David Raksin Remembers his Colleagues
Born in Budapest, April 18, 1907, into the family of an affluent industrialist, this brilliant composer, "Hungarian-American" (so says the "Russian-American" musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky), began life in an atmosphere of luxury and culture. The family's country estate, in a village called Nagylócz, at the foot of the Mátra mountains, was approached from Budapest by train. Then, says the composer, "we'd find our coach and coachman waiting for us. There followed a journey of about 3-4 hours to our house ... The whole area was inhabited by the Palóc (palowtz), an indigenous Magyar people with their own dialect, customs and costumes." It was in this region that young Miklós learned to love the music of the palóc; in his maturity he acknowledged "what a vital shaping force it was proving on my whole musical personality."
He continues: "I was never a methodical folksong collector like Kodály or Bartók; I was interested only in the music, which I found strong in expression and fascinating rhythmically. I sometimes played violin with the gypsies for fun, and we might join together to serenade a certain village beauty (whose name I still remember)." [There speaks the Miklós I know and admire!] Later he would incorporate songs from his collection in his opus 4, Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, and opus 5, North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances.
Having begun his musical study with the violin, he also took up viola and piano. By the age of eight he was playing a movement of a Mozart violin concerto, dressed up as the Austrian Wunderkind, and conducting a children's orchestra in Haydn's Toy Symphony. In the tradition of skeptical fathers of precocious artists, Rózsa père opposed his son's wishes and insisted upon a general education for the boy. So Miklós attended a Budapest high school, where he became president of the Franz Liszt Society and offended the school authorities by organizing concerts of "modern music." He was censured by the headmaster for contending that the true spirit of Hungarian music was not to be found in the "spurious nationalism" of Jeno Hubay and his circle but rather in the works of Bartók and Kodály. So it was time to move on to a more congenial place.
He went to Leipzig, ostensibly to study chemistry, but with the support of Hermann Gräbner (pupil of Max Reger, and his successor at the Conservatory), who expressed his high opinion of the boy's talents to his father, Miklós was able to enroll as a full-time music student. A performance of his Piano Quintet opus 2 aroused the interest of Karl Straube, then Cantor of the Thomaskirche; he introduced the young man to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel, who put the first of his pieces into print: his String Trio, opus 1 and the Quintet.
After he received his diploma cum laude in 1929, he remained in Leipzig for a while; then, after a concert of his chamber music in Paris, he settled there. His first published orchestral piece, the Hungarian Serenade, opus 10, conducted in Budapest by Dohnányi, was praised by Richard Strauss; but an even greater success was his Theme, Variations and Finale, composed in Paris when he was 26. He showed his unpublished Symphony to several famous conductors, who thought it excellent but, at an hour's length, too long. On the advice of Bruno Walter he composed a new and shorter work, his opus 13, in 1934, which has been performed by Münch, Böhm, Walter, Solti, Ormandy, and Bernstein, among others. His career was now truly launched. (An interesting sidelight is that the symphony has now, 60 years after he composed it, been recorded for the first time.)
In 1934 Rózsa and the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger presented a joint concert of their music at the Salle Debussy. Having learned that Honegger had written a score for the film LES MISERABLES, Rózsa went to see it and was much impressed. It was at about that time that he was commissioned to compose a ballet on melodies of his homeland for the Markova-Dolin company. This ballet, staged in London, was a considerable success. Among those who heard it was the film director, Jacques Feyder, who decided that he had found the right composer for his next picture, the producer of which was Rózsa's fellow expatriate, Sir Alexander Korda. Feyder invited Rózsa to lunch to meet the star of his film. Mike has described the scene to me in his driest manner.
At the restaurant he and Feyder discussed the film until the lady appeared, escorted by an attentive gentleman. Feyder introduced them as Mr. and Mrs. Sieber, and Rózsa was astonished by the beauty of the wife. While Feyder and Sieber talked shop talk, she turned to Miki and asked in dulcet voice, "Have you written my song?" Having heard nothing about a song, Rózsa mumbled something like, "Yes ... I'm working on it." When the opportunity presented itself he whispered to Feyder, "Who is she?" and was rewarded with an incredulous glare. "Marlene Dietrich, you fool!" said the director.
