ‘Miklos Rozsa Day’ in Los Angeles, and the composer was presented with greetings from President Reagan, Queen Elizabeth, and other luminaries such as Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. Later in 1987 Rozsa was the guest of honour at a gala charity concert of his music given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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