Originally published in French
in 24 Images, No. 12, April 1982

Regarded for more than forty years as one of the absolute masters of music in cinema, Miklós Rózsa is also one of the most outstanding composers of this century. I met him last August in Detroit. He was taking part in the Meadow Brook Music Festival, where he conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in a concert of his works. During a meeting after this at his hotel, where he expressed himself in excellent French, Rózsa came across as a great European humanist, always dignified and reserved in his remarks, who displayed rare kindness, affability and availability. Rózsa’s interviews in French are not very numerous. I am therefore particularly grateful to him for agreeing to give 24 Images a long exclusive interview which I believe sheds new light on his ideas, his work and his career. With all the film and music lovers who are moved by hearing the music of Miklós Rózsa, I would like here to pay him a vibrant tribute on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, April 18, 1982.

When you wrote your first film score, Knight Without Armour, what was your relationship like with [its director] Jacques Feyder? Were you old friends?

We had a good relationship. We went to the studio together. He was a very cultured man, very nice, a real gentleman. We worked very well together. He came to all the recordings and we both did the mixing. I saw him for the last time in Paris during the premiere of the film in 1937.

You also worked a lot with Zoltan Korda. What kind of person was he and what was your relationship with him?

Well, we were very close. It was mainly him who insisted that I come to Hollywood, more than Alexander, his brother, who was not really a musician. Some idiot told Zoltan he could get someone else in Hollywood to finish The Thief of Bagdad, but he refused. I really had a very close relationship with him. We made several films together and I could always do what I wanted; he was always very happy with my work. He was a very cultured, very intelligent man. But he was also very high strung because he was very sick. He had caught tuberculosis during the First World War on the Italian front. He also contracted malaria while filming on location, possibly during The Four Feathers in Egypt. He was always sick, but he was a great friend to me until the end. Unfortunately, when Zoltan died in Hollywood, I was in London recording the music for El Cid and was unable to attend his funeral. All three of the Korda brothers were friends. I went to London every year to visit the last survivor, Vincent, who died two years ago. It was always a great pleasure to talk about our early days.

When did you stop working with Alexander Korda?

In 1942, immediately after finishing The Jungle Book. We made four films in Hollywood: the first was The Thief of Bagdad, the second Lady Hamilton with Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh; then came Lydia with Merle Oberon, who was then the wife of Alexander Korda; and finally The Jungle Book. Alexander then returned to England and our collaboration ended there, but not our friendship, which lasted until his death.

The Thief of Bagdad was a hit, and it contained a fabulous musical score that got you labelled a specialist in the “oriental genre.”

Indeed, and I had three other “periods” in my career afterwards. The first, my “oriental period,” led me to make The Jungle Book, then Sundown, the action of which takes place in Africa, and I don’t know how many more films. If anyone wanted an “oriental” score, they came to me. Then I did Spellbound, and that was the start of my “psychological period.” During that one, if a character went nuts in the second reel, the only culprit was Rózsa. The Lost Weekend can be put in that category, along with many others. Then I became the “Al Capone” of film music when I did The Killers, Brute Force, The Naked City, and others for Paramount. I was the specialist in dark gangster films; I must have made about ten of them. Finally, the last period which began in the 1950s starting with Quo Vadis, made me into a specialist in large gigantic projects with historical and religious subjects. So I did Ivanhoe, Young Bess, Ben-Hur, King of Kings, El Cid,, here again, more than ten films. Now I am no longer an expert!

There is a story that someone other than you was supposed to write the music for The Thief of Bagdad.

Indeed, it is a very long story which I will try to summarize for you. After The Four Feathers, Alexander Korda called me into his office to tell me how much he liked my music for that film, and that even the critics in New York were mentioning it. Now he offered me the opportunity to write the music for another film he was preparing, an oriental fantasy called The Thief of Bagdad. He immediately made me sign a contract, with a salary increase! However, he had to find a director. He first offered the film to René Clair, but the latter refused. Clair had just made a film a few years earlier for Korda which was titled The Ghost Goes West. Korda, who did not like the final scene, had redone it and René Clair no longer wanted to work for him. Finally, Korda decided to entrust the production [of Thief] to Ludwig Berger, a German opera director, who had just finished Les Trois Valses in France. There were actually four directors for The Thief of Bagdad: Ludwig Berger, Zoltan Korda, Tim Whelan and Michael Powell. Mr. Powell, now the sole survivor of the four, claims to have done the whole movie, but I would say he only made ten to fifteen percent. Let it be said... In short, Berger wanted Oscar Straus, the composer of the operetta Drei Walzer [The Three Waltzes, 1935], to create the music for The Thief of Bagdad. Straus was a good composer of Viennese operettas but he was not at all suitable for this project. Korda let me know he was stuck and had to accept Straus. However, he asked me to trust him. Straus therefore began to compose and he sent his music regularly from Vichy where he was taking the waters. They were pieces typical of the Viennese operetta style of the beginning of the century. I said nothing. But Muir Mathieson, Korda’s musical director, couldn’t restrain himself and vented about what he thought of the music of Mr. Oscar Straus: not much. All of this reached Korda’s ears, and one morning Mathieson and I were summoned to his office. Berger was also summoned and when he arrived, he didn’t even look at us. He entered the office first, and two minutes later we heard shouting: “Boys — come in!” It didn’t bode well; we were young at the time. Korda said to us: “It seems that you don’t like the music of Mr. Straus?” Mathieson told them what he really thought. Korda replied that Mr. Berger was solely responsible for the musical and artistic questions of this film and the matter was over. Berger left triumphantly; Mathieson was furious. I was about to leave when Alexander told me to stay in his office. He asked me what I honestly thought of the music. “It is what it is, operetta music.” He then said to me: “Do the whole thing again. Don’t say a word to Mathieson or anyone else. When you’re done, come back to see me.” Two weeks later, I went back to see Korda with my music. He then told me to sit in an office with a piano he had reserved for me next to Berger’s and play what I had composed continuously until Berger reacted. That’s what I did. Every day, from nine o’clock in the morning, I was playing the piano as loudly as I could, so much so that the secretaries next door were pounding on the wall to tell me to shut up. I told them, “I am following orders!” On the third day, Berger rushes into my office saying: “What are you playing there? I’ve been hearing this damn music for three days.” I replied that these were ideas I had for The Thief of Bagdad. “We already have music for the film...” “Of course, but I have my ideas.” He then asks: “By the way, what is this last piece that you have just played?” I played him Sabu’s song. “Not bad! And the other?” I then played him everything I had written. Berger stood up and told me not to move, then ran to Korda’s office where he declared he had “discovered” me! “The music was far superior to that of Oscar Straus...” Korda replied that if Berger absolutely wanted to have me, that would be fine. But now it was time to break the news to Straus, who was informed that, because of the distance, it was not possible to continue the collaboration. Straus sent a telegram saying, “You ruined my career!” He was 80 years old [actually around 70]!

