Miklós Rózsa: "This is Carnegie Hall"

By Greg Rose
Los Angeles Free Press
January 29, 1970

“‘This is not film music,’ he fumed; ‘this is’—and he just spat out the words—‘Carnegie Hall.’

“‘I take that as a compliment,’ I said.

“‘Well, I don't mean it as one. It's too full of dissonances; the main title sounds like the Battle of Russia; we want to amuse our audiences; you’re just giving them a bunch of brass.’

“‘But it's not an amusing film,’ I pleaded; ‘if it’s anything, it’s a social comment.’”

The composer who is being taken to task in this particular Hollywood episode is Miklós Rózsa, whose Theme, Variations, and Finale was performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy two weeks ago. The film Billy Wilder’s much acclaimed success of the 40’s, Double Indemnity, for which Rózsa was brought in at Wilder’s suggestion.

Rózsa, who has been composing music since he was seven years old and whose career in films spans more than three decades, has spent some of the least enjoyable moments of his life trying to explain his music to studio executives who, for the most part are musically illiterate.

As Rózsa told the story, the rather excited fellow quoted in the previous exchange insisted that his music wasn’t any good.

“‘It's too full of fugues,’ he said.

“‘Fugues,’ I asked incredulously. ‘What fugues?’

“‘Fugues, yeah, fugues. I heard them!’ he insisted. There was ra-pa-pa-pa-pa; and. then there was ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! That's a fugue!!!’ He was really getting angry. ‘I think you should listen more to the music of Newman and Stothart; that's the sort of stuff we like around here. But this music is so bad that you will see that our managing director is going to hate every bar of it and will take it out of our film.’

“As it turned out the managing director found my music very much to his liking and congratulated me at the preview, whereupon my critic rushed over to him and said, ‘Don’t I always get you the right man?’

Miklós Rózsa, who completed his fourth collaboration with Wilder less than half a year ago, the highly underrated and completely misunderstood The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, lives in Hollywood, Italy, London—wherever he has some project going.

He is an aristocrat without being pompous, a craftsman, an artist and a great story teller. He recalls vividly his associations with Munch, Honegger, Ormandy, and others.

“I met Munch for the first time in 1929 in Leipzig. At that time he was second concertmaster in the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Walter and Furtwangler. He had also achieved somewhat of a reputation doing solos—mostly Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns.

He had heard my first violin concerto and expressed an interest in performing it.

“Then we lost track of each other for a few years. Later I discovered that in the intervening period he had established himself as a conductor in Paris. He had married well; the lady was rich; and he had it made. In those days, anyone could conduct an orchestra as long as the privilege was paid for.

“His first concert, however, was a disaster, for he was a violinist, skillful at giving recitals, sonata evenings, but not a conductor yet.

“Following the advice of his good friend, Furtwangler, he studied. His teachers, Zweig and Sendley, both of them good men, encouraged him, as he showed great promise. The work paid off, as was indicated by the success of the Cortot-Munch concerts, the former one of the greatest pianists of the century and also an aspiring conductor.

“I saw him again in Paris in 1934. I invited him to the premier of my new piece, Theme, Variations, and Finale, a piece which must have impressed him; for at the banquet that was given afterwards, he offered to do it the following week in Budapest. He asked me if I wanted to come along, but I was penniless and so had to decline.

“In the mid-30’s there was an orchestra which consisted of the finest musicians in Paris who assembled once a week to give concerts under various guest conductors. So great was Munch’s love and admiration for Toscanini that he picked up the violin once again to fill out the last chairs of the violin section during one of Toscanini's engagements.

“In 1938 I wrote a piece which is now known as Three Hungarian Sketches, which I dedicated to him and which he played in Paris.

“We lost contact again when the war broke out. I had come to America and Munch remained in Paris, where he behaved admirably. The Nazis, figuring that he would be pro-German as he was born in that country, were no doubt distressed when he fought them on every issue. If he had been an opportunist, if he had been willing to sell out, he could have written his own ticket; certainly he could have had the Berlin Symphony. After the war he became a hero, of course, but he deserved it. He was a wonderful man.

“The next time I saw him was in America when he arrived on tour with the Orchestra Nationale; his first visit to this country. He told me that he had met with Koussevitzky, who told him that he was ‘trčs Koussevitzky,’ and what would he think of taking over the Boston Symphony for him. I didn't think it would be a good move—to leave Paris for Boston—and told him as much, but a month later I read that he had been appointed conductor of the Boston Symphony.

“Unfortunately he started too late. He was too old then, and he worked himself harder than he should have during the final frantic years of his life. Also he might have loved the ladies a bit too much; maybe that had something to do with his heart condition. The more the merrier. Maybe that was the French in him.

“He conducted French music better than anybody before or after him. Three contemporary composers he championed: Ravel, Honegger, and Roussel. He admired the latter very much, a sentiment that was not universally shared.”

