Miklós Rózsa, an Academy Award-winning composer who used symphonic sound to illustrate a progression of Oriental dramas, psychological tales, gangster films, horror movies and religious and historical epics, died Thursday. He was 88.
Rózsa, considered the dean of Hollywood composers and a classical composer as well, died of pneumonia and heart failure at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, said his daughter, Julia Rózsa-Brown.
The Hungarian-born musician earned his Oscars for scoring “Spellbound,” an Alfred Hitchcock film from 1945; “A Double Life” in 1947, in which Ronald Colman starred as an actor who lived out his theatrical roles; and the biblical “Ben-Hur” starring Charlton Heston, in 1959.
“You don’t decide to be a composer,” Rózsa told The Times in 1960. “You must have the inborn talent, plus a 100% urge to compose.”
He was so motivated to compose that he thwarted his industrialist father’s plan that he study science at Leipzig University in Germany. But he did heed his father’s warning that composing serious music would not make him a living, and diversified enough to write music for commercial movies and to teach it for decades at USC.
“Serious composing is the only art at which you cannot make a living,” Rózsa said. “It’s a curse you’ll follow, though, even if you die of hunger.”
Although film scores and recordings were lucrative for him, Rózsa remained dedicated to composing symphonies and chamber music. Urging students to similarly mix their efforts, he liked to tell of one of his successful serious compositions, which was performed three times in Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic, broadcast on nationwide radio and beamed to armed forces overseas—earning him a grand total of $9.45. Rózsa began studying piano at 5 and soon began violin as well. He gave his first public performance when he was playing a Mozart violin concerto and conducting a children’s orchestra.
After his university years, Rózsa lived in Paris, studying and composing. His first real success came in 1933 with “Theme, Variations and Finale,” made popular years later under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.
Rózsa moved to London to write his first ballet and met film impresario Alexander Korda, who invited him to write a song for Marlene Dietrich for “Knight Without Armour.” It was the beginning of several years of providing film scores for Korda, including “The Four Feathers,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Thief of Bagdad,” which was the first film to have its own soundtrack album.
Moving to Hollywood with Korda, the composer had difficulty swaying movie makers from what he termed “variety music” to the serious approach he put into the scores of classics such as “Double Indemnity.”
“I was told that this music belonged in Carnegie Hall,” he told The Timess years later. “That was the meanest thing that the gentleman in charge could think of to say about it”
Often nominated for Academy Awards, Rózsa won his first with “Spellbound.” When the ever-watchful David O. Selznick demanded that Rózsa come up with “a new sound” for Ingrid Bergman’s paranoia in the film, Rózsa used an electronic instrument called the theremin, which he had also used in “The Lost Weekend.” Selznick was pleased—so pleased he wanted the banshee-wail sound in every scene—and Rózsa ended up haunted by the antenna-like device ever after.
Among other films for which Rózsa composed the scores were “Quo Vadis,” “Ivanhoe,” “Julius Caesar,” “Valley of the Kings,” King of Kings,” “El Cid,” “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Lust for Life,” “The Green Berets,” “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,” “Time After Time” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”
Rózsa frequently conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the years, often at the Hollywood Bowl and often including his own compositions.
On April 18, 1987, his 80th birthday, Rózsa received a Golden Soundtrack Award from ASCAP and was honored with the declaration of “Miklós Rózsa Day” in Los Angeles and greetings from President Ronald Reagan. Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II. Among his other honors was a lifetime achievement award from the Society for the Preservation of Film Music.
Rózsa was a former president of the National Association for American Composers and Conductors, which had honored him with its citation of merit for outstanding services to American music.
The composer, who became a U.S. citizen in 1946, published his autobiography, “A Double Life,” in 1982.
In addition to his daughter, who lives in West Los Angeles, Rózsa is survived by his wife, Margaret, of Santa Monica; a son, Nicholas, of San Francisco; a sister, Edith Jankay of Redlands; and three grandchildren.
His daughter said a public memorial service will be scheduled later.
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