Your first film score was that of Knight Without Armour. How did you approach your new world of film music?

It was difficult because I had no idea what to do for a film. I bought two books, one by a Russian author and the other by a German. But they dealt mainly with the music of silent films. When films had sound, their music was a different matter. When I got to the studio, I found that everything I had learned in those books was absolutely wrong. For example, it said not to write for flutes in their high register, because we couldn’t record them. (Maybe indeed that at the time, we couldn’t record them!) I had great difficulty, especially with the dialogue. It was a completely new thing for me to come to the cinema and to write music that “works” with the dialogue. I remember that for my second film, Thunder in the City with Edward G. Robinson, there was very witty dialogue for which I wrote very witty music: a scherzo. I played it on the piano for the American director, and he asked me: “Am I going to hear this some day in a concert hall?” I asked him why. “Because it doesn’t work in a movie. I want to hear the dialogue, not your piccolo and your flutes!” So I learned that you shouldn’t write like that under dialogue. You have to write long passages for the strings.

So you learned your craft as a film musician literally in the cinema.

In the cinema.

You can study this sort of thing at schools now…

Yes, and I taught this sort of thing in schools for twenty years. I know exactly the difficulties a young musician will have to face. There are many things that are particular to this job.

When you arrived in Hollywood, how did you find the state of the film music that was written there? Did you like it?

It depended. In France, for example, it was amazing because there were composers like Honegger, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, Maurice Jaubert. In England there were William Walton, the conservatory professor Arthur Benjamin, Arthur Bliss, and more. I would say five excellent musicians in all. Not in America. I only knew American films that had been screened in Paris and London. They were awful, very dilettante. In Paris, insignificant films were entrusted to dilettantes who didn’t know how to write, as is still happening today. Composers knew how to write a song, the song was repeated fifty-two times in the film and that was all. This was not the case with Arthur Honegger or William Walton; that was something else! In America, for me, there was only one musician at the time who was a real composer and that was Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His music was maybe a bit, how shall I put it...

Grandiloquent, Straussian?

Straussian, yes, “operatic”. But it was still good music.

What did you think of Max Steiner?

Steiner had a talent for melody. He came from Broadway where he had directed musicals and vaudeville plays, so that was his style. Historically he was the first to come to Hollywood who composed original music. Steiner is therefore important because the other composers plundered the classics: Tchaikovsky, Chopin, whatever. Steiner composed original music. It wasn’t great music; it was vaudeville music, operetta, but still, there were melodies, and that was very important at the time: melodies could be popular.

Were the American orchestras you faced technically good or mediocre?

The orchestras were excellent. When I got to Hollywood, all the big studios had contracted orchestras with at least 50 players. There were eight of them: M-G-M, Warner Brothers, Columbia, 20th Century-Fox, Paramount and the others. As instrumentalists, the players were amazing; but still, they were playing in a style that came from Broadway. All these musicians — instrumentalists and conductors — had cut their teeth in movie theaters during the silent era. However, they were largely playing tunes from Broadway musicals; symphonic scores for films did not yet exist. I recall when I started recording The Thief of Bagdad, I used the M-G-M Orchestra; we could hire them and word was that technically they were the best. But the first violin was playing with “dégueulandos.” You know what “dégueulandos” means, don’t you? [Slang for “portamento,” a slide from one musical note to another when playing a bowed instrument with suggestions of “gushing and syrupy.”1] So I said, “No, no! Just play the music simply.” He replied, “You know, it’s my gypsy side!” “No,” I told him, “it’s not your gypsy side, it’s your M-G-M side!”

Since we are talking about Hollywood studios, how did you work in a studio, at M-G-M for example?

I was simply an employee, for 14 years. At the studio, I had at my disposal a two-room bungalow with a piano. But I had it written into my contract that I didn’t want to work in the studio; I wanted to work from home, and that’s what I always did. It was out of the question for me that I come to the studio at nine o’clock in the morning and that I leave at six o’clock in the evening. I only went to the studio to see a film or for some other business, but never to compose. Otherwise, I would become like a civil servant.

How long were you allotted to write a score and what normal length could it have?

For a film that normally lasts two hours you had a one-hour score. Films over this length were an exception; Ben-Hur for example, three and a half hours. For Eye of the Needle recently, there was exactly one hour of music, 60 minutes.

And how much time did you have to write Eye of the Needle?

Approximately six weeks. In fact, I asked for two months and they gave me six weeks

When you were at M-G-M, could you refuse a film?

Yes, it was in my contract. M-G-M tried for four years to obtain my services before I agreed to sign a contract with them. So, when I joined, I had my conditions, for example, that of being able to refuse a film. They said to me, “Of course you can refuse to make a film, we wouldn’t want you to work on a project that you don’t like.” So I turned down a lot of films, and even very big films. For example, there was one that was a huge hit called The Bad and the Beautiful.

It was David Raksin who finally wrote the music...

