Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Christoph Michel
From: Double Life: The Autobiography of Miklós Rózsa, Composer in the Golden Years of Hollywood.
Tunbridge Wells: The Baton Press. 1982. p.77-87.
(Ppbk. 1984, ISBN 0 85936 141 1)
Korda was responsible for the teaming of the English director Michael Powell with the Hungarian writer-producer Emeric Pressburger, a partnership which was to bear fruit in some of the finest British films of the forties and fifties (e.g. The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus). The Spy in Black was their first collaborative effort, and I did the music for it. Some years later in Hollywood I got a telegram from Powell asking me to join him in Canada to research Canadian folkmusic and then to return to London to do the music for 49th Parallel. I had to refuse since at that time I was committed to Korda and he wouldn't let me go; in the event I was glad I did, since that film marked the cinematographic debut of the composer who at that time was the undisputed leader of music in England, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
London Films and Denham Studios had been financed by the Prudential Life Assurance Company, and apparently, though Korda had made a great many films between 1935 and 1938, the income wasn't quite as much as the Prudential had hoped. So it was decided that the company should take over the running of the studios and rent out the space, while Korda formed his own private company, Alexander Korda Films. All Korda's employees were moved to what was known as 'the old house', a lovely building at one end of the studios beside a gently flowing river, and the big studio, the old London Films Studio, was now no longer under the control of Alexander Korda.
In a way this was all to the good, because Korda always did his best work when he was concentrating on a single project, and not when ten separate films were being made at the same time, all demanding his constant attention. He was a member of the American company, United Artists, which had been set up to finance and distribute the films of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Senior, Mary Pickford, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick and Korda. This meant that his films were assured of immediate release in America and were shown all over the world.
After the great box-office success of The Four Feathers, Korda's biggest since Henry VIII and The Ghost Goes West, Alex asked me to come and see him. He told me how pleased he was with the music and announced that the next picture I was to work on was very important from a musical point of view. This was The Thief of Bagdad. He told me the story, which was an Arabian Nights fantasy, and said that my contract would run from that day and that he was increasing my salary by a large amount. I must admit that my salary had been rather low up until then. The last thing I would have done would have been to ask for a rise, but now Korda was giving me one without my having to ask.
The film was already in preparation. I read the script and thought it not very good; and apparently that was the general opinion. Directors came and went. Korda tried several for a couple of weeks each but couldn't decide on the right one. Eventually he announced that he had settled for a German by the name of Dr Ludwig Berger. Berger had recently made Les Trois Valses in Paris with music by Oscar Straus, the famous Austrian composer of operettas such as The Chocolate Soldier. Berger arrived at Denham to start work on The Thief of Bagdad, and shortly afterwards Korda summoned me to his office for a private meeting. He had a serious problem: Dr Berger wanted Straus to write the score for The Thief of Bagdad. Not only had Korda promised the job to me and had me under contract to do it, but he did actually want me, and not Straus, to compose the score. But everything was ready for the production to start: sets were constructed, actors were hired. A number of musical sequences were necessary before shooting began and Berger was insisting on Straus. Korda had to start production in order to keep the support of his financial backers, for he needed their money to pay his employees' wages. He was obliged, for the moment, to go along with Berger and engage Straus, but he wanted me to trust him to see me right in the end. Naturally this came as a shock, but I told Korda that I trusted him completely and would do whatever he wanted. He had already talked the matter over with Berger and it was understood that while all the pre-production music would be provided by Straus, all the dramatic and colouristic music would be written by me. In any event, I was still on the production team. I agreed - I had no choice.
Dr Ludwig Berger
Slowly the music began to arrive from Vichy, where Straus was taking a cure. It was impossible - typical turn-of-the-century Viennese candy-floss. I stuck to my promise to Korda and didn't say a word, but Muir Mathieson was outspoken in his denunciation and went round telling everyone, including Vincent Korda, that these songs would ruin not only the picture, but the company as well.
The next day Mathieson and I had a cryptic summons from Alexander Korda's office to report to him at ten the following morning. When we arrived his secretary looked very cowed and said, 'He's in a vile temper this morning. I don't envy you having to see him.' Dr Berger arrived and was shown straight into Korda's office. A few minutes later Korda called us in with an imperious 'Boys!' It was always a bad sign when he addressed you as 'boy', and he sat there behind his desk glowering ferociously at us like a Thundering Jove, a Jupiter Tonans. 'Boys', he said again, 'I understand you have been making disparaging remarks about Mr Straus's songs. Is this true?' Mathieson immediately lost his temper and let fly at Korda. 'It certainly is,' he shouted. 'His music stinks to high heaven and it is my duty as your musical director....' Korda heard him out and then said, 'Right. I want it clearly understood by the pair of you that in all artistic matters the sole and final arbiter is Dr Berger. It that quite clear? That's all.' Mathieson stormed out in a rage and Dr Berger went away grinning like a Cheshire cat. Just as I was about to leave, Korda called me back, and asked me my opinion of Straus's music. I told him that frankly the music would be quite charming for a Viennese revue of 1900, but that it was completely unsuitable for an oriental fantasy. He then told me to go ahead and write the music as I thought it should be written, and to report back to him when it was done. Meanwhile I wasn't to tell a soul what I was up to, not even Mathieson.
