Later visits to Miklos Rozsa

from Film Score Monthly

Inevitably, Dr. Rozsa’s ongoing medical problems during the 1990s prevented our having lessons and visits. I greatly missed him and was determined to re-establish contact, illness notwithstanding. What was needed was a viable means of implementing my ardent ambition.   At this time, the noted Hollywood journalist Tony Thomas proved to be Dr. Rozsa’s loyal devotee and held a privileged friendship with him. Tony assiduously protected the ailing composer’s professional interests, which included overseeing all correspondences. Adhering to a strict weekly visitation regimen, he also monitored who was permitted access to Rozsa, on which days, and for how long a time.   Thus it appeared that Tony Thomas could be the golden re-entry back to my association with Miklos Rozsa. I wrote to Dr. Rozsa expressing my fervent wish to see him again and that I would arrange the meeting through Mr. Thomas. I was of course certain that it would be the selfsame Tony Thomas who would read my letter to Rozsa. This tactical plan worked perfectly. When I introduced myself over the phone to Tony as a mutual friend of Miklos Rozsa, he already knew my agenda and graciously invited me to accompany him on his next sojourn to Rozsa’s Hollywood Hills home. Said Tony, “I know you write to Rozsa because I’ve seen your correspondence.”   The day of our visit revealed a changed state of affairs at the Rozsa domicile from the last time I had been there. The meeting place for socializing had shifted from Dr. Rozsa’s spacious living room to a small cozy office serving as his sole living quarters. In close proximity was a tall bookcase overflowing with art books, a modest-sized bed, and a writing-desk. Atop the desk were several inspired portraits of the main personages from Ben-Hur painted by Dr. Rozsa’s former friend and filmographer, the late James Pavelek. Impressive among the art work decorating the walls was an original etching by Rembrandt. As additional culinary embellishment to the intimate atmosphere, Rozsa’s celebrated tradition of European refreshments included tea and cookies served by his dedicated nurse and caregiver Irma.   Tony Thomas enthusiastically presented me to Dr. Rozsa, saying, “Look who I’ve brought to see you, an old friend!” But being in the company of Miklos Rozsa after my long absence presented a new and vivid picture of his advancing age and physical infirmities: a thin froth of snow-white hair had replaced the long salt and pepper locks of earlier years; the intelligent and penetrating eyes remained fixed in a downcast gaze; his dignified and confident walk was now permanently enchained within the confines of a wheelchair; and the resonant voice, once richly adorned with a royal Hungarian accent, had grown weak and tentative in its slurred speech patterns. But despite his impaired condition, one could nevertheless discern the Miklos Rozsa of previous days. His facial expressions still projected an aristocratic European elegance. Perceptual awareness, reasoning, power of concentration, and an ever-present sense of humor were all intact. Even the firm Rozsa handshake continued to transmit emotional warmth and reassurance, though its grip now showed a noticeable reluctance to end.   So enjoyable was the mood and conversation at our meeting, I was immediately awarded honorary membership in the Rozsa/Thomas weekly sessions. For 3 years visitation protocol varied little from week to week. Every Wednesday afternoon I picked up Tony at his Burbank home before making the long, steep, dramatic drive up to Dr. Rozsa’s hilltop mansion. Once within its massive iron gates, we climbed the tall stairwell to the front door. At this point it was apparent that Tony Thomas was considered a most familiar and welcomed guest to the Rozsa household, as he always opened the door without ever ringing a bell, knocking, or announcing his presence in any fashion. Entering the house, we traversed a long carpeted hallway, walked through the music studio, down a shorter hall, past a small bathroom, and into the office-room where Dr. Rozsa eagerly awaited our timely arrival.   One week was rendered particularly unforgettable due to a small cassette tape innocuously sitting on Dr. Rozsa’s desk. Sent by KOCH CDs, it was the pre-release master of Miklos Rozsa’s Symphony in 3 Movements. With performance permission only recently granted by its composer, the work had remained virtually unplayed since its composition in 1930. The new KOCH recording, featuring James Sedares and the New Zealand Symphony, was at last offering a belated world premiere of this deserving Rozsa opus.   Hearing the newly resurrected symphony in the presence of its creator and Tony Thomas was a singularly historic experience, even as their individual reactions to the music were the epitome of paradoxical contrast and irony. As the magnificence of the work engulfed the room, a most amazing and incredible scene ensued:   First movement: following its stern and commanding introductory pedal tone, a veritable plethora of noble and expressive themes and moods. Rozsa: expressionless. Tony: attentive and discerning.   Second movement: impassioned melancholic lyricism and pastoral instrumental tone-painting in the composer’s most imaginatively impressionistic vein.  Rozsa: expressionless. Tony: emotionally moved and intrigued.   Third movement: frenetic energy and impulsive rhythms evoking the unbridled spontaneity of indigenous Hungarian folk music. Rozsa: still expressionless Tony: uncontrollably enthusiastic, making powerful conducting gestures in the air.   After the final explosive chord Tony sprang to his feet ecstatically praising the composer: “Bravo! An astonishing piece!” Rozsa: silent. Tony: “The definitive blending of authentic Eastern folk music with the Western symphonic tradition!” Rozsa: steadfastly unresponsive. Tony: “A major orchestral achievement of the century!” Rozsa: yet unresponsive. Tony, pleadingly leaning into the maestro’s face for eye-to-eye validation: “Well? What are your thoughts? What have you to say about your own music?” Rozsa, sotto voce, calmly, wryly: “Have some more tea.”   Periodically, famous colleagues of Miklos Rozsa wishing to pay their respects would join us at Dr. Rozsa’s house. One such celebrity was Ray Harryhausen, legendary dynamation wizard with whom Rozsa had collaborated on The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Elated as I was to be meeting the reigning dean of motion picture visual effects, I did not want to appear overly enthusiastic at the upcoming visit. Consequently, on the drive to our session that day, I expressed prolific adulation for the cinematic accomplishments of Ray Harryhausen to Tony Thomas as a suitable surrogate. For example: “My favorite Harryhausen creature was his Centaur from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Particularly dramatic was the final dying scene!”   As an iconic figure from Hollywood’s Golden Era of science fiction, Ray Harryhausen added an extra air of excitement to our visit. Though imposing in physical stature, he offered a gentile friendliness that belied the fierce aggressiveness defining his most memorable fantasy creations. After opening amenities everyone sat down for the most engaging of conversations. But what followed was in fact quite the contrary: complete abject silence! No one spoke a syllable for what seemed an eternity. Yet even for the sake of being sociable, I dared not risk words of gratuitous veneration toward our honored guest. At long last Tony awkwardly filled the conversational void with, “Dan’s favorite creature was the Centaur from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.” Suddenly, I abandoned all caution of social impropriety and verbally opened up to Harryhausen, heaping compliment upon compliment, even extracting some trade secrets of his craft. As for Sinbad’s Centaur, Mr. Harryhausen quipped: “Yes, he certainly died a true tenor’s death!”   There were scores of other fascinating experiences born of Tony’s and my visits to Miklos Rozsa during his final years: Rozsa bequeathing his priceless collection of composers’ letters to the University of Southern California, accepted by Dr. Larry Livingston, then Dean of the USC School of Music; our shared moment of poignant silent reflection and introspection upon learning of the untimely passing of Christopher Palmer; the incomparable Leonard Pennario extolling maestro Rozsa for his consummate conducting skills during their historic recording of the Spellbound Concerto; and Christmas dinner with the Rozsa family at which Tony and I both received matching pajamas as gifts expressly selected by Dr.Rozsa himself!   But by far the most meaningful of the later Rozsa visits to me came a week Tony could not be present. Reflecting on the many years of abiding friendship with the preeminent composer, I foresaw this solo encounter as possibly my final chance to express more personal thoughts and feelings. As a compositional protégé of Miklos Rozsa and an authority on his music, I had recently been given the honor of reconstructing and arranging numerous Rozsa film scores for new CD recordings. At our session I told Dr. Rozsa of my sincere gratitude for the professional distinction of such prestigious commercial undertakings. Most importantly however, I also explained to him how significant each project was to me personally. Every assignment provided a fertile opportunity to unleash creativity generated from his own potent musical influence, a force so powerful as to have determined the course of my entire musical career. Dr. Rozsa listened to my words of appreciation in a knowing reverential silence that tacitly affirmed and validated the enduring aesthetic bond between us. Hence, that afternoon I departed the Rozsa domestic realm on an exuberant and exalted emotional level.   Ultimately, envisioning this visit as the final chance to express my personal thoughts and feelings to Dr. Miklos Rozsa proved to be sadly and irreversibly prophetic.