It was indeed Raksin. But [the film] was about a producer [whose character] I hated2. I can’t write music about people I hate, so I said no! It was a great success... Too bad! And there were many other films that I refused, but I had the right to do so. When I negotiated my contract at M-G-M, I imposed ten conditions, all of which they initially agreed to except one: they didn’t want me to teach at the University of Southern California. They asked me how much money I made teaching. I told them $2,000. “That’s all? And you want to teach for this sum?” I replied, “Yes, I want to work at the university, I have a job there, I feel I’m obliged to do this.” After two days, they said to me, “Okay.”

Did you have any rights to use the music you wrote for the studio?

No. The studio had all the rights. Still now, I can’t use my music. The studio took the copyright and the rights belonged to the studio, or to the music publisher, which is a subsidiary of the studio. So practically, it amounts to the same thing.

If you are preparing a disc of your film music, as you did recently for Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur for Decca/London, do you have to ask the movie studio for permission?

Not any more, not for recordings.

Are the scores still available?

They burned all the scores! To make room for offices. It’s incredible! All scores, even that of Ben-Hur...

Orchestral material?

Orchestral material too. Everything, everything, everything! Hundreds of scores were destroyed. They didn’t even have the decency to call me and the other composers and offer to let us get our scores.

Did they consider that the scores belonged exclusively to them?

It belonged to them. But that was no reason to destroy everything. Any university in the United States would have been happy to receive this material in the form of donations. No, they preferred to burn everything.

Did all studios do the same thing?

No, not all. Warner Brothers, it’s all there, Paramount, it’s all there. But at Universal, everything was burned. So, when I made all these recordings for Decca/London or Polydor, everything had to be re-orchestrated from scratch because there was nothing left. Fortunately, I had kept my sketches, but not my scores. I had left them at the studio, even though I could take them back; but why take them back? I told myself that it was safer to leave them there than anywhere. Alas, no!

Have you ever had a score rejected?

Until now, no (taps on table), touch wood.

But we’ve already talked about issues with certain scores…

Yes, there are lots of stories, particularly one for Double Indemnity. There was a fellow [Louis Lipstone3] who was the head of the music department at Paramount who had once been a violinist in vaudeville; his musical intelligence was zero, a big zero! So we played the music I had written for the film. Billy Wilder, the film’s director, loved it, but [Lipstone] said to me: “I don’t like that! I hate this!” He called me into his office, and there he told me “This is not film music; it’s appropriate for Carnegie Hall!” I replied that it was a compliment he was paying me. “It’s not a compliment. It’s ‘long hair’.” (This is an American expression which means “serious, intellectual, snobby,” in the pejorative sense of the term.) He went on to ask me if I had heard the music that Herbert Stothart had composed for Madame Curie. “That’s good film music: it’s pretty, there’s melody, not dissonances like in your music for Double Indemnity.” I replied, “Yes, but Madame Curie is a love story, and Double Indemnity is a dissonant film, with dissonant characters.” “It doesn’t matter! You shouldn’t do that in film music. I heard an F in the violas, and an F sharp in the violins, that’s a dissonance!” I told him, “That’s exactly what I wanted.” Then he got nervous, and he said to me, “You’ll see, the head of the studio,” who was Buddy DeSylva, “is going to hate your music, he’s going to give you the boot, it’s going to be bad for you, and very bad for me, because I’m the one who hired you.” Despite everything, he couldn’t do anything because Billy Wilder, who was the director, loved the music. Shortly after, we all went to Long Beach, not far from Los Angeles, for a preview of the film. During the trip, [Lipstone] didn’t say a word to me, not a single one: I didn't exist. At the end of the preview, Buddy DeSylva sees us and motions to [Lipstone], who had been trying to take refuge in the toilet, to come over and see him. He approached with the look of a death row inmate on his way to the chair. DeSylva then told him, “It’s the best film score I’ve ever heard. It was magnificent, and I thank you for taking Rózsa as your composer. One thing though, I want more music here and there, the same style, the same thing, very dark and dissonant. It is really beautiful! Hearing that, Lipstone told him, “Buddy, I always get you the best man, don’t I”!

That’s a typical Hollywood reaction!

This is absolutely and utterly pure Hollywood.

Were you not happy recently with Fedora by Billy Wilder?

Indeed, Billy Wilder is no longer the Billy Wilder I once knew. He is a fellow who now acts like “Cćsar”! Without getting too specific, I refused to play a nasty little game and compromise myself with Wilder’s agent who, for some vengeful reason, managed to convince Wilder that my music was ruining the film. After presenting Fedora at Cannes, where it was a huge success, and my score even received critical acclaim, Wilder decided to completely redo the musical mix and eliminate fifteen or twenty percent of it without telling me. It was completely silly, because, in this film, it was the music that gave the film “soul.” Because of this, I no longer look on Mr. Wilder as a collaborator.

At the time, did you work more with the producer or with the director?

Well, it depended on the situation. In the old days, in the days of the big studios, we mainly worked with the producer. Billy Wilder though, who was a director, had a producer named Charles Brackett, a very bright and very nice man. But he let Wilder do everything. At M-G-M on the other hand, this was not the case: we always worked with the producer. He was the master builder of a film. The directors were employees who, once their work was finished on a film, went elsewhere.

Ivanhoe or Knights of the Round Table that you made with Richard Thorpe nevertheless strongly bear the mark of the director.

I never spoke about the music of these films with Richard Thorpe. We would meet at the restaurant: “How are you?” “Very well, thank you! And you?” “Very well. Goodbye!” Never a word about the music, never. The director was only directing the shots … period … that’s all.

And you, you only wrote the music?

Yes exactly. Besides, when I started working on the music for Ivanhoe, Richard Thorpe was already making another film.

Was it the same with Alfred Hitchcock?

