Miklos Rozsa was born in Budapest in 1907 and from an early age demonstrated his mother's same affinity for music. He learned the violin, the viola and the piano and was publicly performing Mozart at the age of 7. A musical career awaited, and he was inspired by Bartok and Liszt among others, and shared their liking for folk music. He studied formally at the University of Leipzig and there he composed a number of classical works including his first Violin Concerto. He continued composing after moving to Paris and won the attention of Richard Strauss and Dohnanyi. He studied further in London's Trinity College and his first film music was for European films by directors Jacques Feyder and Alexander Korda. When war broke out in Europe, Rozsa moved to the U.S. where his music for The Thief of Bagdad brought him instant attention and an oscar nomination. He continued his work in hollywood with a distinguished and prolific career scoring numerous well-known movies. Among these are several examples of classic "Film Noir" before he carved out a new reputation with several notable scores for historical and/or biblical epics such as Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis and El Cid. He was also a music tutor to Jerry Goldsmith.
Rozsa's musical style is generally big and direct, though he is also capable of underscoring more delicate scenes. Some of his music has a religious feel to it as befits some of the biblical epics for which he provided the soundtrack, including for example his simple yet powerful setting of The Lord's Prayer for King of Kings which didn't appear in the movie but was written solely for the original soundtrack. His versatility allowed him to move effortlessly between historical epics and thillers, Film Noir or Psychological Dramas such as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and The Killers. In many ways his technique was a fore-runner for the music of Bernard Hermann, not only when you consider his score for Hitchcock's Spellbound, the schizophrenic waltz from Madame Bovary, and the mythical adventure yarn The Golden Voyage of Sinbad but also simply his powerful, darkly atmospheric but charismatic soundscapes. Incidentally, Rozsa adapted his oscar-winning music for Spellbound into a piano concerto.
Rozsa's Film Noir style is so closely associated with this type of film that it has been much borrowed and parodied, even to the extent that it now sounds almost cliched. The 4-note motto used in The Killers was employed on the TV series Dragnet and later also on the movie version with its dead-pan form of parody, and Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid with its many ingenious clips from classic Noir films seemed to demand a Rozsa score. This was ironic since Rozsa had scored at least three of the original movies from which clips were taken, including Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and The Killers, so Rozsa ended up with something of a self-parody calling the score Dead Men's Bolero. For The Lost Weekend (and also for Spellbound), Rozsa used that early electronic instrument the theremin to depict the mysterious attraction and effects of the Demon Drink, in much the same way as other composers have used this sound for B-movies of alien invasion.
Despite this versatility in his writing, it is impossible not to think of Rozsa without bringing to mind the historical epics for which he is justly famous. These soundtracks accompanied gargantuan spectacles with thousands of extras and demanded large and powerful orchestral forces to project fanfares and dark march themes. These depicted not just the scale of the movies but the sheer impact that these stories have had on succeeding generations, whether from the cultural influence of these past civilizations or the importance to the founding of some of today's leading religions. Throughout his years in film music, Rozsa continued to consider opportunities to create music for the concert hall. He composed another Violin Concerto for Jascha Heifetz in 1953 for example, and his concert version of his music for Spellbound is very much in the form of a Piano Concerto. His health declined in later years and one project to create Choral Suites from the Biblical Epics was interrupted by his death in 1995, though completed by friends and pupils of the composer - see Miklos Rozsa: Three Choral Suites.