Miklós Rózsa came to Paris in 1931 where he hoped to make a living. Encouraged by the success of an evening of his chamber works, he elected to stay. “The reviews were excellent, and I thought that this was the place where I wanted to make my career. But it just didn’t work out. To make a living anywhere as a composer is just about impossible, but in Paris it never existed.

“I got to know Honegger at a party and he suggested that we give an evening of compositions together. After the evening was over, we counted the till, and between us we had earned $3.50. ‘I don’t understand,’ I told him. ‘I’m an unknown, but you are a great master; how do you make a living?’

“He told me that he wrote film music. I was incredulous. ‘Film music.’ The very word suggested fox trots to me. Honegger, however, insisted that he had scored his pictures using only serious music and that if I were interested and could get in, I would be doing the same.

“He referred me to a friend of his who was the managing director of a publishing firm which supplied music to films. The latter asked me to write about a hundred fanfares of various length for him (two to twenty seconds), an offer over which I was very thrilled. As it turned out, whenever I went to the movies and they would show the newsreel, I would hear one of my fanfares. Unfortunately, that was about as far as I got in Paris.

“In 1935 I went to London where I had been asked to write a ballet. There I made the acquaintance of Jacques Feyder, a French director, who had heard my ballet and who, after downing several bottles of champagne, had me placed well above Beethoven in the scheme of things. He was making a film in England and he asked me if I would like to do it.

“At that time the best scores for films were being written in France and in England. In France, of course, there was Honegger and several others; in England, Arthur Bliss, William Walton, Vaughan Williams, and even the smaller names were good. There were no ‘film composers’ then. That type didn't exist. What you had were composers who earned money by writing for pictures.

“Feyder introduced me to Alexander Korda, one of the biggest producers then, who later brought me to Hollywood. We had started a film in England, The Thief of Bagdad; but the war intervened, and I had to finish it in Hollywood. Afterwards we did a number of pictures together: Lady Hamilton, The Jungle Book, and Lydia.”

During the course of a career in films that spans over three decades and over eighty scores, Miklós Rózsa brought a certain intelligence to the screen which was always a rare commodity in American films and is practically nonexistent nowadays. He was “typecast” for a while as the best composer for gangster movies and, more recently, as the man best qualified to do epics. The latter distinction is not so hard to understand as it was Rózsa who, over 1958-1959, wrote what in my opinion is the most melodic, certainly one of the most cerebral, and the most beautiful scores ever written for a film. It is impossible to attach too many complimentary adjectives to both the film, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and to its wonderful music. A blend of contemporary styles and Romantic music, the score makes its dramatic point, for the most part, via its themes—themes, not motifs—which are used extensively throughout the picture and with considerable variation. The themes, which are used to complement the feelings of the characters and not just the characters themselves, are interwoven using transitions that are both musically pleasing and perfect dramatically. It is more than a film score; it is an opera. “It is probably the most ambitious project I ever worked on” said Rózsa. “In Ben-Hur, which was such a large canvas, it was possible for the first time to use the themes as you would in an opera, as there was so much to the picture.

“Moreover, it represented a triumph of my method for scoring pictures, which is rarely accepted in Hollywood. I've always said that a composer should be on the picture from its inception. Fortunately I had a friend, Sam Zimbalist, with whom I had had an earlier association on Quo Vadis, who was intelligent enough to see the necessity for doing it this way.

“I had already told them on Quo Vadis that I couldn’t be expected to write a score in two months. Consequently, even while that film was being made in Rome, we received footage which was put together here and, though not the same version that would later be edited in Rome, provided me with something to work from. Consequently, when I was shown the final version, I had merely to make certain adjustments, which took less than a month to finish.”

Rózsa taught a course in film music at USC. Of the subject matter he covered, the first few weeks encompassed an outline of the history of the medium.

“Practically all of the composers who first came to Hollywood had originally worked in silent films. Now composers who worked in silent films didn't compose; they compiled. They would draw from millions of scores which they had at their disposal—mostly the well known light classics. For chases the William Tel! Overture served; Mendelssohn's Spring Song became the love theme, etc. I saw a library at Paramount with these classifications: impending danger, chase, battle, love scenes, etc. That was the beginning of film music—music that was not written for one film but for dozens, all taken from one catalogue.

“When I came here I found out to my surprise that most of the great names in Hollywood were studying with truly gifted composers such as Toch and Schoenberg. It seemed rather unusual to me, because in Europe one studies first and then gets the job; in Hollywood it was the other way around. Many of them found out, I suppose, that they were inadequate to the job, and so they started studying. And Schoenberg needed money; so he gave lessons.”

Rózsa's memories of his days at MGM are not his fondest as it turns out. “The executives insisted on being 'heroes' at the expense of the composer,” comments Rózsa, with a scornful emphasis on “hero.” “The head of the music department would ask for a score to be out in two weeks, and if he could get it out within that time—never mind the compromises—he would share credit for it. As it happened the fellow who got the assignment would usually put about three other people working with him on the job. He would write the themes, and the rest would do the sequences assigned them.