Almost the same thing. I only saw Alfred Hitchcock twice for Spellbound. The first time he was with David O. Selznick, the producer. They both asked me for two musical themes, a great love theme, and another for Gregory Peck’s paranoia. They told me to write them and play them on the piano. Ten days later, I went to the studio with my themes. I played them for Selznick and Hitchcock who afterwards said to me, “We want a new sound.” I said okay; and that’s how I came up with the idea of using the theremin. And that was it. That was in 1945, and I haven’t seen Hitchcock since. He never came to the recordings. I don’t even think he really liked music. I can even say that he was maybe the only one in the whole world who didn’t like the music of Spellbound. As you know, I won my first Oscar for the music of that film. Hitchcock won nothing. David Selznick sent me a congratulatory telegram, not Hitchcock. I was told that he especially hated the music of a scene, the one where — do you remember? — we see a long corridor with the seven doors of consciousness: Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman kiss. It’s a beautiful scene! So, naturally, the music underlines this love scene. According to him, my music ruined it, which is stupid!

How did you come up with the idea of using the theremin?

Before using it for the first time in Spellbound, I tried to use it twice. I had heard Theremin himself, the inventor of the instrument, demonstrating it in Leipzig in 1926 or 27. It was quite a sensation at the time. Then in Paris, I met Maurice Martenot who had invented a similar instrument called the ondes Martenot. Contrary to the theremin which has an electronic rod which one approaches or moves away from with one’s hands to produce the sound which is continuous, the ondes Martenot has a keyboard which makes it possible to immediately obtain a precise note and to execute staccatos. Just like Darius Milhaud, Jacques Ibert, Arthur Honegger and Jean Wiener, I wrote pieces for Martenot and his instrument. So, when I was writing the score for The Thief of Bagdad, I had the idea of using the ondes Martenot for the scene with the genie. So I wrote to Martenot to suggest that he come with his instrument to London for the recording. He accepted, but we were then in the summer of 39, just before the war. When the moment came to record, the war had broken out and Maurice Martenot was then on the Maginot line: he could therefore not come to London and for good reason! So I had to give up on this idea. Later, in Hollywood, I did a Henry Hathaway movie called Sundown. In this film, which takes place in Africa, there is a scene that deals with what the natives call the “habbari”; it’s a kind of sensation or sound that Africans hear when someone is going to die. So I proposed to Hathaway and the producer the idea of using the theremin, but they weren’t convinced and they told me to let it go. Finally, it was Selznick and Hitchcock who let themselves be convinced, not without difficulty, to let me use it in Spellbound. At first, they only wanted it for a single scene, the famous one where Gregory Peck enters Ingrid Bergman’s room with his razor. I recorded the music for this scene, and the next day Selznick and Hitchcock told me that not only did they really like the effect, but they now wanted me to use the theremin in almost every paranoia scene. I then went to Paramount to work on Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. There again, I suggested the use of the theremin. Wilder said to me: “Alcoholism or paranoia, it’s essentially the same thing. Let’s use it.” The fact that I used the theremin again in The Lost Weekend earned me some rebuke from Selznick. One of his secretaries called me to tell me that Selznick was furious. (The Lost Weekend was released shortly before Spellbound, which had been filmed first.) So I replied: “Tell Mr. Selznick that I also used a clarinet and an oboe. Goodbye!” He probably believed he had an exclusive lifelong right to the use of the theremin. I was forced to use it again in The Red House, a kind of psychological thriller with Edward G. Robinson. My services were required because “I was the theremin specialist.” This time, I had had enough and I swore never to use it again. They wanted me to use it for the music of Christ in Ben-Hur, but I managed to avoid this.

Which directors did you have the best relationship with artistically? Who was most sensitive to the use and role of music in film?

I worked very well with Julien Duvivier for Lydia which starred Merle Oberon. The film wasn’t much; it was an American remake of Un carnet de bal. But, Duvivier had musical ideas. One scene, among others, was magnificent. Duvivier wanted the music to be the third character in a dialogue between two actors. It intervened between each sentence said by the characters. We recorded it all together. I had a small orchestra on set; so it wasn’t easy because the actors had to wait for the music. We all worked out this scene on the piano but it was difficult, because Merle Oberon couldn’t deal with this concept. Duvivier was a great director. I then worked with Vincente Minnelli on Madame Bovary for several months, before it even started filming. Every day, we had lunch in a small restaurant to talk about the film’s music. For example, the big waltz you heard last night at the concert, well, it was Minnelli who entirely thought it up and inspired it. Me, I only had to write the music.

It was outstanding!

A few years later Minnelli and I did Lust for Life. We discussed the music before he left to direct the shoot in Europe. On his return, he went to make another film at Warner Brothers. So I worked afterwards with the producer.

This film presented you with a particular problem, given your reputation as a specialist in historical film.

Indeed, it was difficult; a purely historical musical approach would have been a mistake because the music Van Gogh knew, say between 1870 and 1880, was [Romantic] music of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. However, his painting has nothing to do with the comparable Romanticism of Delacroix [the leader of the French Romantic school], it is already something else. So, I thought it best to describe his painting musically, that is, in the style of musical Impressionism which historically came almost twenty-five years after the debut of pictorial Impressionism. This began around 1870, while Debussy's Prélude ŕ l’aprčs-midi d’un faune dates from 1894. I tried at least to express an equivalent feeling to his paintings in the music. The music of his day would not have worked because Van Gogh was ahead of his time. That’s why he couldn’t sell a single painting.

What was your relationship with the other film score composers who were working at Hollywood at the time? Korngold, Newman, Herrmann, Waxman.

I hardly knew Korngold. I may have only met Alfred Newman twice in my life. Herrmann, on the other hand, was a friend.

It is said he had a very difficult personality.

Very difficult, but he was a great man, a very serious musician who had enormous talent, but alas...

Too big perhaps for Hollywood?

No, not his music, but his character. He came to my house very often. One day, I warned my wife: “If today is Sunday, he says it’s Monday, say it’s Monday and if he claims it’s black, and in fact it’s white, say ‘Yes, Benny, it’s black!’“ He made terrible scenes and he became furious when people contradicted him. That’s why we became friends: I never had a single quarrel with him or spent unpleasant moments in his company. You just had to agree with him, and everything was fine. But he fell out with all of Hollywood, and even with Hitchcock, a great friend with whom he had had a long collaboration.

Franz Waxman?

I knew Franz Waxman very well because his house was next to mine. He was a conductor who ran a music festival every year at the end of the season. He played a lot of my works. He was always very kind to me. But he was not very popular in Hollywood, they claimed he was selfish. I never thought that; on the contrary. I thought he was a man of great talent and who wrote superb film music.

Dimitri Tiomkin?

To be honest with you, I did not like Tiomkin. Not only did I dislike the man, but I didn’t like his music. He was a braggart. Every day, you could see in the newspapers — not the trade papers, but the dailies — stories about Tiomkin. He had two public relations people who made up things like “Mr. Tiomkin conducted La Traviata at La Scala in Milan,” for example.

Is this true?

No! Of course not, he had probably never seen La Traviata. Moreover, as a conductor, he was a Spanish cow [an expression suggesting he mangled the English language4]! Two days later, we would read: “The Ambassador of the United States in Rome gave a reception in honor of Mr. Dimitri Tiomkin.” Not a word of truth. And every day something like that. He claimed when he was making a film for Hitchcock that he had a Debussy piece that he wanted to include, for which one couldn’t get the score. (Of course you can get all of Debussy’s scores.) He claimed to have heard this piece in Moscow in his youth and that he could rewrite every note from memory. It was all pure fiction. That’s the way he did things!

Let’s talk a bit about technique, if you don’t mind. How do you approach composing a film score? Do you read the script before accepting a film?

Yes, I read the script; and even if there is a book, I also read the book, as in the case of Eye of the Needle where I read Ken Follett’s book, in addition to reading the script. I have to read the script before accepting a film. And after that, we can’t do anything other than write themes, ideas, but not the music for whole scenes yet. For that, you have to see the movie. I am therefore shown a first cut; I prefer to start right away because it gives me a little more time. Some will like to start after the final cut, but I compose my music right away. So you can always cut here and there afterwards and modify as appropriate, but you already have the music at hand. So that gives me more time. You know, deadlines are very important in this business.

How do you compose? Do you use a piano?

No, I compose at my desk, and in the evening I play on the piano what I have done during the day, to check. Sometimes there are things that sound good in my imagination, but when I hear them at the piano, I find them unpleasant.

Do you use cue sheets?

Of course, but only when a scene is finished, or at the very least, when a reel is finished and the assembly is final. We then determine where we will put the music. I always do this with the director and the producer who can both give me their point of view. We therefore arrive at a decision and it is from there that we make a cue sheet. It describes the entire film in minute detail, for example, “At 0 seconds, character X enters, at 2 seconds, he looks to the right, at 10 seconds, he says something — and there, in red, the text of the dialogue,” and so on for pages and pages. So I compose the music from that, as a guide.

When you were in England, you did your own orchestrations. In Hollywood, on the other hand...

In the old days, in England, composers were real composers! It is difficult for a composer who writes symphonic music to separate the two things, composition and orchestration. They go together. And very often, these older composers would do the orchestration as they were composing the score. But in Hollywood, we don’t have time to do that. That’s why we use orchestrators. You see, in London, I had two to three months for a score, but in Hollywood, if they gave you six weeks, that was really the maximum. Often, when I had two months, it ended up becoming seven weeks. With so little time, you can’t compose and orchestrate an hour of music, it’s impossible.

So how does your score look when you hand it to your orchestrator?

Everything is there, everything is written.

When writing, you are already thinking of the orchestra.

Oh yes, absolutely. You know, I don’t submit a piece for piano that needs to be orchestrated; I don’t ask my orchestrator to arrange my music. Everything is indicated. For example, on one line, you will have the woodwinds, on another the brass, the third will be for the harp, the fourth and fifth will be for the strings. I write on more or less five staff lines. The role of the orchestrator is to turn these five lines into an orchestral score of twenty-four staves. But, I marked everything beforehand. It is a purely technical issue, like a recipe.

When you are recording, do you use Steiner’s “click-track” technique?

Never, never, never! It’s something I hate! This makes absolutely mechanical music. We don’t speak by chanting the words! It’s the same for music. Ultimately, it is a technique that is useful for novice conductors, because it’s difficult to lead with a stopwatch, but it can be learned. Sometimes, it’s even necessary.

Korngold always refused to use this technique.

I too have always refused. When I arrived in Hollywood, I was constantly being told about “click-tracks”. I had no idea what it was about. I was naďvely asked what I would do if I had a rallentando. “We do ‘one, two, one, two, one, two, three, one,’ we add a ‘click’ moreover!” It’s completely stupid, it’s mechanical. But now, we record music for all movies that way. The musicians, in Hollywood come to recording sessions with their headphones in their pockets. They put them on and then “click, click, click, click, click...5” The conductor also goes: “click, click, click, click, click...” That’s not music! Music, you have to live it; it is like a flower. With these things, it does not work. At least that’s my opinion.

So you’re not an advocate for synchronized music in movies?

Oh, you can synchronize the music, but you don’t need these gadgets to do so. It is enough simply to know how to conduct an orchestra; but there, most of these musicians in Hollywood now can’t conduct, so we rely on these techniques and it’s simpler that way. If we have to synchronize the music at a given moment in the film, we write a line on the film which, when it is projected, moves from left to right. When it arrives at the limit of the frame, that’s where there’s an accent, or a chord, or a trumpet, whatever. So you conduct according to that. But with “click-tracks,” it’s “click, click, click, click, click...”

You haven't written scores for many comedies. Was it due to circumstances, to the films you were offered, or was it a bias on your part?

In fact, I did two or three. There was Adam’s Rib by George Cukor and two films by Deana Durbin, Lady on a Train in 1945 and Because of Him in 1946. But, I don’t like a lot of comedy. No, it’s not my specialty. I think I’m a more serious man.

In some filmographies, it is said that you wrote the music for To Be or Not To Be. However, you are not in the credits.