A week later I rang him up to tell him I had finished and did he want to hear what I'd done? 'No,' he said. 'What I'm going to do is give you an office next to Dr Berger's. Keep playing your music until he comes in and listens to it. Don't say I told you to do it, just say you wrote it off your own bat and let him hear it.' So I moved into the office next to Dr Berger's and from ten in the morning until five every evening I thumped out my music as loudly as I possibly could. The secretaries in the offices above and below me complained that it was impossible for them to get any work done with all the noise, but I just kept on playing. The first day nothing happened. The second day I could hear Berger's voice through the wall, so I played more loudly than ever, but still he didn't come in. On the third day, he stormed into my room and said, 'I've been listening to this now for two whole days. Do you mind telling me what's going on?' I was all wide-eyed innocence. 'Well, you see, Dr Berger,' I began, 'I had a few ideas for the picture and I wrote them down I thought you might be interested to hear them.' He said, 'We've already got all the music we want and we won't even know what we need from you until after we've finished filming. So what are you up to now? Mind you, there was one melody I rather liked. You can play me that if you want.' So I told him I had written the music for the 'Silvermaid's Dance'. He advised me that Straus had already done that. I said I knew he had, but I had one or two ideas of my own, and I played them to him. He didn't say a word. I played Sabu's song, then another piece I had written. He paced up and down the room and left the room telling me not to go and that he would be back shortly.
About ten minutes later he was back. 'I've been to see Mr Korda,' he said. 'I told him that I much prefer what you've done to what Straus has sent us, but how am I going to tell the old man?' Now Korda had a genius for this kind of manipulative diplomacy. He was like a brilliant chess player, moving his pieces round the board, always half-a-dozen moves ahead of his opponents. It was incredible how he had manoeuvred Berger into this position, and it made me very pleased that I had put my trust in him.
A telegram was sent to Oscar Straus who alleged that his reputation was being ruined and threatened to sue, but Korda paid him his full fee and I was formally reinstated as the sole composer on The Thief of Bagdad .
The day after Berger had changed his mind about Straus, Korda called me into his office, looked at me, smiled and said, 'It worked.' I thanked him for the confidence he had shown in me and he said, 'My boy, I know your music. I had every reason to be confident.' He told me the Iyrics were to be written by his friend Sir Robert Vansittart, chief diplomatic adviser to the British Foreign Office. I didn't know that Sir Robert was a Iyricist, but Korda said, 'He is a fine poet, a good writer, and I think you will like him.' I did. He was, without doubt, the finest human being I have ever met in my life.
I knew very little about his role in British politics. First of all, I understood nothing about politics; secondly, all I did know was what I read in the newspapers, and Vansittart wasn't somebody who appeared in the limelight very often. He was the Grey Eminence, the power behind the throne at the Foreign Office. As far as I was concerned, he was my collaborator and Iyric writer. He was over six foot, lean, active, with a strong profile, a born diplomat. He would have been about fifty years old at this time. He never treated me as a 'bloody foreigner'. We were equal partners: he wrote the words and I wrote the music.
There were several jobs to be done. Sir Robert was working on the script with Miles Malleson, who as well as being a fine actor - he was playing the part of the Sultanwas also a writer. The three of us discussed the songs which would have to be written. For the opening in Basra harbour we needed a song about the sea; we also needed one for the Genie, who was to be played by the popular Negro actor, Rex Ingram, already well-known in Hollywood and on the New York stage. And, of course, Sabu had to have his song.
During the whole summer of 1939 I spent every weekend at the beautiful, sixteenth-century Denham Place, Sir Robert's home. Throughout 1938 there had been grave fears that war was imminent, and I stood in Piccadilly Circus with thousands of others watching the illuminated headlines on the night that Chamberlain came back from Berchtesgaden with the promise of 'peace in our time'. There was great rejoicing. Few people would have admitted that it was only a temporary reprieve and that war, sooner or later, was inevitable. Sir Robert had played a key role throughout this difficult time.
On my last visit to Paris I had completed my Three Hungarian Sketches and played the work to Charles Münch, who was enchanted with it and thought it better than my Variations. He was going to conduct it with the Lamoureux Orchestra. I asked his permission to dedicate the piece to him and he granted it. On my return to London I wrote and told him of the problems I was having with The Thief of Bagdad - this was before I had become the one and only composer working on the film. He sent me a postcard in reply: 'You have your problems with The Thief of Bagdad. We have ours with The Thief of Berchtesgaden.'