“They fool around with shooting, with cutting, for years, but they want to preview it immediately, and the only thing that’s missing is the music. I remember when I was called in for Spellbound. Hitchcock asked me how long it would take me to do the job. I told him six weeks. ‘Six weeks!’ he fumed, ‘I shot the whole picture in six weeks.’ ‘That's all very nice,’ I told him, but how long did it take to write it? ‘Well, that's something else,’ he cut in. ‘No, it isn't,’ I told him. ‘I can record it in six weeks very easily, but I also have to write it.’ So they gave me two months.

“Stravinsky was once approached by them. He told me what happened. It seems that some producer from MGM had been listening to the Gas Company and had heard the Firebird Suite. So he went to his associates and said, ‘Let's get him.’ ‘Listen, Stravinsky,’ he offered, ‘I hear that you are the greatest composer in the whole world; how about doing a picture for us?’ At that time he needed the money very badly, but the meeting was terminated very quickly when Stravinsky said that it would take him about a year to do the job properly.”

With the music that he composed for Spellbound, Rózsa introduced into film scoring a new instrument called the theremin, which is a very eerie sounding electronic instrument. He had wanted to use it for some time, but the opposition had made it impossible. “But Selznick [the producer of Spellbound] was so fond of the instrument that he began to compose my music for me. A series of memos—Selznick was famous for his memos; his whole day’s work consisted of dispatching memos to everybody—began appearing on my desk. He would submit to me lengthy summaries of what music should be used for each scene.”

I then asked him which producers and directors were the most knowledgeable as far as music was concerned. Rózsa quoted to me the names of John Houseman and Vincent Minnelli, the former an all around brilliant fellow, and the latter with a considerable artistic sense. “Houseman was ideal,” remarked Rózsa. “He invited me to play music for him on the piano. This is unusual.”

And then, of course, there is Billy Wilder.

Even if one were to grant the critics’ objections to Wilder’s recent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (which would be ridiculous), it would be impossible to dismiss the film without recognizing an innovation in its scoring. The release of the film last December marks the first time a living composer adapted his own music written for the concert hall to suit the purposes of the film. According to Rózsa, “It was Wilder’s idea. About three years ago he told me that he had been listening to my second violin concerto and that he had found exactly what he wanted. I was a bit surprised, because Sherlock Holmes wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I wrote the piece.

[The concerto was composed in 1955, a commission of Jascha Heifetz, who needed a virtuoso piece of the sort Rózsa could compose so skillfully. Since its premiere in 1956, it has received over 100 performances.]

“Of course, I didn’t use the concerto as a concerto. I used the themes. The theme established in the first movement became the theme of the cocaine—Holmes’ boredom and frustration which culminates in his resort to the needle; then there was a sort of romantic interest which used the theme of the second movement; and then the introduction to the last movement was used towards the end of the film for the ‘sea monster.’”

I asked Rózsa why the film had received such an unkind reception from American critics. Audiences in London and Paris had raved about it as had the critics. “Part of it probably had to do with the cuts that were made. Four episodes were originally filmed, and the completed picture ran about three and a half hours. After it was edited down, only one and a half stories remained, the picture running about two hours. Naturally, a lot was lost that was good, but the decision was made by United Artists, and Wilder had little choice in the matter.

“Then, again, 1 think that the intent of the film was misunderstood. Somehow everybody over here got the idea that Wilder wanted to make Holmes into a homosexual, but that was not his idea at all."

Miklós Rózsa was born 64 years ago in Budapest into a musical environment which included his mother, who was a concert pianist and his uncle, a violinist with the opera. He started to read music when he was four years old and could write music perfectly before he knew the alphabet. He hated school, and he managed to graduate only by fiddling annually for an administration function. Immediately thereafter, he spent some rather useless time studying chemistry but soon gave that up to enter the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig where he studied composition with Hermann Grabner, who was the successor of Max Reger. He graduated from the conservatory in 1929 with highest honors but stayed on for two more years as assistant to Grabner. In 1929, Opus 1, his trio for strings, was published by Breitkopf and Haertel; they still publish his music today.

Recent compositions by Rózsa include a concerto for piano and orchestra, which received its Los Angeles premiere under Zubin Mehta’s baton in 1967; a Double Concerto for violin and cello commissioned by Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky, which Rózsa performed here in Los Angeles only two weeks ago at Mount Saint Mary's College; Notturna Ungherese, first performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1964; and his cello concerto, premiered last year under the baton of Eliahu Inbal conducting the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Berlin with Janos Starker, soloist

“I believe I’ve brought a sort of concert music into films,” he said. “We’ve gotten away from the sort of Mickey Mouse technique where the music will ascend a couple of octaves while somebody's running up a flight of stairs. Music for pictures can’t be visual; it must underlie the psychological effect and complete it, in such a way as is not given to acting, nor to speech, nor to anything, but is uniquely in music.”

Copyright ©1971 by Greg Rose