No hit songs, but Rózsa still scores

Seattle Times
March 5, 1978


[I was visiting Seattle in 1978 just after this interview took place and was perturbed to find out after the fact that Rózsa had been "in town," because if I had known this ahead of time, I would have headed in that direction earlier from Vancouver. I found out about this when I was visiting The Fifth Avenue Record Shop (a legendary local store which sold LPs), where he had signed several of his records which were for sale there. – MQ]

The Hungarian composer who won Academy Awards for his stirring music for "Ben-Hur" and his eerie "Spellbound" score visited Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma this week to work with the college's internationally recognized Choir of the West. They're recording three of his choral works ("To Everything There Is a Season," "Vanities of Life" and "The 23nd Psalm") for the Entr'acte Recording Society, a Chicago-based outfit.

Once the chief composer at M-G-M, Dr. Miklos Rózsa has written few film scores since the early 1960s, partly because most movie producers prefer a Top 40 song (usually played to death on the soundtrack) to a well-written, carefully developed score. However, with the return of symphonic film music in "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters," Rózsa is beginning to work steadily in movies again.

"I had been spending most of my time composing 'serious' music, by which I mean concertos and non-film music, but last year I got so many film offers I actually had to drop some of the 'serious' projects," Rózsa said. His score for Alain Resnais' "Providence" won the French Oscar last month, and he has just finished scoring Billy Wilder's new picture "Fedora," based on Tom Tryon's "Crowned Heads" and starring William Holden, Marthe Keller and Jose Ferrer.

 [Some copy from the article is lost here…]

… 1940s we'd outgrown that nonsense, and there were many great scores by serious composers.

"The 'hit song' business started again in the 1950s, when you had to write something for Sinatra or Crosby instead of trying to serve dramatically what was on the screen. I had never felt comfortable writing songs — all that time at M-G-M, I never worked on their musicals — and so many films of sex. horror and disaster were being made that I decided to leave the industry for awhile."

One of his comeback vehicles was "The Green Berets," the 1968 pro-Vietnam War film he prefers not to discuss.

"I was minding my own business composing a concerto in Italy when an agent called to say John Wayne wanted me for an adventure story," he said. "The title meant nothing to me, and I had no idea what I was getting into until I arrived in Los Angeles. The film turned out to be commercially successful in the United States, but not in Europe. In Switzerland, they had to remove it from the theater after three days of anti-war demonstrations. Now it's just remembered as a bad film, that's all."

Despite the film's popularity, the score for "Green Berets" was never issued on records. The main theme did mysteriously turn up on a British record, "The Great War Themes," and Rózsa called Warner Bros, to ask why he wasn't getting royalties.

"They claimed not to know anything about it, but the next week I got a check for S1,500 in the mail."

However, most of Rózsa's important scores have been recorded. In fact, his 1942 score for "The Jungle Book" was the first film score to be released on records in the United States. Three years before, R.C.A. had turned down David O. Selznick's offer to release the music from "Gone With The Wind" because executives didn't think it would sell.

"One of my most successful early recordings was a suite for 'Spellbound' that sold thousands of copies. But I got no royalties because the company went bankrupt. The company turned out to be a cover for an F.B.I. agent who was posing as a film producer while spying on the Russians."

Rózsa was further frustrated when union technicalities prevented him from conducting the soundtrack recording of "Ben-Hur" in 1959. He conducted the music in the film itself, but not on the record. Recently he was able to conduct his own version for records, and the album is now available on the London label. It will be broadcast on KXA at 2 o'clock this afternoon, preceded by a 15-minute introduction he recorded at the station earlier this week.

Rózsa's contract with Entr'acte calls for several more recordings, including some of his lesser-known music for "Ben-Hur" and "King of Kings." He calls the Choir of the West "one of the best choirs in the world; they have perfect intonation, and a warm sound you usually get only in English choruses." He praises their conductor, Dr. Maurice Skones, for his "incredible memory and concentration — he knows the music by heart and never has to check the score."

John S. Lasher, director of the Entr'acte Recording Society, accompanied Dr. Rózsa on his visit to the Northwest.

He said the organization will continue to release the lesser-known work of film composers — including, he hopes, Alex North's rejected score for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Alfred Newman's rejected finale for "The Greatest Story Ever Told," which he believes is one of Newman's finest compositions.