ROZSA: Suites drawn from filmscores to Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend, The Killers.

by Walter Simmons



ROZSA: Suites drawn from filmscores to Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend, The Killers. James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7375-2-H1 [DDD]; 71:10. Produced by Michael Fine.

RoyalBrown is reviewing this new release from the perspective of a film music connoisseur in his “Film Musings” column. I, on the other hand, approach this disc not as a film music buff, but as an aficionado of the musical syntax shared both by some film-music composers (Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann especially), and by many symphonic composers of the twentieth-century as well. My fondness for this idiom extends to an interest in film music for its relationship to the autonomous works by the same composers, as well as to the broader musical context from which this syntax grew. This may seem “academic,” or perhaps idiosyncratic and somewhat defensive, because, on the one hand, I object to the use of terms like “movie music” or “Hollywood” as cheap critical epithets with which to disparage serious concert music that partakes of this idiom. Without addressing the aesthetic issues involved, some critics seem content tosneer at film music as the product of mercenary pseudo-composers who recycle schlock melodramatic clichés in order to manipulate the emotions of a gullible lowbrow audience. Yet, on the other hand, I almost invariably find listening to film music as a pure musical experience to be frustrating and disappointing — but for reasons of form, not of taste or morality: The structure of film music is subordinated to the primary medium — the film — and is not designed to provide an autonomous listening experience. Heard by itself, it usually does nothing and goes nowhere, from a musical standpoint. This is by no means an irrelevant academic matter: It is fundamental and seriously limits the depth and magnitude of the listening experience. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to view the composers of film music–especially the masters of the genre, most of whom also produced their own bodies of abstract concert music–with the same respect and attempted objectivity that one grants to those who have concentrated on other musical genres. 

Miklos Rozsa, who died two years ago at the age of 88, is generally regarded as one of film music’s greats, with more than a hundred scores to his credit, which coexist alongside approximately forty abstract works. Born in Budapest and trained in Leipzig, he underwent the same sort of rigorous apprenticeship that prepared most of his contemporaries; indeed, he is arguably one of the most prominent Central-European composers of his generation.

Rozsa divided his output of filmscores into a number of different phases. However, the majority of listeners probably associate him most closely with lavish epics set in ancient Rome and similar settings–scores from the 1950s and early 60s like Ben HurJulius CaesarKing of KingsSodom and Gomorrah, and Quo Vadis? Not quite as well known are his scores for those films from the 1940s generally grouped under the term film noir, which include the scores featured on this disc.

One of the most fascinating observations that arises from a consideration of Rozsa’s film music is that as appropriately as his scores suit their cinematic contexts, which include a variety of subject matters, geographical settings, and chronological periods, when heard outside their cinematic contexts, virtually the music sounds unmistakably Hungarian. This amusing realization illustrates quite clearly the chameleonlike ability of music to appear to reflect and mirror visual and dramatic stimuli presented within the same context–a phenomenon explained by the principles of gestalt  psychology. This is not to suggest any music will fit any   cinematic situation, but that human perception actively seeks to create meaningful wholes of disparate elements.

In addition to the pervasive Hungarian accent, Rozsa’s scores integrate a rich amalgam of stylistic elements, including sweep and grandeur of Mahler, the feverish intoxication of Scriabin the mysterious exoticism of early Bloch, the throbbing richness of Hanson, the brilliant coloration of Respighi, and the sweet sentimentality of Rachmaninoff — to name a few associations come to mind. The scores–especially those created for these film noir classics — are so suggestive of primal passions seething emotions, so redolent of dark and disturbing moods the films themselves often fail to match the power and intensity suggested by the opening credit music (usually the most satisfying statement found in the score, because it is the one moment in which the music is dominant, defining the tone of the entire experience to follow). Listen to the opening of the suite from The Lost Weekend — for me, the high point of the disc: It is difficult to believe that this overwhelmingly powerful statement ominous gloom and dark foreboding is introducing a film about a drunken binge. And so, disappointed by unfulfilled expectations and realizing that this music is only a backdrop for something else, one turns eagerly to Rozsa’s abstract works for that missing sense of consummation. But what one discovers–forgive me, Rozsa fans — is that the concert music is altogether different: lukewarm, impersonal, emotionally undercharacterized Hungarian busywork — like afterthoughts on Bartok’s Dance Suite and Divertimento for strings. It is as if Rozsa couldgive expression to his deeper emotional life only throughthe anonymity of a film score, but became paralyzed by a sort of compositional stage-fright when standing alone.

These three scores were composed during the years 1944-46, and are fine examples of Rozsa’s film noir period. As stated above, The Lost Weekend appeals to me the most, and is notable for its use of the theremin, the early electronic instrument that Rozsa had also featured in his Academy Award-winning score for Spellbound, composed earlier but released later. The Killers is the film that introduced the four-note motif that soon became almost as famous as the four-note motif from Beethoven’s Fifth when it was adapted for the Dragnet TV show. Double Indemnity is a great score for a great movie. The performances here are fine, although the sound quality suffers from the opacity I have noticed on other recordings of the New Zealand Symphony. The program notes contain some interesting information, but suffer from insufficient editing and proofreading. The disc is dedicated to the memory of Christopher Palmer, one of the most original musicological minds of our time and a great advocate of Rozsa’s music.