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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat