About this Recording
8.570190 - ROZSA: Music for Violin and Piano
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Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995)
Music for Violin and Piano


Miklós Rózsa, one of the pre-eminent composers of Hollywood's Golden Age, was a committed writer of works for the concert hall before, during, and after his movie career, which included such famous films as The Thief of Baghdad, Double Indemnity, Spellbound, and Ben-Hur. Born in Budapest in 1907, he demonstrated a talent for music from a young age. While his father indulged those interests he did not encourage them, and much of his musical education and activities took place almost surreptitiously. In spite of this, the young Rózsa mastered the violin (playing Mozart in public at the age of seven, dressed as the composer) and managed to familiarise himself with much of the classical repertoire then popular in Hungary, most of it centred on Liszt. With other young friends he championed the cause of Bartók and Kodály, but those efforts were not appreciated by his conservative teachers, earning him a reprimand from the principal of his secondary school.

Another important influence on the young Rózsa was the peasant music he heard during summers spent on his family's estate north of Budapest, in the village of Nagylócz. He loved his time there, writing, "The music was all around me; I would hear it in the fields when the people were at work, in the village as I lay awake at night; and the time came when I felt I had to try to put it down on paper and perpetuate it". Although not a methodical folk-song collector like Bartók and Kodály, and rarely resorting to direct quotations of folk melodies, he absorbed the folk idiom so completely and deeply that it became an integral part of his mature musical language, "stamped indelibly in one way or another on virtually every bar [I] ever put on paper".

When it came time to further his education, Rózsa desired to escape the stifling culture of his native Budapest. His father eventually agreed to let Miklós leave home and enroll at the University of Leipzig as a chemistry major with a musicology minor. By the end of the first year, it was so obvious that Rózsa's heart was completely given to music that his father relented and allowed him to enroll at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied composition with Hermann Grabner. He was remarkably successful as a student in Leipzig, and by the time he graduated from the Conservatory in 1928 he already had two pieces (a string trio and a piano quintet) published by the distinguished firm of Breitkopf and Härtel. His career as a successful composer seemed assured.

The works on this recording span the entire length of that career. The Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, Op. 4, the North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances, Op. 5, and the Duo for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, are all early works (1929–31), written just after his graduation from the Conservatory. The Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 40 (1985–86), on the other hand, is one of a series of late works for solo instruments written when a degenerative illness made the physical labour of writing for large ensembles impossible; there are also solo pieces for flute, clarinet, guitar, oboe, and viola dating from this period.

The Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song and the North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances are two of only three works in Rózsa's entire oeuvre (the other is his pastiche ballet, Hungaria) that use actual folk melodies. Opus 4 is the first of many sets of variations Rózsa would compose (including some in his film scores). It is based on a simple eight-bar tune, stated initially by the piano. The thirteen variations which follow alternate song-like, cantabile sections with virtuosic, dance-like ones, culminating in a fiery finale. By contrast, Opus 5 (also known as Little Suite) lays out four different tunes from the composer's "little black book" in a slow-fast-slow-fast configuration. Here the folk material is presented more directly, with little in the way of contrapuntal development.

The Duo, Op. 7, begins with a traditional sonata-allegro movement. After a slow introduction, two themes are introduced, the first striding confidently forward and the second more like a gentle waltz. Both are of a pronounced Hungarian character but neither is an actual folk tune. A coda brings back the introductory idea and the first theme is heard in slow, tranquil octaves. The second movement is a quicksilver scherzo, utilizing two themes arranged in ABA form—the first playful, the second more lyrical. This is followed by a rhapsodic and haunting Hungarian nocturne, also in ternary form, and the piece is brought to a rousing conclusion by a virtuosic peasant dance in rondo form which incorporates much development of the main theme surrounding the two episodes.

By the time he came to write the Sonata for Violin Solo, Op. 40, in 1985–86, Rózsa had left film scoring behind yet had over sixty years of compositional experience. He brings all of it to bear in this, the most complex and challenging of his late works for solo instruments. Its structure is considerably more diffuse than his earlier sonatas; the first movement is constructed more from motivic cells than clear-cut themes, the variations which constitute the second movement wander so far from the original tune as to be virtually new material, and the concluding Vivace brings back a motive from the first movement to contrast with its own two themes. Virtuosic technique is required from the soloist throughout, and the listener is confronted with an amount of dissonance (rife with tritones and sevenths) unusual even for Rózsa, who was sometimes taken to task in Hollywood for writing film music that was too modernistic, too "Carnegie Hall". It is restless music, glowering and edgy. The work is dedicated to Manuel Compinsky, who often advised the composer on technical matters related to string instruments.

Frank K. DeWald


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