OBITUARIES : Miklos Rozsa

Miklos Rozsa was one of the last of the great "classic" film and television composers; and the winner of three Academy Awards for Best Score, for Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947), and Ben Hur (1959). Although he may be primarily remembered as the composer who captured the "Roman" epic sound for the cinema, he was also highly experimental - often writing for film "noir" and utilising early electronic instruments such as the "Theremin" to suggest psychological disorder. Unusually for a film music composer he also wrote prolifically for the concert hall.

Miklos Rozsa was born in Budapest in 1907. His mother played the piano, but his father was an industrialist who thought very little of music and resisted his son's wish to pursue a career as a musician. However, the young Miklos was clearly highly talented and his passion for music was encouraged by his mother. He was able to read music before he could read words and became a proficient violinist, an instrument he played very well when only five. Rozsa's teacher, Herman Grabner, told his father that he believed him to be a musical prodigy and that he showed considerable ability as a composer. Reluctantly, his father let Miklos satisfy his appetite for music.

At the age of only 21, Rozsa was contracted by the musical publishing company Breitkopf and Haertel. He composed for the concert hall and the theatre and wrote for ballet too. For a while, he lived in Leipzig, working as an assistant to Grabner, continuing to write orchestral and chamber music. In 1931 several of the chamber pieces received acclaim at a performance in Paris. He decided to make Paris his home and three years later his Theme Variations and Finale (Opus 13) confirmed his position as one of the outstanding composers of his day.

In 1936 his ballet Hungaria was performed by Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova in London. The French film director Jacques Feyder was visiting London at the time and invited Rozsa, over for the ballet, to have dinner with him. Feyder ordered several bottles of champagne and declared that he believed Rozsa to be "greater than Beethoven", and "the greatest composer alive". It was then that Feyder revealed that he wanted Rozsa to compose the music for his new film.

Rozsa met Feyder the following day for lunch, with a young German actress who was to star in his film. After lunch Rozsa asked Feyder who the actress was. It was Marlene Dietrich, who had been introduced to him as Mrs Sieber. Knight Without Armour, starring Dietrich and Robert Donat, was Rozsa's first film score, and he included several special songs for Dietrich. Later, Rozsa confessed that he knew so little about films that, immediately after being commissioned, he bought a book which explained how to write a film score. Afterwards, he went to see as many films as he could.

The producer of Knight Without Armour (1937) was his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda. This was the start of a partnership that led Rozsa to produce some of his finest work. These included The Thief Of Baghdad (1940), The Four Feathers (1939), and Lady Hamilton (1941), starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

It was Rozsa's score for The Jungle Book (1942), however, which proved the best of this period. This starred Korda's "discovery" the Indian boy Sabu. The film is very dependent on the music, and Rozsa later adapted the score into an orchestral suite. The suite was constructed much in the manner of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (1936), and in public performance and recording there was a narration by Sabu. The suite was also re-recorded later with the narration provided by Leo Genn.

Rozsa's first contract with Hollywood was at Paramount Studios in 1943. These included commissions for Double Indemnity (1944) and Lost Weekend (1945). After Rozsa had completed Double Indemnity, Paramount's musical director called him to his office. He told him that he thought it was "a score with few themes, that belonged in Carnegie Hall". Rozsa mistakenly taking this as a compliment, thanked him. At the premiere, Buddy de Sylva, who was Head of the Music Department, announced that the score was a triumph and not only personally congratulated Rozsa, but also his musical director for hiring him.

For Lost Weekend, in which Ray Milland plays a dipsomaniac, Rozsa experimented with an electronic instrument called a Theremin. Rozsa wanted the instrument to represent the voice of Milland's disturbed psyche. In one scene in which Milland observes a mouse, killed by a swooping bat, the music is a genuinely horrific complement to the action.

Following his success, Rozsa was hired to score Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), and he again used the Theremin. This work won him his first Academy Award. The film featured a theme which has remained as one of the most popular ever to emerge from a film score. He later adapted this theme for his Spellbound Concerto.

So thorough was Rozsa in his research before composing, that he consulted several psychiatrists before writing his score for the Oscar-winning A Double Life (1948). The film starred Ronald Colman as a mad actor. He used the psychiatrist's opinion on what sounds the mentally ill are predisposed toward when he scored Colman's paranoid scenes.

Rozsa used the Theremin once more in one of his greatest ever film scores, The Red House (1947), a thriller with Edward G. Robinson; but afterwards, fearing it was becoming his trademark, stopped using it.

The year before The Red House, Rozsa wrote the music for The Killers. This was a new kind of crime movie - harsh, brutal and realistic. His music intensified the violence of street life; many previous film composers had romanticised it. Rozsa later adapted the main theme of The Killers for the television series Dragnet, which is one of his best remembered and most easily recognised pieces. The bandleader Ray Anthony recorded a version of it in 1953, which became a hit. Later, he adapted many of these "crime" scores into a concert suite entitled The Background to Violence.

In the Fifties and Sixties Rozsa's name was closely associated with Biblical epics and historical dramas. He often used instruments of the time, or tried to emulate them, in Quo Vadis (1951), El Cid (1961) and Sodom and Gomorrah (1962). But his two best and most memorable "epic" scores were Ben Hur (1959) and King of Kings (1961). The musical canvas of Ben Hur is one of the biggest in film history, with many complex themes which interweave and grow naturally from the atmosphere of the film.

Throughout his career Rozsa had been regarded as a specialist composer - first of oriental fantasies, then psycho- logical trauma, crime pictures and finally historical epics. He broke from these moulds towards the end of the 1970s when asked to compose for films such as Jonathan Demme's The Last Embrace (1979), Time After Time (1979) and Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1981).

Rozsa stopped composing in the 1980s because of ill-health. Illness prevented him from attending his own special 80th Birthday Celebration, held at the Royal Festival Hall, in London, with his fellow film composers Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein.

Laurence Staig

Miklos Rozsa, composer: born Budapest 18 April 1907; died Los Angeles 27 July 1995.

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