I just recently finished Film Score Monthly’s massive, and massively entertaining, 15-CD Miklós Rózsa Treasury (1949-1968). So who better to focus on for this month’s “9 on the 9th” post than this multiple Oscar-winner.
If you listen to Rozsa’s music with any regularity, you’ll notice many of the same harmonic progressions and rhythmic motifs. Much of his writing, especially for brass, is stiff and unforgiving. But Rózsa was often given very serious subjects to score, and he treated the music with the same respect he did his concert writing. And it is that level of consideration for the films, even when they weren’t particularly good, that gives his music a richness and gravitas missing in much of film music.
I can’t think of a single film that didn’t benefit from Rózsa’s dedication to his craft, and the list below is just the tip of the iceberg. As always, these are very personal choices and a lot of great scores had to be left out.
My fondness for this score no doubt comes from numerous viewings of this film every year at Thanksgiving when I was a kid. Rózsa manages to convey the Pilgrims’ religious piety and love, and the awe of the New World. The most striking melody is the tune for the Mayflower based on a theme from the one music book that the Pilgrims had on the ship–Henry Ainsworth’s Psalter. Rózsa chose the melody for the 136th Psalm because of its irregular 5/2 meter and its “vigor and fervent faith.” The other six themes for the score were built in the manner of the 17th Century lutenist composers. But my favorite cue is the majestic departure of the Mayflower. One of the great cues in all film music.
8. LYDIA (1941)
The film is a remembrance of the spoiled, rich Lydia (Merle Oberon) and the men who loved her. Lydia’s love theme foreshadows Rózsa’s more famous SPELLBOUND theme four years later. The score also contains a number of sweeping waltzes and a short piano “concerto”. My favorite cue occurs near the beginning of the film. Against the haze of memory, Lydia remembers her first ball with the “mirror-like floors…the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling like magnolias…the hundreds of harps… melting violins…and the wonderful room full of Prince Charmings…” Filmed in slow-motion with dramatic lighting, it’s a stunning visual set piece, underscored by Rózsa’s lovely waltz. LYDIA is one of my holy grails that I hope sees the light of day eventually.
M-G-M was never a stickler for historical details and this story of the young Queen Elizabeth I (Jean Simmons) in the court of Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) was no exception. But with excellent actors like Laughton, Simmons, and Deborah Kerr, and the typically beautiful sets and costumes, who cares. Rózsa’s period score is based on the Fitzwilliam VirginalBook, a collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean tunes. But the score is anything but stale or stilted. Rózsa imbues the music with a richness that almost makes us believe in this tragic fictionalized romance. I’ve loved the score ever since I first heard it when FSM released Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Collection. Finding the original tracks in the Miklós Rózsa Treasury was a welcome surprise.
6. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940)
Modern-day audiences will see much of Disney’s ALADDIN in this film. Forget the stilted performances and concentrate on the gorgeous color cinematography, sumptuous sets and dated but magical special effects with the whole fairy tale flying along on the wings of Rózsa’s wonderful score. The film is almost continually scored, which would seem oppressive if the music weren’t as good as it is. There are numerous delightful cues, but my favorite themes are the songs, Abu’s charming “I Want To Be a Sailor” and the song sung by the Princess’ lady in waiting, which also serves as the beautiful love theme.
5. EL CID (1961)
Thankfully Rózsa was on hand to add some hot-blooded passion to this plodding epic of the legendary Spanish hero (Charlton Heston). As always, Rózsa did his research and based his melodies on Spanish folk songs from the Middle Ages and the 12th Century Cantigas of Santa Maria. Guitar, tambourine, and regal trumpets give the score its Spanish flavor. Particular striking are the heroic theme for the Cid and the beautiful love theme, also known as “The Falcon and the Dove.” The theme was sung as the exit music but never in the film proper, but that was still enough for Academy voters to nominate it as Best Song.
This glossy but stilted adaption of Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel was a huge hit in its day, but the film doesn’t hold a candle to earlier swashbucklers of the 1930s and 40s and Robert Taylor is no Errol Flynn. Rózsa steeped himself in research of authentic 12th Century music to use as the basis for the score. Through brass fanfares, Ivanhoe’s heroic theme, and a beautiful oboe love theme, Rózsa’s majestic music carries us along through the tedious two hours.
3. A DOUBLE LIFE (1947)
Ronald Colman won an Oscar for his performance as an actor whose performance as the jealous, murderous Othello begins to take over his psyche, blurring the line between reality and make believe. Rózsa composed two distinctly different scores that had to blend together as Colman’s character dived further into madness. There was gritty music for the paranoid scenes and quasi-Baroque music in concerto grosso style (complete with harpsichord) for the Shakespearean scenes onstage. Rózsa’s second Oscar-winning score (following SPELLBOUND in 1945) has never been released on CD and only four cues were released as a bootleg on LP years ago. This is another of my holy grails.
2. KING OF KINGS (1961)
Hollywood could play fast and loose with the entertainment factor in Biblical films if they were based on the Old Testament (e.g., THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). Not so once Jesus entered the picture. Unless it was a fictionalized story, a la BEN-HUR, the presence of the Son of God seemed to suck the life out of any screen treatment. KING OF KINGS is one of the better films with Jesus at its core, thanks in no small part to Rózsa’s beautiful score. Epic and yet intimate, the music is full of one beautiful melody after another. You feel the passion and faith at the music’s core, and it almost makes a heathen like me believe.
1. BEN-HUR (1959)
In the words of David Raksin, Rózsa’s score “came close to the soul” of this sprawling epic. Rózsa was brought onto the film from the very beginning and the project involved a year and a half of his life. The score includes over two hours of musical cues played by a 100-piece orchestra. It would easily take a month’s worth of posts to dissect the multiple themes and their uses in Rózsa’s complex score. The music never lets us down and carries us through this long film supplying us with every bit of information and emotion that is needed. Last year, a poster over at the FSM message board called BEN-HUR “the perfect film score.” That’s high praise indeed. If it’s not, it’s pretty damn close.