Interview with Miklós Rózsa

FM Guide
[date unknown]

Miklós Rózsa is one of the giants of film music, the composer of more than 80 film scores. Three of them won Academy Awards (Spellbound, A Double Life, Ben-Hur) and many others remain popular favorites, including Thief of Bagdad, Jungle Book, Lost Weekend, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, El Cid, Julius Caesar and King of Kings.

Rózsa opened this season's Hamilton Philharmonic Pops series by conducting a program of his concert works and film music. In conjunction with Rózsa's Hamilton appearance, the Ontario Film Institute at the Ontario Science Centre presented a short series of Rózsa-scored films in which the composer participated.

MS: I would think that some of these, especially disaster films, would have offered you a fair bit of scope for musical expression.

Rózsa: No, I'm not interested in disasters. I must have some kind of relationship to the story and I've tried to avoid disasters in my life and other people's lives. But lately. there have been some films I liked. and I’ve already done three new ones this year. The first was a French film by Alain Resnais, Providence, which is a tremendous success in France. The second was The Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover with Broderick Crawford, a very good film, and now I'm doing Fedora for Billy Wilder.

MS: I'm glad to hear you're still active. People were wondering what had become of you.

Rózsa: Well, I was doing quite a lot of concert music. After my Cello Concerto for Janos Starker, I wrote the Tripartita for orchestra which has already had about ten performances. Then I wrote a solo piece for Starker — Toccata for Cello — which is being recorded, two choruses, Three Chinese Poems, five songs and my second motet. At the moment I'm working on a Viola Concerto for Pinchas Zukerman which will finish my concerti — the Violin Concerto for Heifetz, the Double Concerto for Heifetz and Piatigorsky, the Piano Concerto for Pennario and the Cello Concerto for Starker.

MS: I've found your concert works rather restrained and controlled, and I miss in them the way you seem to let go emotionally in your film scores. Do you consciously hold back when writing concert music?

Rózsa: I don't know. I wish you would hear my Tripartita. There is no holding back in that.

MS: In your film work, who determined which parts of a film should have music, and the kind of music it should have?

Rózsa: In Hollywood, this was usually a two-way conversation between the composer and the producer. In France, they don't understand this, because there the director is l’auteur, the maker of the film, and his word is final. In Hollywood, the director was an employee, the same as I was. The director usually had nothing to say about the music. Usually, by the time I came to work, the film was already finished and the director was already in another studio working on another picture. The writer was never there, either. His job was finished. You see, it was a factory. The producer had an idea, gave it to the writer. The writer's script was turned over to the director, the director directed it and when it was all finished and cut, the composer got it.

MS: It sounds as if you were usually able to decide on your own how much and what kind of music to write. Did you ever get any feedback about your music from anybody? After all, the music can change the whole character of a scene, even the entire film.

Rózsa: Yes, what I wrote was pretty much up to me. The producer would usually listen when I said that the music should start here or there, and he'd say "Yes" or "No". Some producers would occasionally offer ideas of their own, sometimes good ideas which I readily accepted. John Houseman, for example, was a very intelligent producer with wonderful ideas. He used to come to my office to hear me play the music for him on the piano. When I was working on Lust for Life, I wrote some Arlesienne music to accompany Gauguin's arrival in Aries. Houseman said, "You've illustrated the landscape — I want the man!" He was absolutely right, and I changed the music immediately.

MS: One of the things you've done in so many of your films, including the example you've just mentioned, is research into the authentic music of the time and place, what you have called "musical archaeology".

Rózsa: Yes, that started with Quo Vadis. The research on Quo Vadis took me at least six months. There is nothing left of Roman music, but we have about 11 fragments of Greek music. Inasmuch as the culture of Rome was influenced by that of the Greeks, we can assume that the music was also influenced by the Greeks. So from these 11 fragments I used two bars, or one bar, or an interval, something that gave authenticity. The rest is mine.

MS: Where do you draw the line between composing and arranging? For E1 Cid, you borrowed complete melodies from the Cantigas of Alfonso el Sabio, and you used other authentic melodies for films like Ben-Hur, Plymouth Adventure and Ivanhoe.

Rózsa: Yes, but this has been done by every composer in all ages. The question is, what do you do with the material? Shakespeare used nothing else but stories by other people or stories from British history. If Shakespeare could do it, why not composers?

MS: Why has film music, even that from the "Golden Age" of Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, Newman and yourself, generally been looked down upon critics and ignored by the symphony-concert world?

Rózsa: This, I think, is the result of shortsightedness, snobbery and stupidity! Korngold's film music is especially excellent, exactly the same music he wrote for his operas, but the same critics who hailed his Tote Stadt would say that Robin Hood is junk. This is absolute nonsense! There is this prejudice against Hollywood we still haven't lived down. I was pleased, however, by a review in the Gramophone magazine of a new album of my Ben-Hur music. The critic wrote that my music has the splendor of Respighi's Roman music but that my basic material is far superior. I don't know if that's so, but it was nice to see someone admit this about Hollywood music.

MS: You yourself have been critical of much of today's music, including contemporary film music and concert music.

Rózsa: All this ugly rock music that is being used for films is the result of all the ugly films — sex, horror and violence. I believe that when films return to sane subjects, sane film music will also return. When we come to the concept music of the avant garde or electronic music, I must say I don't understand it, it means nothing to me. Most of it is just sound-effects.

MS: Could you tell me about the Miklós Rózsa Society?

Rózsa: There are four of them. The first one was started in Belgium, and there's also one in America, one in France and one in Australia. The one in Australia is called the Miklós Rózsa Cult — this, I think, goes a little too far. The one in America was started by a fellow in Indiana who wrote me saying that he and some friends would like to form a society. I wrote back that I had nothing against it if it would not be just a Miklós Rózsa admiration society and that they must be willing to print bad things about my music and good things about other composers. They agreed, and now they have about 400 members. I must say that I read their quarterly publication with great interest. The articles are usually very well written. Sometimes, there's someone writing who doesn't like my music and that's fine. What people write about my music doesn't really matter to me. If I were to believe what the good reviews say, then I'd feel obligated to believe the bad ones, too. And I'm not about to do that!