Biography by Christopher Palmer

Miklós Rózsa (often misspelt as Rosza) was born in Budapest on April 18, 1907. His father was a well-to-do land-owning industrialist with a liberal outlook, and the boy grew up in an atmosphere of comfort, culture, and affection. Town life appealed little to young Miklós, especially when set against the manifold attractions of the family's country estate, which lay north of Budapest in a village called Nagylócz in the county of Nógrád, at the foot of the Mátra mountains.

    The capital of the county was Balassagyarmat and we went there by train; when we arrived we'd find our coach and coachman waiting for us. There followed a journey of about 3-4 hours to our house, which took us through a small but lovely baroque town called Szécsény. The whole area was inhabited by the Palóc, an indigenous Magyar people with their own dialect, customs and costumes (on Sundays the girls wore some 8-10 layers of skirts!). The late-19th-century Hungarian novelist Mikszáth (called in Hungary: the great Palóc) wrote many lovely tales about them and as a child I read every word he wrote. When my mother came to the U.S.A. after my father's death during the Second World War, she asked me what she should bring from our library of thousands of books; I asked her to be sure to bring the Mikszáths. It was the music of the Palóc I heard during those summers I spent on the estate and which intrigued me from my earliest childhood, although of course it wasn't until later that I realised what a vital shaping force it was proving on my whole musical personality. This music was all around me; I'd hear it in the fields when the people were at work, I'd hear it emanating from festivities in the village as I lay awake at night; and the time came when I felt I had to put it down on paper and perpetuate it.

    I was never a methodical folksong collector like Kodály or Bartók; I was interested only in the music, of which I was continually aware and which I found strong in expression and fascinating rhythmically. I had no Edison phonograph like Bartók, I just went around with a small black notebook and wrote down what I heard. I never bothered with the text, that didn't interest me in the least. In other words as a bona fide folklorist I was an amateur. I sometimes played violin with the gypsies for fun, and we might join together to serenade a certain village beauty (whose name I still remember) under her window, troubadour or knight-errant style. Of course all this could only happen when my parents were away and I, as the "young master," could engage a handful of gypsy musicians to accompany (with wrong harmonies) my fanciful improvisations. It must have sounded quite terrible but the young lady in question seemed to like it, and that was the main thing. My folksong collection (now lost, alas) also included tunes from the nearby villages of Rimócz, HoIIókő, and others which were also inhabited by the Palóc, so their music was similar (incidentally the word "palóc" sounds in English very much like "palowtz." Little did I know that one day I should write my own "Polovtzian Dances"). I incorporated songs from my collection in my op. 4 Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song and op. 5 North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances and in my ballet Hungaria. By this time the folk music of this area of Hungary had become an integral part of my own musical language and I found my own melody evolving itself quite spontaneously out of it. I didn't even need to think about it-I just did it. There was this constant urge to express myself musically in the melos of my surroundings and of my patrimony. As long as I was able, I would spend as much time as possible in the country-even after I had started at Leipzig I would come home, perhaps spend Christmas with the family at our Budapest flat, but then I'd be away to Nagylócz. It was a living source of inspiration and I think that were it ever possible for me to return to Hungary, the only places I should really want to revisit would be these little ramshackle country villages which meant so much to me as a boy. That was where the world began for me.

Rózsa began to study the violin with Lajos Berkovits (a pupil of Hubay) when five years of age and later also took up the viola and piano. By the time he was eight he was performing in public and composing (he played a movement from a Mozart violin concerto dressed as Mozart, and led a children's orchestra in a public performance of Haydn's Toy Symphony), but his father was against his specialising in music and insisted on providing him with a sound general education. In the Budapest high school he attended he was elected president of the Franz Liszt Society and organised matinees of "modern music," much to the horror and dismay of the school authorities.
    Bartók and Kodály began discovering the authentic Hungarian folk music around the time when I was born. I grew up with the sort of pseudo-Hungarian gypsified music represented by the Liszt Rhapsodies (which my mother played), Brahms's Hungarian Dances, and the spurious nationalism of Erkel, Mosonyi, Hubay, and others. I made a speech roundly condemning all this music, pointing out that it had nothing to do with genuine Hungarian music, i.e. the music of the peasants, and hailed Bartók and Kodály as the founders of an authentic Hungarian nationalist style. The next day I was summoned by the headmaster who informed me that neither Bartók nor Kodály was fit to be performed by the Franz Liszt Society of the school and that my speech was subversive and inflammatory.
But after this initial setback Rózsa's career as a spokesman for the "new Hungary" took a step forward when he won the Society's prize for a new composition with a piece of his for flute, oboe, and cello based on a poem he had written himself entitled Hungarian Twilight (Hungary had been dismembered after the Treaty of Trianon and ardent nationalism was rife). Settings of poems by the great Hungarian symbolist poet Endre Ady (who was also set by Bartók and Kodály) followed, and Rózsa was again much censured for his "modernity,"(which in this case involved no more serious infraction of the rules than a refusal to use traditional cadential formulae).
    There was much discussion of the music of Bartók and Kodály at the time, and the general consensus of opinion was that Kodály could more or less be tolerated, but Bartók was a madman. I was at the 1923 concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the union of Buda and Pest at which Bartók's Dance Suite, Kodály's Psalmus Hungaricus, and Dohnányi's Festival Overture were first performed. The public preferred the Dohnányi, the critics the Kodály, but few could find a good word to say for the Bartók. It was considered too eccentric and experimental.
But great as his admiration for Bartók and Kodály was, Rózsa felt instinctively that their ways and methods were not for him; his musical mind was differently constituted. Moreover, he disliked Budapest society and wanted to see something of the rest of Europe. So he decided to go to Leipzig, nominally to study chemistry; but having enlisted the support of Hermann Grabner (Reger's former pupil, assistant and successor at the Conservatory) who confided to Rózsa pčre his high opinion of the boy's musical talents, Rózsa fils finally enrolled as a full-time music student. A performance of his Piano Quintet op.2 attracted the attention of Karl Straube, the then Cantor of the Thomaskirche, who was very impressed and furnished Rózsa with an introduction to Breitkopf & Härtel. They immediately offered him a contract, and the String Trio op.1 and the Piano Quintet op.2 became his first published compositions.