Rózsa's score for Feyder's picture, KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (starring Dietrich and Robert Donat) was greeted with much praise, and soon he was invited to join the staff of Korda's company, London Film Productions. His first big international success was THE FOUR FEATHERS, but his next score ran into trouble when the director, Ludwig Berger insisted on another composer. Korda then suggested that Rózsa write some new songs and play them in an office next to Berger's. That did it: Berger capitulated, and Rózsa scored his picture, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD.
The lyrics for Rózsa's songs were written by the diplomat, Sir Robert Vansittart. This was during a period of great anxiety throughout Europe about the spectre of war. In August, 1939 there appeared in Le Figaro the following paragraph: "We have just learned that the head of the British Foreign Office is working on lyrics for The Thief of Bagdad with Miklós Rózsa. As long as the chief diplomatic adviser to the British Government has time to write the lyrics for a film there is no imminent danger of war."
A month later war was declared, and Korda had to move his entire company to Hollywood, including his composer. Rózsa arrived in New York City in 1940 and continued west to Hollywood, where he has lived ever since. As to the music of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, it not only turned out to be his best score to date but also became the first album of movie music to be recorded.
In 1944 he composed the score of DOUBLE INDEMNITY which he describes as "something of a breakthrough," which indeed it was-so much so that his music for this crime melodrama aroused the hostility of Paramount Studio's music director, Louis Lipstone. According to Miki, Lou Lipstone used to come into his office, listen to a bit of what was being written, and denounce the music, characterizing it as "Carrrneggie Hall!"--by which he meant that this was "concert music," not a film score. He warned Rózsa that when the producer Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder (also collaborators on the script) heard the score they would instantly cast it out of their picture. Comes now the preview, after which R6zsa and Lipstone are waiting in the lobby of the theatre for the verdict. Approaching are Brackett and Wilder, together with the head of the Studio, Buddy de Sylva, all three expressing enthusiasm about the preview and especially about the music. At this juncture Lipstone, who was if nothing else quick on his two left feet, smiled a broad and smarmy smile, and said to de Sylva, "Don't I always get you the right man?"
One fine score after another followed, and in 1946 he won the Academy Award for SPELLBOUND, Alfred Hitchcock's suspense film, in which he had employed the theremin, an electronic instrument invented in the 1920s by Leon Theremin, and which some wag has described as sounding like a tomcat in heat. (Rózsa had introduced it to film scoring in 1945, with his music for THE LOST WEEKEND, and would use it again in 1947, in THE RED HOUSE.) Rózsa joined the staff of MGM in 1947, where he remained for 12 years and scored such epics as QUO VADIS, IVANHOE, JULIUS CAESAR, LUST FOR LIFE and BEN HUR, for which he received his third Oscar (the second having come in 1947 for A DOUBLE LIFE).
All the while, music for the concert hall continued to pour from his pen. He used to spend his summers at Santa Margherita Ligure, near Portofino, where he composed some of his finest music, including: the revision of his 1944 Violin Concerto, which he made in 1956 and which was recorded by Jascha Heifetz; a Piano Concerto (1966), recorded by Leonard Pennario; Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1966), recorded by Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky; the Cello Concerto (1969), recorded by János Starker; and the Viola Concerto (1979), given its premiere by Pinchas Zukerman, for whom it was written.
In 1982 his work in Santa Margherita was interrupted by a very serious stroke; his son Nicholas brought him home to California, where this gallant man has been confined to his house ever since. He has very courageously managed to accept invitations to attend performances and recordings, such as those from the conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, John Mauceri. Despite everything his mind, especially his sense of humor, remain intact. I visit him almost every Saturday, and we sometimes carry on in a manner that must leave his nurses wondering what is so funny. If there is an answer, it may be life itself, which has deprived this wonderful and endearing man of his mobility while his instincts still flourish and seek expression.
Copyright 1995 by David Raksin. Published on the ACO website with the kind permission of the author