Dawn of a New Age: The Immigrants Contribution to Arts in America | An Exhibit by the Special Collections Research Center Special Collections Research Center
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William Lescaze
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Miklos Rozsa
Miklos Rozsa

Miklós Rózsa (1907–1995) was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. He began to study the violin at the age of five, and within three years, he had begun composing and performing in public. After Rózsa completed high school in 1925, he attended the Leipzig Conservatory where he studied both music and chemistry, eventually focusing entirely on music. By the time Rózsa graduated in 1929, Breitkopf and Härtel, the world’s oldest music publishing house, had already published his String Trio, opus one, and Quintet for Piano and Strings, opus two. Rózsa remained in Leipzig until the rise of Nazism prompted him to leave Germany.

In 1931, he arrived in Paris, where he created several of his more noted classical compositions, including Hungarian Serenade, opus ten, and Theme, Variations and Finale, opus thirteen. The latter composition was the first work of his to gain international publicity and the first to be performed in America. At this performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, his work was billed with the likes of Haydn, Bach, and Sibelius. The piece won rave reviews from music critics who claimed that he “was destined to become international.” Many years later, in 1943, Themes, Variations and Finale was the first piece conducted by Leonard Bernstein during his professional debut with the New York Philharmonic, which performance solidified Rózsa ’s influence on, and importance as, a classical composer in American music history.

In a conversation with his friend (and composer) Arthur Honegger, Rózsa first considered the possibility of making a living by composing film music. In 1935, he moved to London and began to create scores for films. His work on Knight without Armour, starring Marlene Dietrich, was the beginning of an important relationship with producer and fellow Hungarian Sir Alexander Korda. In 1939, while Rózsa was working on Korda’s film The Thief of Baghdad, the war forced Korda and London Films to move operations to Hollywood in order to finish production. Although Rózsa did not want to leave Europe, he was told that he would be replaced by another composer if he did not join the film in America. Reluctantly, in 1940, he crossed the Atlantic and began his new life in Hollywood, California, a hotbed for immigrant artists. He remained in America, becoming a citizen in 1946.

Rózsa’s work on The Thief of Baghdad gave him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score—his first of seventeen such nominations. He continued to work with Korda on The Jungle Book (1942), a film based on Rudyard Kipling’s tale, for which he was nominated for his fourth Academy Award. Shortly after the film’s release, RCA/Victor released an album featuring The Jungle Book score with narration by the star of the film, Sabu. It was the first American film score to be commercially recorded by a major film company.

Rózsa scored three “film noir” classics: Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and The Killers (1946). Rózsa’s work on Double Indemnity caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who engaged him for work on Spellbound (1945). For this score, in which he introduced an eerie sounding instrument, the theremin, Rózsa earned his first Academy Award. That same year, Rózsa joined the faculty of the University of Southern California as professor of film music, a position he held for twenty years. Rózsa won a second Academy Award for his score of A Double Life (1948) and his third for Ben Hur (1959). In addition to his film and classical composition work, Rózsa conducted worldwide concert performances and made recordings.

One of Rózsa’s rarely mentioned professional contributions was his work on music-performance royalty rights and his involvement with the Screen Composers’ Association (SCA), of which he was president from 1955 to 1965. Upon his arrival in America, Rózsa noticed that composers were not protected as they were in Europe: “I was surprised to learn that American film composers (unless they were songwriters) were not accepted by the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) and that despite ASCAP’s enormous receipts from films the composers got nothing. Something had to be done for everywhere else in the world a composer automatically received a royalty for public performance of anything of his...even “background music.” The SCA was founded to fight for proper royalties, and Rózsa worked very hard during his tenure to make sure that the American composer received protection.

In 1982, Rózsa summed up his life and career in his memoir, A Double Life. Upon reflecting on his contribution to American film music, he stated that “because more people are exposed to music through cinema than through any other medium, I feel it is my duty to ensure that any music of mine that they may hear is of the highest possible quality; it is, if you like, a way of educating people musically....I believe in music as a form of communication; for me it is more of an expression of emotion than an intellectual or cerebral crossword puzzle....I am a traditionalist but I believe tradition can be so recreated as to express the artist’s own epoch while preserving its relationship with the past.” [View Rózsa Gallery]