During the final years of his studies Rózsa, together with his fellow student Wolfgang Fortner, often deputised for Grabner in his classes, and in 1929 he received his diplomas cum laude. For a time he remained in Leipzig as Grabner's assistant, but settled in Paris after a concert of his chamber music at the École Normale de Musique in May 1932. His first published orchestral work, the Hungarian Serenade for small orchestra op.10 (later revised and renumbered as op. 25) was conducted in Budapest by Dohnányi, where it was acclaimed by Richard Strauss, but a still greater success was in store for the Theme, Variations, and Finale op. 13, composed in Paris at the age of 26. Rózsa had earlier shown his unpublished Symphony to a number of well-known conductors-Dohnányi, Monteux, Walter-all of whom concurred that it was a worthwhile piece, but too long (it lasted for more than an hour). Monteux wanted to play the Scherzo on its own but performed the Cello Rhapsody op. 3 instead, and it was Walter who suggested that the composer write a completely new orchestral work of more modest dimensions. Op. 13 was the result and after its first performance in Duisburg on October 1, 1934, it blazed a trail of triumph across Europe and later America. Its conductors included Munch, Böhm, Schuricht, Swarowsky, Walter, Stock, Solti, Ormandy, Bernstein and many others.

By now Rózsa's career was launched, and late in 1934 he and his friend Arthur Honegger gave a joint concert of their compositions at the Salle Debussy in Paris. The indirect result of this was Rózsa's first contact with the cinema, for on hearing that Honegger had written the score for Les Misérables he duly went to see it, and was greatly impressed. It was London, however, that offered him his first chance to work in the new medium himself. He was invited to compose Hungaria for the Markova-Dolin Company, a ballet in one act choreographed by Derra de Moroda with Joan Burnett, Wendy Toye, and Frederic Franklyn; the score consisted basically of Hungarian folk and traditional tunes which Rózsa arranged and orchestrated, among them the original "Rádóczy March" and several folksongs from his own collection. The conductor was Leighton Lucas, and the ballet ran for two years at the Duke of York's Theatre. Among those who heard it was the film director Jacques Feyder, who arranged for Rózsa to write the score for his next picture Knight without Armour (with Dietrich and Donat), which he was directing for Rózsa's fellow expatriate Hungarian, Sir Alexander Korda. The score Rózsa produced won considerable acclaim, and following the success of Thunder in the City, his next picture, he was invited to join the staff of Korda's London Films, where the dynamic young musical director, Muir Mathieson, was already pressing such eminent composers as Bliss and Benjamin into service. The Four Feathers was Rózsa's first big international success, but the very best of all his early film scores, The Thief of Bagdad, very nearly failed to come into being at all and, when it did, tottered for a while on the edge of precipice.

    Korda himself wanted me to do the score, but Ludwig Berger said he wouldn't direct unless Oscar Straus did it-the wrong sort of composer for a job of that kind. The Prudential wouldn't provide the money to start product unless Berger directed, so Alex was in a spot. Eventually he made me write new songs and play them in an office next to Berger's at nine o'clock every morning. The upshot was that Berger asked Alex to tell Straus somehow that he was off the picture!
The lyrics for the songs were written by Sir Robert (later Lord) Vansittart and in mid- August 1939 there appeared in Le Figaro a paragraph which read: "We have just learned that the head of the British Foreign Office is working on lyrics for The Thief of Bagdad with Miklós Rózsa. As long as the chief diplomatic adviser to the British Government has time to write lyrics for a film there is no imminent danger of war."