I only did one scene in this movie. The music is by Werner Heymann. What happened is that I was at the time the musical director of Alexander Korda. To Be or Not To Be is a movie that Ernst Lubitsch made for Korda, I read the script and I didn’t like it. So I said no and refused to write the music. Besides, I was writing the score for The Jungle Book at the time, so I couldn’t do the two films simultaneously. Between us, the real reason was that I hated the movie. So, I offered Lubitsch to take someone else, and I chose Werner Heymann who had already worked with Lubitsch on Ninotchka. He was a musician who mainly wrote songs: he did some of the big UFA things in Berlin, you know, those big light musicals like Der Kongress tanzt... So I was at home — I let him work, naturally — when one day, at nine o’clock in the morning, the telephone, rings: “Come to the studio immediately, Mr. Lubitsch is enraged and he urgently wants you!” So I went over there and asked what was going on. They were recording the music. Lubitsch says to me: “You ruined my film. Did you hear the music he wrote for the parachute jump scene? No? It’s terrible! It was your duty to listen to the music.” I replied that I was sorry but that it was not my duty, that he had a composer he knew, and that it was up to him to come to terms with him. Lubitsch replied, “No, no, no, you’re the music director and you’re in charge.” So. I listened to the music. It was really terrible! He had musically imitated the descent and landing of the parachute, the searches of the German soldiers looking to the left, then to the right. It was worthy of Walt Disney’s cartoons, of “Mickey Mouse music”! He had really destroyed the effect of the scene because, in fact, it is a very dramatic scene. We had to do something. So I asked how much more time we had for the recording session. “Until six o’clock, and we don’t have any more money! Up to six hours, no more.” So I went to my office, and I asked for two orchestrators, two copyists. When I had finished composing a page, I passed it to an orchestrator, then a second page to the other orchestrator, who passed their work to the copyists. At four o’clock, we had finished, and we recorded the music. When it was all over, Lubitsch gave me a kiss.

What do you think of recordings of film music? Do you enjoy seeing your movie music preserved on disc?

Oh yes, I’m very interested.

Do you prefer that the original recording of the soundtrack is released, or do you prefer the music to be arranged into suites taken from your scores?

I much prefer to re-record the whole thing for listening purposes. In a film score, there are lots of little things you have to write that don’t have much value purely musically or artistically. For example, you have to limit yourself when there is dialogue. When you listen to that, it doesn’t make much sense by itself. This is the kind of compromise the film musician has to make. That’s why I prefer to take all the material, eliminate what is extraneous and rewrite everything to give it meaning and make it a musical work in its own right that we can really appreciate. I believe in my case when I have done this, it has worked.

Do you have any current recording projects?

Old film scores? No, unfortunately not at the moment. The big record companies like Polydor or Decca, which produced my recent anthologies, no longer want to make film music discs. They are no longer interested because supposedly the market does not exist. There’s a record of my music due out before Christmas though, but it’s not film music. It will be a recording of my Piano Concerto and my Cello Concerto. Currently, the most recent soundtrack disc to be released is the Eye of the Needle score which I recorded a few weeks ago in Nuremberg.

Why wasn’t there an original recording of Ben-Hur‘s music conducted by you at the time?

It’s a very amusing story, or very sad, depending on your point of view. It was a union issue. Ben-Hur was filmed entirely in Italy and M-G-M, according to the contract with the Musicians’ Union, had the rights to record the music in Europe, since the film was made in Italy. But, once the filming was over, we realized that we had spent a lot more money than expected. The film cost 15 million dollars, which was already a huge sum twenty years ago. Even though it was much cheaper in Europe, and especially in Italy at the time, I was told then: “It doesn’t matter if it costs more, we have a good orchestra here in Hollywood, so we’re going to record it here. Do not go to Italy.” I accepted, and so I conducted the music myself, in Hollywood with the M-G-M Orchestra, the original soundtrack recording [in the film]. But previously, M-G-M Records had already signed a contract to record the score disc in Italy. I was then asked to leave for Rome to record the disc. It was then that Mr. Petrillo, who was the head of the Musicians’ Union in New York, refused to allow me to conduct there. As I was a union member, I couldn’t conduct in Italy! The head of M-G-M in New York, Mr. Schenck, even went to see Petrillo personally to tell him that whatever he did, the disc would be recorded in Italy under the contract they had. “Do what you want, but Rózsa will not conduct!” Schenck explained to him in vain: “But, he’s the composer.” “I don’t care, he won’t conduct!” I still went to Rome, but I was in the control room. It was Carlo Savina who conducted the recording, a good conductor. I had no right to do this.

There was a second record, two or three years later...

The second record was made in Nuremberg. This one, I conducted it myself. At the time, however, it was necessary to say that there was another man named Erich Kloss who was at the helm.

Indeed, it generated a lot of comments. Was “Erich Kloss” your pseudonym?

No, no, he really existed: he was a German conductor. He is dead now [he passed away in 1967]. But, contrary to what was said at the time, I was conducting, and he was listening.

We always seem, generally speaking, to consider film music as popular music. So, for example, your concert last night at the Meadow Brook Music Festival was on the program in the “Pops” section...

Indeed. But it is wrong! Is the music of Quo Vadis “popular” music? What about Ben-Hur?

Naked City was on the program last night.

Naked City, is this score “popular”? Not at all! But since film music is often made up of songs, or written in a popular style, or whose melodies are simplistic and easy to hum, it is thought, wrongly in my opinion, that all film music is made that way. We forget that there is also symphonic music in the cinema. Regarding the designation at last night’s concert, what do you expect? It’s a small thing, but it’s irritating all the same.

Have you been the victim of prejudice because you were writing for the cinema?

Oh yes! Oh yes! That’s the price that any composer must pay if he works for the cinema. Honegger himself told me that 45 years ago; he had just composed the music for a film, and people hastened to say, “Mr. Arthur Honegger now writes popular music.”

Why do you think music critics, musicologists, even music lovers, are so little interested in film music?

