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Revival! The forgotten works of Miklós Rózsa

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Every week, CBC Radio 2’s In Concert digs up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devotes the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, we’ve got a massively acclaimed film composer whose concert music has remained undeservedly in the shadow of his famous movie scores: Miklós Rózsa.

Who was Miklós Rózsa?

As a film composer, Rózsa is scarcely under-appreciated. In his lifetime, he won three Oscars, and worked with directors like Billy Wilder, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock. His music adorns films of such iconic status as Double Indemnity and Ben-Hur. As classic film composers go, Rózsa's up there with Bernard Hermann and Maurice Jarre.

But, we're featuring a different side of Miklós Rózsa — a side that is almost completely unknown. Rózsa devoted a generous chunk of his time to writing music for the concert hall. Thus, the title of his autobiography, Double Life (which is, itself, a double entendre: Double Life was the title of one of his Oscar-winning films).

Rózsa grew up in Hungary, idolizing the music of his countrymen Bartók and Kodály. His early music is clearly modelled after the ambitious, folk-inspired concert pieces of those two composers.

At this point, a career in film music was the farthest thing from Rózsa's mind. In fact, when the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger informed him that he supplemented his income writing music for movies, Rózsa was incredulous. He could not believe that this composer of "great symphonic frescos, of symphonic poems and chamber music" could write the "foxtrots and popular songs" of films like The Blue Angel

When he heard what Honegger was actually up to, Rózsa practically raced to Hollywood to start scoring films himself. But, he never abandoned his aspirations to Bartókian concert hall success. At the height of his film career, he still spent three months a year working on other genres of music.

Why have I never heard of him?

Well, film composers from Rózsa's heyday tend not to be household names, nowadays, unless they're Bernard Herrmann or Ennio Morricone. So, that's a factor. But, of course, what we really mean is, why have you never heard Rózsa's music for the concert hall? 

As usual, it's very hard to say. It's possible that Rózsa's own youthful prejudice against film composers applies to the classical music community more broadly — or has in the past. But we should also point out that Rózsa's prolific output for the movies — over 100 scores — prevented him from writing nearly as much concert hall music as, say, Bartók. Less total output means fewer hits. That's just math.

Why should I check him out?

Rózsa's music — for movies and otherwise — is lively, extroverted fare. His work on films like The Killers forced him to become a master of orchestral colour and texture, and those skills transferred over nicely into the concert music that he wrote. If you've ever found yourself watching a movie from the '40s and liking the music a lot, this composer's entire output will likely appeal.

1. Violin Concerto

Rózsa composed this concerto — possibly his best known work aside from his film scores — with the great virtuoso Jascha Heifetz in mind. He wasn't sure that Heifetz would agree to play the piece. In fact, he was so concerned about this that when Heifetz initially called to accept the concerto, Rózsa assumed it was a joke and said "If you're Heifetz, I'm Mozart:" an embarrassment that it took him some time to recover from. 

Here are all three movements of the concerto performed by Heifetz himself.

2. To Everything There is a Season

Choral music might not seem like a natural fit for a composer so associated with big, dramatic orchestral fare. And yet Rózsa's small catalogue of choral music is among his most satisfying.

Rózsa collaborated with the choral director Maurice Skones of Pacific Lutheran University (whose oldest building is pictured here) on a recording of his three major sacred choral works, including this setting from Ecclesiastes. Just try and keep that Byrds song out of your head as you listen.

3. String Quartet No. 1

As a child, Rózsa spent summers in northern Hungary's Matra mountains, where the indigenous Palóc people shaped his musical sensibilities with their distinctive songs. Here's the fourth movement from his first string quartet, which bears an audible Hungarian folk influence. 

4. Piano Sonata

Another virtuoso whom Rózsa composed for was the great American pianist Leonard Pennario, who premiered Rózsa's piano concerto. Here's Pennario playing something a bit more intimate: the only piano sonata that Rózsa wrote. Have a listen to all three movements, and then we'll return you to your regularly-scheduled bombastic orchestral music.

5. Sinfonia Concertante

When I say "bombastic orchestral music," I mean that in the best possible way.

This super-exciting piece of music was again commissioned by Heifetz, along with his frequent collaborator, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. The writing for both solo instruments is virtuosic and thrilling, and the orchestral music has all of the verve and flair of Rózsa's best film scores.

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