Miklós Rózsa was born in Budapest on April 18, 1907. He was raised in Budapest, and on his father's rural estate in nearby Tomasi he was exposed to Hungarian peasant music and folk traditions from an early age. He studied the piano with his mother, a classmate of Bartok at the Budapest Academy, and the violin and viola with his uncle, Lajos Berkovits, a musician with the Royal Hungarian Opera. By the age of seven, Rozsa was composing his own works. Later, as a student at the Realgymnasium, he championed the work of Bartok and Kodaly, keeping his own notebook of collected folktunes.
He decided to go to Leipzig, nominally to study chemistry; but having enlisted the support of Hermann Grabner (Reger's former pupil, assistant and successor at the Conservatory), Rózsa finally enrolled as a full-time music student. A performance of his Piano Quintet op.2 attracted the attention of Karl Straube, the then Cantor of the Thomaskirche, who was very impressed and furnished Rózsa with an introduction to Breitkopf & Härtel. They immediately offered him a contract, and the String Trio op.1 and the Piano Quintet op.2 became his first published compositions.
In 1929 he received his diplomas cum laude. For a time he remained in Leipzig as Grabner's assistant. In 1931 he moved to Paris where he completed his Theme, Variations and Finale (1933, rev. 1943 and 1966), a work that soon gained international recognition. (It was on the programme the night Bernstein made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943.) In recognition of his musical achievements, Rozsa was awarded the Franz Joseph Prize from the municipality of Budapest in 1937 and 1938.
Rozsa was invited to compose "Hungaria", a ballet in one act, for the Markova-Dolin Company. Among those who heard it was the film director Jacques Feyder, who arranged for Rózsa to write the score for his next picture "Knight without Armour" (with Dietrich and Donat), which he was directing for Rózsa's fellow expatriate Hungarian, Sir Alexander Korda. The score Rózsa produced won considerable acclaim, and following the success of "Thunder in the City", his next picture, he was invited to join the staff of Korda's London Films. "The Four Feathers" was Rózsa's first big international success. From 1935 to 1939 he frequently shuttled between Paris and London.
At the start of WWII, Korda found himself obliged to transplant the entire production corps to Hollywood; Rózsa accompanied them. He docked at Manhattan in April 1940, and made his way west to Hollywood; and Hollywood became his home.
For a time Rózsa remained with the Kordas and scored another big success with "Jungle Book". In 1943 also he married Margaret Finlason, formerly secretary to Gracie Fields. Their daughter Juliet was born in 1945, their son Nicholas in 1946, by which time Rózsa was firmly established as one of the leading composers of the film colony.
Rózsa won the Academy Award in 1945 for his score for Hitchcock's "Spellbound", again in 1947 for "A Double Life", and for a third time in 1959 for "Ben-Hur". In 1945 he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California as Professor of Film Music, a post he retained until 1965.
In 1948 Rózsa joined the staff of MGM Pictures and remained with them until 1962, scoring many of the major productions of the 50s.
His skill at manipulating traditional forms is particularly evident in the "Concerto for Strings" (1943, rev. 1957) and the "Piano Sonata" (1948). Best known are his "Violin Concerto" (1953), written for Jascha Heifetz; the "Piano Concerto" (1966); the "Cello Concerto" (1968), composed for Janos Starker; and a "Viola Concerto" (1979) for Pinchas Zukerman.
Seemingly forgotten by a pop-oriented Hollywood in the 1970s, Rózsa experienced an extraordinary renaissance in later years. His film scores were rediscovered and successfully recorded by Charles Gerhardt, Elmer Bernstein, and Rózsa himself. Honorary doctorates were conferred by the College of Wooster (Ohio), and the University of Southern California in 1988. He received a Cesar award for the score for Renais' "Providence" (1977).
Rózsa summed up his career with an elegant memoir, "Double Life", published in 1982. That same year, a debilitating stroke began the final chapter, effectively ending his film career. The composer fought back with the toughness and tenacity that belied his courtly manner. Throughout the 1980s there emerged a series of solo compositions for flute, clarinet, guitar, oboe, violin, ondes martenot, and viola. Failing eyesight finally stilled his pen in 1988. His final years were severely restricted in their activity.
Rózsa died on July 27, 1995.