I really wonder. There really is an antipathy towards film musicians. For example, no one commented on the musical research I did for the score of Quo Vadis. In this film, I used authentic ancient Greek melodies. We had never heard this music before. Musicologists may have known it, but it had never been published; yet the music was there! Thus, the great hymn at the end of Quo Vadis is a hymn to Apollo which dates back 2500 years. And what Peter Ustinov sings while Rome is burning is an ancient Greek melody, the “Hymn to Seikilos.” Nobody saw fit to notice this and say that we were finally hearing this music. Probably because it was in a movie!

Do you consider film music as an authentic musical genre?

For me, there is no doubt that it is a musical genre.

Do you think we’ll manage to take it seriously and play it in concerts?

There are many film scores, written in our time, which should be performed in concert, not as film music, but simply as music. You don’t often think of saying, do you, that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the music to a Shakespeare play. No, they say it’s music by Felix Mendelssohn. Or when we play L’Arlésienne, nobody even knows that L’Arlésienne is by Daudet. It has nothing to do with it, above all, it’s Bizet’s music. Finally, what about Peer Gynt! It is a very popular work from the classical repertoire. Everyone knows the music is by Grieg, but how many know it’s incidental music from an Ibsen play? Finally, maybe one day we will come to give film music in concert, but for the moment, nothing is done.

The comment that we often hear about film music is that you have to see the film to understand the music.

I really don’t know why this idea is so widespread. Of course, this is dramatic music. But Wagner’s music too is dramatic and when we give “The Ride of the Valkyries” in a concert, nobody needs to see the action to understand. We hear it in the music and it’s enough.

What essential differences are there between writing for the cinema and composing pure music?

First of all, you must realize that the audience is not the same. The general audience that goes to the cinema is not necessarily cognizant of the music; and besides, they don’t go to the movies to listen to music. Of course, I have received letters from people who tell me that they have gone to see Ben-Hur 17 times, just to hear the music. I answered them that they had been idiots 17 times; they could also have taken the opportunity to watch the film! Anyway, when you write music for the concert hall, you think of an audience that loves and knows the music and you don’t have to compromise. If you know my symphonic music, you must know that it is much more contrapuntal and polyphonic than my film music. This is my normal way of writing which would be inappropriate for the cinema. Film music must be essentially direct. We only hear it once and it must be understood immediately. That’s the big difference. Of course, we can be more or less complicated on the harmonic or other level, but we must follow the thread of the story and the director’s ideas, we cannot go against the film because the music then loses its role. Even if film music allows me to be personal, it is of course the pure music which offers me the possibility of expressing myself thoroughly.

Do you conceive of a film score and a concert score differently?

No, because the inspiration is the same. But film music comes from the film. For example, when I was first signed up for Spellbound to do the music, there was already some pre-recorded music. But, of course, that didn’t count. So after seeing the movie, I remember I took a piece of paper and I scribbled down a theme. It was inspired by the movie, I can’t say if it was by Ingrid Bergman or Gregory Peck. No, it was the situation, the climate. And I noticed that with all the films I made. I get musical ideas which are a personal interpretation of the film. If you have the gift for it, it comes naturally.

Are there any films that you would have preferred not to do?

Yes, there are quite a few, especially at M-G-M. As I said, I had the right to refuse to make a film. But I still had a conscience. As I was paid weekly, it sometimes became embarrassing to receive a salary for doing nothing. So, if I refused a film, then I refused a second, I could not reasonably refuse the third. For example, I made a film called Tip on a Dead Jockey, it was horrible! And then there was another one, The King’s Thief...

Oh yes! I saw this again recently... Really bad!

It’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s awful!

How did you agree to compose the music of Sodom and Gomorrah?

It was in 1962 and I had worked for M-G-M for fourteen years. There were six months left on my contract, but I knew it was the end because we were hardly producing any more films. So there I was, with a contract, and nothing to do. It was then that one day, Maurizio Lodi-Fe, a friend of mine, called me from Rome to offer me the chance to write the music for a film he had just produced: “Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s a great film,” he told me, “it cost seven million dollars!” At the time, it was huge. Today, you can’t make two reels for less! I then told him to speak with M-G-M. The next day, they told me: “If you accept Sodom and Gomorrah, we will let you go, we won’t hold this against you, and we will terminate your contract because there is no more work for you and there are no more films.” So I left for Rome where I saw the film. My God! What could I do? The guy is a friend, really, and to return to M-G-M … I didn’t want to go back there because it was really embarrassing to get a salary doing nothing. So I brought all my family, my wife and children, in June after school, and we had a wonderful stay in Rome all summer. Unfortunately, it was necessary to make music for a film ugly as all get-out and idiotic, absolutely idiotic. But I did my best.

The Green Berets…

That was something else. I was in Germany doing a concert tour in 1968 when my agent called me to say that John Wayne wanted me to do the music for his movie. I replied that I don’t do westerns. I was assured that it was not a western. “It’s called The Green Berets.” I didn’t know what “Green Berets” referred to, I assure you, really, I didn’t know. I accepted and I went back to Hollywood where I saw the film. It’s the only time the Americans have won in Vietnam.

What led you to study in Leipzig rather than in Budapest?

Well, several things. In my family they were quite opposed to the idea of me becoming a musician, although my mother was a career pianist herself. In fact, my coming into this world ended her career because I was, apparently, a relatively demanding child. Anyway, my parents knew enough about life to think you couldn’t be a success by writing music. My father wanted me to study something serious and useful. My family owned a large estate in northern Hungary and my father thought that there might be coal under the ground. So, if I was studying chemistry, I could be useful to them. All this hardly interested me; the only thing I had in mind was to go to the conservatory in Budapest. My father, however, gave me the choice to study where I wanted. I knew that in Leipzig was the best conservatory in Germany. Since a friend of mine, a few years older than me, was already studying chemistry in Leipzig, I persuaded him to convince my father to let me study chemistry in this city too. However, I had the honesty to admit that I had also signed up for music lessons. However, that was wrong. This friend helped me as best he could in chemistry, but I was only thinking about my harmony lessons. One day, when I again asked him to help me with a particularly difficult analysis, he flatly refused, telling me to decide between chemistry and music. So I chose music and dropped out of my chemistry class. When I announced this to my father, he wrote to my professor at the Faculty of Music to ask for his opinion. The answer, which I still treasure, said: “If anyone has the right to study music, it’s your son!” From then on, there was no longer any opposition from my father and that’s how I finished my musical studies in Leipzig and obtained my doctorate in music.

