Director D. W. Griffith once said that “The music sets the mood for what your eye sees; it guides your emotions; it is the emotional framework for visual pictures.” If we associate visual pictures with music, we get soundtracks, and when we think of movie scores, three-time Academy Award winner composer Miklós Rózsa is impossible not to mention. Having composed almost 100 film scores earning him 17 Oscar nominations, Rózsa carved his place out in film history as one of the most famous composers of all time.
In the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, Hungary has proved to be fertile ground for creatives born practically each decade who then up and left their birth country only to ultimately achieve world fame in America. Directors, producers, actors and composers thought for one reason or another that they needed to start a new life across the pond to either become what they were meant to be or continue to do what they have started but in a more liberal environment conducive to creativity. Following in the footsteps of greats like Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Béla Lugosi, Al Lichtman, Leslie Howard, Sir Alexander Korda, George Cukor, and Tony Curtis, Miklós Rózsa did just the same.
Born on April 18, 1907 in Budapest, he grew up in an progressive family that valued the arts, education and culture. He started playing the violin at the tender age of five, followed by the viola and the piano later on. Considered to be a child prodigy, he already composed music and played in public by the time he was eight. He also started collecting folk songs from the area of Nagylóc, a town north of Budapest where his family had a country estate. Following his education at the Budapest Realgymnasium in 1925, he decided to move to Germany to further his training at the Leipzig Conservatory, followed by another move to Paris in 1931. Turning to film music eventually took him to London where he completed his first film score on “Knight Without Armour” (1937), produced by Alexander Korda. Over time, he joined Korda’s company (London Films) and when the war broke out, he moved to the US with the studio.
The move really sealed his fate and he composed one film score after the other. Rózsa became a titan of film music composing and was often called “the king of film scores”. He, however, was a dedicated fan of classical concert music and can trace much of his success as composer back to this aspect of music creation as well. By 1952 he became so successful in his movie score work at MGM that he was able to cut a deal that left him with a quarter of the year away from the studio to focus on his beloved concert music. As such, his professional life’s duality consisted of being both a film score composer and a concert music composer, the fact that made him a very divisive personality with critics.
Having worked on a truly extensive list and wide range of films, it is impossible to mention all of his work. Some of his most successful and well-known creations include “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940), “Double Indemnity” (1944), “Spellbound” (1945), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “The Killers” (1946), “The Red House” (1947), “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), “Lust for Life” (1956), “Ben-Hur” (1959) – the movie that’s considered to be his Magnum opus –, “El Cid” (1961), “The Power” (1968), “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970).
Published in 1982, Rózsa outlined his distinctive thoughts on music in his autobiography, “A Double Life”: “I believe in music as a form of communication; for me it is more an expression of emotion than an intellectual or cerebral crossword puzzle… I am a traditionalist, but I believe tradition can be so recreated as to express the artist’s own epoch while preserving its relationship with the past.”
To preserve his memory and keep his musical legacy alive, in 2016 the Hungarian Hollywood Council and a Los Angeles NGO unveiled a plaque commemorating the world-renowned composer’s childhood years in the town of Nagylóc. Three years later, the Council declared April 18th Miklós Rózsa Memorial Day. This year, celebrating the 116th anniversary of his birth, the Council held a commemoration in Nagylóc on April 21 and placed a wreath on his memorial plaque.