Miklós Rózsa was born in Budapest on 18 April 1907. He was raised in Budapest and on his father’s rural estate in nearby Tomasi. He was exposed to Hungarian peasant music and folk traditions from an early age. He studied the piano with his mother, a classmate of Béla Bartók at the Budapest Academy, and the violin and viola with his uncle, Lajos Berkovits, a musician with the Royal Hungarian Opera. By the age of seven, Rózsa was composing his own works. Later, as a student at the Realgymnasium, he championed the work of Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, keeping his own notebook of collected folk tunes.

He decided to go to Leipzig, supposedly to study chemistry, but having enlisted the support of Hermann Grabner, Rózsa finally enrolled as a full-time music student. A performance of his Piano Quintet op. 2 attracted the attention of Karl Straube, the cantor of the Thomaskirche, who was very impressed and furnished Rózsa with an introduction to Breitkopf and Härtel. They immediately offered him a contract, and the String Trio op. 1 and the Piano Quintet op. 2 became his first published compositions.

In 1929, he received his diploma cum laude. For a time, he remained in Leipzig as Grabner’s assistant. In 1931, he moved to Paris where he completed his Theme, Variations and Finale (1933, rev. 1943 and 1966), a work that soon gained international recognition. (It was on the programme the night Leonard Bernstein made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943.) In recognition of his musical achievements, Rózsa was awarded the Franz Joseph Prize from the municipality of Budapest in 1937 and 1938. Rózsa was invited to compose Hungaria, a ballet in one act, for the Markova-Dolin Company. 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 Marlene Dietrich and Robert 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. The Four Feathers was Rózsa’s first big international success. From 1935 to 1939, he frequently shuttled between Paris and London.

At the start of World War II, Korda found himself obliged to transplant the entire production corps to Hollywood; Rózsa accompanied them. He docked at Manhattan in April 1940 and made his way west to Hollywood, and it became his home. For a time, Rózsa remained with Korda and scored another big success with The Jungle Book. In 1943, he married Margaret Finlason, formerly secretary to Gracie Fields. Their daughter Juliet was born in 1945 and their son Nicholas in 1946, by which time Rózsa was firmly established as one of the leading composers of the film colony. Rózsa received the Academy Award in 1945 for his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound; he won it again in 1947 for A Double Life, and for a third time in 1959 for Ben Hur. In 1945, he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California as professor of film music, a post he retained until 1965. In 1948, Rózsa joined the staff of MGM Pictures and remained with them until 1962, scoring many of the major productions of the 1950s. His skill at manipulating traditional forms is particularly evident in the Concerto for Strings (1943, rev. 1957) and the Piano Sonata (1948). Best known are his Violin Concerto (1953) written for Jascha Heifetz, the Piano Concerto (1966), the Cello Concerto (1968) composed for Janos Starker, and a Viola Concerto (1979) for Pinchas Zukerman.

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. Honorary doctorates were conferred by the College of Wooster (Ohio) and the University of Southern California in 1988. He received a César award for the score for Providence (1977) by Alain Resnais.

Rózsa summed up his career with an elegant memoir, A Double Life, published in 1982. That same year, a debilitating stroke began the final chapter, effectively ending his film career. 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. Rózsa died on 27 July 1995. (This biography was taken, with modifications, from the collection register of the Miklós Rósza Papers [collection no. 329] at the University of Southern California Specialized Libraries and Archival Collections.)


Another artist from Central Europe was the brilliant pianist, folklorist and composer Miklós Rózsa, destined to become one of Hollywood's most beloved and successful composers and the winner of three Oscars. He was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, converted to Lutheranism and studied music at Leipzig. But in 1934, as the Nazis' power was increasing, he moved to Paris, and five years later he came to Hollywood with the famous director Alexander Korda, another Hungarian Jew, to work on The Thief of Bagdad. His score for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound is a classic--the ever-popular version of it as a piano concerto appears frequently on pops concerts--and so is his music for the biblical epic Ben Hur and the uplifting Christian dramas Quo Vadis and King of Kings, which are accompanied by appropriately religious music. Rozsa's passion for the folk music of his native Hungary colors his melodies, his orchestration and the drama of his music, which is closer to the world of early Bartók than to that of Richard Strauss. His music is different from the German romanticism of Korngold and Steiner, closer to the harmonic world of German Expressionism in film noir, as, for instance, in his influential scores for Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend and The Killers, whose melody was later used as the main theme for the popular TV show Dragnet. Though Rozsa was not fond of Schoenberg's twelve-tone system of composition, he excelled in writing film noir scores, as did Schoenberg's principal Hollywood students Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo) and David Raksin (Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful). The three of them were among the principal creators of the music for film noir, which remains one of Hollywood's unique achievements.