So it was at this time that you left Hungary?

Yes, in 1925; I was eighteen. The musical atmosphere in Leipzig was fantastic and I started composing while I was still at the Conservatory. My first work was a String Trio, followed by a Piano Quintet. One day I was told that the Thomaskantor — in a sense a successor to Bach — wanted to hear both pieces. He was impressed and recommended me to the music publishing house Breitkopf und Härtel. They agreed to publish the two works and I received a hundred marks for the Trio, and two hundred and fifty for the Quintet. (I never knew why this difference, probably because there were two more instruments in the Quintet!) This house still publishes my works today. From then on, my career was launched and I started giving concerts in Germany first, then in Paris.

How is it then that the Hungarian folk element is so strong in your music?

I spent my first eighteen years in Hungary and I believe those years are the most important in anyone’s life. I told you that my father had land in the north of the country, three or four hours by road from Budapest. I liked it much better to be there than in Budapest. I never liked that city, let alone its people. But I felt at home among the peasants and often listened to their music. At that time, in the early 1920s, it was very fashionable to collect popular songs; we were starting to recognize the work done in this area by Bartók and Kodály. However, like them, I did not have an Edison phonograph to record this music. It bothered me a little, of course, but since the peasants sometimes repeated the same song twenty times during a party, it was therefore possible for me to correct the transcriptions I had made. So I had notebooks full of these songs and I even published them in my Opus 5, Hungarian Peasant Songs for Violin and Piano, and in other works as well. All these songs came from my village. I only knew the music of this region of Hungary, but it really had a very strong influence on my musical language, an influence that I never fought. It naturally became my heritage and very sincerely, I cannot free myself from it. Besides, I don’t want to.

So your family stayed in Hungary?

Yes. My mother came to join me in Hollywood after the war. My father died during the war, in 1942 or 1943. My mother lived another thirty years in Hollywood: she died at the age of 94. All I have left is my sister who also lives in Hollywood.

Have you returned to Hungary?

Yes, once, in 1974. I wanted to go back there to visit my mother’s last living sister, who was then very old. I was well received by people in general, but officially I was non-existent. The Embassy of the United States gave a reception in my honor, but not a single Hungarian composer deigned to come, nor to my concert for that matter. There was one funny thing though. It turns out that there was at that time in Budapest a film festival dedicated to the Kordas. The Thief of Bagdad was on the program and it was a huge hit. Moreover, it was the most popular film with viewers. It was not regarded as an English film, not as an American film, but rather as a Hungarian film. Indeed, if we consider that it was produced by Alexander Korda, partly directed by Zoltan Korda, with sets by Vincent Korda, written by Lajos Biró, and with music by Miklós Rózsa, it is a Hungarian film!

Did you ever have contact with Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály?

I met Bartók in Hollywood in 1941. Curious to say the least, isn’t it, that two Hungarian composers meet in America? He had come to Hollywood as part of a recital tour he was giving across the United States. This concert was perhaps the most depressing I have attended; there was almost nobody, not even a hundred listeners, in this huge hall. There was a critic, an old man, who, at the intermission, complained, saying “I don’t want to encourage such stupidity.” People’s reaction was very cold, they clapped timidly. It was really the end of Bartók’s career. After the concert, I went to talk with him. It was quite funny because someone asked me, “Do you know Bartók?” “No, I’ve never met him. So he introduced me: “This is Miklós Rózsa.” Bartók replied, “Ah! Rózsa. Are you Hungarian?” My friend leaned over to him and whispered in his ear: “It’s the composer.” “Ah, you’re Rózsa, the composer?” You published with Breitkopf und Härtel your Opus 1, which was a Trio, your Opus 2, a Quintet...” He knew all my work.

How about Kodály?

I did not know him. I have never met him.

When you listen to music, which composers do you prefer?

It depends on the moment, doesn’t it? I can say that the greatest for me is always Beethoven. What Rembrandt is for painting, Michelangelo for sculpture, Beethoven is for music. Of course, there are many other composers that I admire, Debussy, Ravel, Bach, Schumann or Brahms. But, it’s always to Beethoven that I come back...

Of all the scores you have composed for the cinema, which are you most proud of?

Well, The Thief of Bagdad, The Jungle Book, The Lost Weekend, Lust for Life, Ivanhoe, Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, King of Kings wasn’t a very good movie, but the music wasn’t bad.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes perhaps?

Yes, that one too, if you want. Well, let’s say that I like about ten scores. And I’ve done almost a hundred.


  1. According to The Dictionary of Modern Colloquial French (1984), p. 174, “This word [dégueulandos] has built-in jocularity to make it resemble the instructions on a musical score.” Return
  2. The way this passage originally appeared in the interview suggested that Rozsa hated the producer of the actual film, The Bad and the Beautiful, but its producer was John Houseman with whom Rózsa worked amicably on other films like Julius Cćsar and Lust for Life. The film was about a disagreeable film producer who alienates everyone around him, played by Kirk Douglas. Return
  3. Lipstone is not identified by name in the interview, but he has been connected with the Double Indemnity incident, specifically in his Wikipedia entry. Return
  4. See French Wiktionary article: original or translated from French. Return
  5. In the interview, the word Rózsa used for “click” was transcribed as “plouc,” which literally translates as “redneck.” Return

    Thanks to George Komar for supplying me with the original interview, as well as George, John Fitzpatrick and my brother Thomas for help with the translation which was largely produced with two Google utilities, Translate and Lens, plus Sprint OCR. - MQ

    Rev. 06/16/2022