Knight without armor, 1994

knightListen to samples

Piano by Daniel Robbins

Track list:

1. Alexandra’s song from “Knight without armor”

2. Concerto theme

3. Waltz and love theme

4. Deanna Durbin waltz

knight25. Love theme from “The strange love of Martha Ivers”

6. Prison stars

7. Jingle jangle

8. Concerto theme

9. Love theme from “The other love”

10. Love theme from “A woman’s vengeance”

knight111. Love theme from “Kiss the blood off my hands”

12. Hollywood sound stage

The Red House

The red houseProgram notes written by Daniel Robbins for The Red House soundtrack CD

Intrada/Bel Canto Recordings

Music score by Miklos Rozsa

Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Allan Wilson, conductor

Miklos Rozsa once commented that during the filming of The Red House, actor Edward G. Robinson envisioned the story’s emotional depth as comparable to the great French play Pelleas et Melisande. Written by the noted playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, Pelleas et Melisande stood at the heart of the symbolist literature of late-19 century French impressionism. Symbolist plays superimposed everyday happenings over powerful symbolic images born of the author’s free flowing subconscious imagination. In an essay description of his literary aesthetic, Maeterlinck asserted that, “beneath all human thoughts, volitions, passions, actions, there lies the vast ocean of the Unconscious.” Viewed from this perspective, Edward G. Robinson was not far off the mark in his comparison. Arguably, the core dramatic scenario of The Red House can only be understood in terms of the love and passion, fear and superstition, guilt and masochism entrenched within the dark subconscious of the central character, Pete Morgan.