One month later war was declared, and Korda found himself obliged to transplant the entire production corps to Hollywood as the film was still not finished and money to continue in England was not forthcoming. Rózsa accompanied them since the remainder of the score had yet to be written. After a hazardous journey via Paris and Genoa, he docked at Manhattan in April 1940 and made his way thence west to Hollywood; and Hollywood became his home.

We should remember, however, that Rózsa's successes during the late 30s were not confined to the film world. In addition to the Theme, Variations, and Finale which was making its way round Europe, the Three Hungarian Sketches op. 14 were particularly well received at their first performance at the Baden-Baden International Music Festival in 1938, and also entered the repertoire; and this, together with the fact that his various chamber works were constantly being performed, won him in two consecutive years (1937 and 38) the coveted Franz Joseph Prize of the City of Budapest for composition, the highest musical honour Hungary had it in her power to bestow.

For a time Rózsa remained with the Kordas and scored another big success with Jungle Book. In 1943 he recorded the Jungle Book Suite (for narrator and orchestra) with Sabu (narrator) in New York; this was the first commercial recording of a U.S. film score ever to be issued, and caused a sensation. In I943 also he married Margaret Finlason, formerly secretary to Gracie Fields, whom he had met at the Hollywood home of June Duprez, the actress who played the Princess in The Thief of Bagdad. Their daughter Juliet was born in 1945, their son Nicholas in 1946, by which time Rózsa was firmly established as one of the leading composers of the film colony-a position he had won not without a number of skirmishes with the Hollywood musical Establishment upon whose blinkered conservatism he waged perpetual warfare.

    One of the things I quickly came to realise about Hollywood music was that there simply was no style as such, and what I managed to do in 1944 in Double Indemnity I count (at least for myself) as something of a breakthrough. Many of the early musicians working in Hollywood sound films were former Broadway and silent film conductors, song-writers and vaudeville pianists, 'top-line' composers with innumerable uncredited hack "arrangers" and "orchestrators." The general idiom was conservative and meretricious in the extreme-diluted Rachmaninov and Broadway. In Double Indemnity I introduced 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. The musical director of Paramount couldn't stand the score from the beginning, and told me so. Did I really have to have a G sharp in the second fiddles clashing with a G natural in the violas an octave below? Couldn't I change it, just for his sake? In his opinion the place for such eccentricities was Carnegie Hall, not a movie studio. I refused to change a note, and thanked him for the compliment; he assured me it wasn't meant as such and prophesied that the score would be thrown out lock, stock, and barrel after the sneak preview. In fact everybody liked what I'd done and the score remained intact, but the story gives one some idea of how difficult it was to maintain any decent level of musical integrity in the Hollywood of those days. People with a "serious" musical upbringing such as Herrmann, Korngold, and myself were the exception rather than the rule. Visiting celebrities such as Copland and Milhaud were always liable to have their scores "fixed up" by some local genius.
Rózsa won the Academy Award in 1945 for his score for Hitchcock's Spellbound (still his most popular work), again in 1947 for A Double Life, and for a third time in 1959 for Ben-Hur. In 1943 he received the Award of Merit of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors, and in 1947 the first prize of The Musical Courier. In 1945 he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California as Professor of Film Music (a post he retained until 1965), and in 1947 he acquired a large house in the Hollywood hills; around this time also he was able to bring his mother and his sister to Hollywood (his father had died during the war). In many ways life in Hollywood was congenial enough, not least for the great number of distinguished European musicians and writers (Mann, Werfel, Huxley, Isherwood) who settled there before and during the war. Ironically, it was in Hollywood, of all places, that he had his first and only encounter with BéIa Bartók. (Kodály he never met, although the older man spoke warmly to Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Pennario about Rózsa's music, and had been present at the I934 concert in Budapest when Munch conducted the Theme, Variations, and Finale-which may even have sown the seeds of the later Peacock Variations.)
    It was in 1941 or ´42 that Bartók gave a recital in Hollywood, in the Wilshire-Ebell Theatre, an old-fashioned concert-hall. He played his own transcriptions of Frescobaldi and Scarlatti, some Kodály, and some pieces of his own. There can't have been more than 200 people in the hall; none of the prominent musicians resident here at the time bothered to attend. Bartók was small, terribly thin, played from music, and turned the pages himself. The whole concert was a fiasco; one critic walked out in disgust at what he had heard. After the intermission two young girls wearing what they imagined to be Hungarian national dress came on to the stage, made an idiotic speech and presented him with a bouquet of roses. He stood there in a state of utter confusion and embarrassment, took the roses, didn't know what to do with them, finally sat down and proceeded with the concert. A friend of mine insisted that I meet him afterwards. "Rózsa?" said Bartók, "are you Hungarian?" It was an awful moment. My friend whispered to him, "Miklós Rózsa, the composer." Suddenly Bartók started to smile and said that he knew that Breitkopf was publishing my works and named them all from Op. 1 onwards. I blushed, but had no opportunity to talk to him for other people arrived to be introduced to him. So I never really got to know him. I tried to contact him when I was in New York the following year recording Jungle Book but was told that he did not wish to see anybody. The tragedy was that he did not understand America, and America did not understand him; he would probably have done better to go to England, where he was held in great regard. Yet, a mere one year after his death, he had even America at his feet. As Max Reger said, "Schweine und Komponisten werden erst nach dem Tode verwertet"-'Pigs and composers only come into their own after they are dead." As usual shrewd, cynical old Reger knew what he was talking about!
In 1948 Rózsa joined the staff of MGM Pictures and remained with them until I962, scoring many of the major productions of the 50s. Quo Vadis, offered him his first experience of Rome, and thence his long-standing love for Italy (the greatest of his concert works, the Violin Concerto, was written in Rapallo in 1953, in six weeks only). For many years he spent every summer in Santa Margherita Ligure, near Rapallo and Portofino, and every winter in Hollywood. Despite the busy and exhausting schedule of film-composing, his contributions to "serious" music have been quite substantial-the Concerto for Strings during the war years (given in London by Albert Coates-one of the first works by Rózsa ever to have been publicly performed in England), The Vintner's Daughter variations, and the Violin Concerto in the early to mid-1950s, and latterly the concerti for violin and cello (Heifetz and Piatigorsky), piano (Pennario), cello (János Starker), and the Tripartita for orchestra. Rózsa enjoyed conducting and was good at it, directing his own works in Europe and America and on records, for he was fortunate enough to have had nearly all his major compositions (both for cinema and concert hall) commercially recorded. He also made albums with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra (e.g., Danube Waves and Starlight Fantasy) and made a public appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in October 1972, when he conducted a programme of his own film music as a part of the Philharmonia Orchestra's annual Filmharmonic concert. In 1974 he traveled to Budapest to conduct a programme of his works. It was his first return to Hungarian soil in over 40 years.


