Miklós Rózsa’s ‘Double Life’ by Frances Brand (RIAM MMusPerf Student)


The Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa was born in Budapest in 1907, and lived in Leipzig, Paris and London, before settling in Hollywood in 1939. He is perhaps best known for his nearly one hundred film scores, and was an instrumental figure in the film noir and biblical film genres. He was awarded three Academy Awards for his scores for Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947) and Ben-Hur (1959).

Throughout his prolific film-scoring career Rózsa maintained an active presence in the concert hall music world, in what he termed his ‘double life’. The first work to garner him international recognition was his Theme, Variations & Finale (1933), written in Paris after leaving Hungary for what would be over forty years (he returned to Budapest in 1974 to conduct a programme of his works). The theme resembles a Hungarian quasi-folk tune, followed by eight variations and a finale. Rózsa was never a collector like his countrymen Kodály and Bartók; instead he was influenced by the Magyar folksong of north Hungary (his family had an estate north of Budapest) and wrote his own themes and ideas based on the folksong material.

Rózsa’s first introduction to film scoring came about when his friend, Arthur Honegger, encouraged him to watch Les Misérables (1934), a film for which Honegger had written the score. Rózsa was very impressed and excited at the prospect of writing for films himself. After moving to London he was given his first chance. Jacques Feyder, film director for Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, was at a performance of Rózsa‘s ballet Hungaria. He set up a meeting with Rózsa and Korda and the composer was thereafter hired to write the score for Feyder’s film Knight Without Armour (1937). Rózsa, along with the film crew had to move to Los Angeles during World War II to complete Korda’s film, The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Rózsa was the first composer to place the theremin in a melodically prominent position in a film, in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which earned him his first Academy Award. It was also one of his first psychological film noir scores.


Rózsa’s compositional output can be grouped into three phases: the establishment of a Hungarian nationalist style, the challenge of modernity in the 1940s, and the emergence of a mature neo-Romantic style in the 1950s.

For my dissertation I will be focusing on three of Rózsa’s concert hall works: the Theme, Variations & Finale Op. 13a, Sonatina for Clarinet Solo Op. 27, and Sonata per Clarinetto Solo Op. 41, and stylistically comparing them with the score for Ben-Hur. I will be looking for Hungarian elements in these works, and also to see whether writing for film influenced Rózsa’s concert hall style.

‘However much I may modify my style in order to write effectively for films, the music of Hungary is stamped indelibly one way or other on virtually every bar I have ever put on paper.’

Miklós Rózsa ‘Double Life’


Frances Brand
Clarinettist, Frances Brand, is in the first year of the MMusPerf course in the Royal Irish Academy of Music