Throughout the history of music other notable composers who composed music along the Pelleas et Melisande narrative include Claude Debussy, whose opera of the same name was given its Paris premiere in 1902. Whereas in The Red House Rozsa favors easily identified musical phrases and motives in lieu of Debussy’s less defined melodic style, both composers share a common goal: the total subjugation of all musical elements-melodic, as well as harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral-to the dramatic force and momentum of their respective stories. Pertaining to his music for Pelleas, Debussy proclaimed, “I wished-intended, in fact-that the action should never be arrested; that it should be continuous, uninterrupted.” Comparably, the uncompromising flow of programmatic energy in Miklos Rozsa’s music for The Red House approaches the musical dimensions of a full-fledged symphonic poem.

The Red House, based on a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain and directed by Delmer Daves, tells the story of Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson), a reclusive farmer who harbors grim secrets and memories of long ago love, passion, and murder. He and his devoted sister Ellen (Judith Anderson) have lived years trying to prevent their adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts) from learning the truth about her real parents. Meg comes of age, and with the help of her newfound boyfriend Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), becomes determined to unearth the connection between her childhood past, Pete’s tightly-kept dark mysteries, and a forbidden red house lodged deep within the surrounding Oxhead Woods. A subsidiary love relationship involves Tibby (Julie London) and Teller (Rory Calhoun), who both become unwittingly enmeshed in the conflicts and intrigues of the Morgan saga.

The film needed music capable of rich scenic imagery, unnerving mystery and suspense, and potent lyrical passion. Consequently, the fertile arsenal of Rozsa cinematic scoring devices for The Red House included: literal underscoring, wherein all dialogue and action were strictly reinforced; directing the viewer’s reactions to dramatic elements not explicitly shown on screen; and the depiction of widely varying moods and feelings, either all at once or in rapid-fire succession.

Invariably, the most poignant literal underscoring is in scenes involving Pete’s volatile and mentally unstable personality. His primary theme, aggressive and unsettled in its halting angular rhythm, is delegated to the dark colors of the orchestra. His delusional insanity, to which he ultimately succumbs, is represented by fearsome polytonal chords scored for vibraphone, celesta, novachord (electric organ), and tremolo strings playing sul ponticello. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is the expressive warmth of muted strings that signify Pete’s abiding parental love and affection for Meg.

Pointing our emotions in a specific direction is tellingly achieved in Nath’s two journeys through the dreaded Oxhead Woods; in both instances Rozsa’s music dictates audience response completely independent of any explanatory dialogue and with a bare minimum of pictorial clues. In the first scene, Nath’s terror of the woods is represented by taut harmonies over a low insistent rhythmic ostinato. The imaginary “screams” he perceives are musically personified as an ominous upward-lurching motive sung by a chorus of unison female voices, which were enhanced by spine-chilling echo effects in the original film recording. Contrastingly, in the second scene, we know Nath has lost his fear of the selfsame Oxhead Woods, musically evidenced by tuneful melody, consonant harmonies, and pastorally evocative birdlike woodwind figurations.

In the climax of the film, Pete returns to the Red House with Meg in hopes of ending his guilt and psychological torments, only to lapse hopelessly and permanently into his paranoid delusions. Rozsa’s scoring is an uninterrupted flood of contrasting moods and unending symphonic development. The frenetic truck ride through the woods is fueled by obsessively repeated brass chords that become a full orchestral statement of the sinister theme signifying the Red House. As Pete and Meg somberly enter the forlorn and abandoned building, soft mysterious harmony lay foil to disembodied fragments of the Red House theme. Then the truck ride music returns as softly whispered chords in the horns, muted trumpets, and theremin underneath repeated celesta figurations, revealing Pete’s terrifying candlelit facial expressions of impending violence. Suddenly, a gentle yet strangely disconcerting lullaby signals Pete’s rediscovery of the baby cradle which once held Meg. However, his psychotic intensity accelerates and in his delusional madness he nearly suffocates Meg to death. A momentary reference to Meg and Nath’s love theme offers a temporary reprieve as Nath rescues Meg. Pete desperately flees the Red House to seek his own self destruction by ramming the adjoining water-soaked ice house with his truck. As we hear impassioned descending violin arpeggios that sink into the subterranean depths of the orchestra, Pete Morgan sinks to his final demise beneath the murky icy waters of the Red House.

Within the extensive filmography of Miklos Rozsa, The Red House stands as one of the most substantial opuses. In no other film of his psychological genre had the composer been offered such a wide spectrum of cinematic pictures to paint musically: from broad pastel scenes of Nature, to intimate relationships between the dramatis personae, to moments of exciting physical action and suspense. Most significantly, because it brought the thoughts, fears, and passions of the human subconscious into sharp focus, Miklos Rozsa’s music for The Red House must truly be considered the most psychological of all his “psychological” film scores.