Seemingly forgotten by a pop-oriented Hollywood in the 1970s, Rózsa experienced an extraordinary renaissance in later years. His film scores were rediscovered and successfully recorded by Charles Gerhardt, Elmer Bernstein, and Rózsa himself. He gained a formidable assistant and champion in the young musicologist Christopher Palmer, who spoke movingly of being inspired by a childhood experience of King of Kings to explore the wider world of sacred music. Honorary doctorates were conferred by the College of Wooster (Ohio) and the University of Southern California. Rózsa societies were founded around the world, and the composer gained the eminence of a revered elder statesman. Young filmmakers now sought his contribution as a privileged connection with a legendary Hollywood past: Jonathan Demme in Last Embrace, Nicholas Meyer in Time after Time, Larry Cohen in The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. Most extraordinary of all was the invitation to write for the avant-garde filmmaker Alain Resnais in Providence, for which Rózsa received the French film academy's César award in 1977. All the while he continued with his "private" or "serious" personal compositions. The Viola Concerto, last of his major works, was premiered by Pinchas Zukerman in Pittsburgh (1984).

Rózsa summed up his career with an elegant memoir, Double Life, published in 1982. That same year, a debilitating stroke began the final chapter, effectively ending his film career and forcing him to give up his beloved Italian summer cottage. The composer fought back with the toughness and tenacity that belied his courtly manner. Throughout the 1980s there emerged a series of solo compositions for flute, clarinet, guitar, oboe, violin, ondes martenot, and viola. Failing eyesight finally stilled his pen in 1988. His final years were severely restricted in their activity, but increasingly rewarded by the admiration of fans the world over. With it came the support of younger musicians like the conductor John Mauceri, who once broadcast a telephoned tribute to the composer from the thousands of listeners assembled to hear his music at the Hollywood Bowl just below Rózsa's home. Rózsa died on July 27, 1995, and is buried at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills.

Written in 1975 by Christopher Palmer.
Extended by John Fitzpatrick, 2000.
©1975 by Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden. Reproduced by permission.

Extra relevant information
1929, Degree in music composition. Leipzig conservatory of music.
1940, Honorary Doctorate. New York College of Music, (Then the oldest conservatory of music in New York)
1980, Honorary Doctorate. College of Wooster
1988, Honorary Doctorate. University of Southern California
Miklos Rozsa signature appears on Ennio Bolognini's cello which is now at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. It is unique, in that there are 51 signatures inscribed on it, including those of Kreisler, Heiftz, Stern, Szigeti, Liberace, Jack Dempsey, Bruno Walter, Janos Starker, Eugene Ormandy etc.