Sir Robert (later Lord) Vansittart
He also told me that he had invited Karl Straube and his Thomanerchor to Paris to perform Bach's B minor Mass and that Straube had expressed a wish to see me again. I went over to Paris for the performance and afterwards at the reception I renewed my friendship with Straube. He had suddenly grown older and his hair was snow-white. He was sixty-five and he seemed terribly tired after the performance. He congratulated me on my success; he thought it a pity that Breitkopf & Härtel hadn't published my Variations , but he knew why they hadn't. It was typical of his generous nature, particularly as he had himself been responsible for my early contact with Breitkopf to say that it didn't matter who published the piece; the important thing was that it was a huge success.
It was a strange, rather disturbing gathering. Frau Straube expressed strong Nazi sympathies. She kept referring to 'these little Austrians,' and said, 'They all thought they were going to get the best positions in their country when we took over. That's ridiculous. We put our own people in the best positions.' Straube himself said nothing. The boys in the choir were all new to me, of course. They all looked strikingly blond and Teutonic and in their stiff behaviour there was something reminiscent of the Hitler Youth. Münch made a speech in his Alsatian German, saying that music was the only truly international medium, that it brought people together and created strong emotional bonds across radical differences of language and culture. 'We are French,' he said, 'and you are German. We are happy to have you here among us and I hope our friendship, rooted in music, will grow and flourish for many years to come.' Poor Charles Münch. How could he know that less than a year later these same boys would be back in Paris in uniforms with machine guns in their hands?
Eulenburg wrote to tell me that my Three Hungarian Sketches had been accepted for the International Music Festival in Baden-Baden. This was a major piece of luck for me, because all the top conductors and critics in Europe would be attending. A little later the conductor of the Baden-Baden Festival wrote to say that seven rehearsals were scheduled and he was inviting me to attend them as well as the festival itself, all my expenses to be met by the German government. He also sent me the full programme for the festival, which looked very interesting. Every nation was represented, and my piece was the official Hungarian entry. The BBC Chorus was giving a complete evening concert of new English choral music.
The papers were full of the worsening political situation. Austria had already been annexed; Czechoslovakia was gone, and Poland, with its vulnerable Danzig Corridor, was under constant threat. The newspapers were beginning to advise British subjects not to travel in Germany. Although I wasn't a British subject I felt I owed allegiance to Britain. I rang the BBC and asked if the BBC Chorus were still intending to go to Baden-Baden and was told that the trip had definitely been cancelled. I told the gentleman at the BBC what my own position was, and he advised me not to go. I decided not to. I wrote to the conductor and told him I was very busy - which was trueand couldn't afford to take a whole week to come to the festival. After the performance he sent me a telegram to say that the work was a great success and the reviews were outstanding.
I was warned by Eulenburg that I would be committing artistic suicide and ruining him as well if I persisted in dedicating the Sketches to Charles Münch. In his experience, no conductor would be interested in a piece dedicated to another, especially an up-and-coming conductor like Münch. But I had already asked Münch's permission for the dedication and he had given it, so Eulenburg proposed printing only six copies with the dedication in place, two for Münch and four for me. I hope dear Münch never found out.
Shortly afterwards I received another letter from the publishing firm, but this time it wasn't signed by Eulenburg but by Schulze, his business manager. He told me that Eulenburg had been sent to a concentration camp and asked me for help on his behalf. Unfortunately, of course, there was nothing anyone in London could do. Then, just before war was declared, I received a letter from Eulenburg himself, from Switzerland, informing me that he and his family were now safely together in Basle.
So the storm clouds were gathering in 1939, but I was so busy and excited about The Thief of Bagdad, now with a script that had been improved beyond all recognition, that I was almost unaware of what was going on in the world around me. Naturally enough, not everything was plain sailing - it never is when a film is being made.
At work on The Thief of Bagdad
(with Toscanini's tacit disapproval)
Berger wanted me to do the market scene in the manner of a musical; that is, he wanted the music first, to which he would then shoot the action. The scene introduced Sabu as a thief in the market place: everybody was bustling around selling while Sabu was busy stealing. We worked out the scene in terms of action and choreography and ended with a sequence over five minutes long. After I had written the music Berger went over it with me and I made many adjustments, slipping in an extra two bars here, re-introducing Sabu's theme there. Finally we were all satisfied and we recorded it. Then came the playbacks, and Berger wanted the actors to move in strict synchronisation with the music. Naturally enough the result was chaos. Little Sabu was expected to move like a puppet in a puppet theatre, the actors like dancers in a pantomime, but to appear at the same time to be acting quite spontaneously and naturally. They just couldn't get it right, and after a week's work we had practically nothing to show. When Korda saw the result he all but burst into tears, it was so awful. He called me in and asked me if I could adjust the same music to the scene after the sequence had been shot; I told him of course that was perfectly possible, whereupon he put a stop to any further antics of this kind.
On the set of The Thief of Bagdad
with June Duprez
In the end the only sequences shot to pre-composed music were those involving special effects - the gallop of the Flying Horse and the Silvermaid's Dance. The scene with the Flying Horse, in which the Sultan is so enchanted by the magic toys and the ride across the sky above Bagdad that he gives his beloved daughter's hand to Jafar the Magician, was a collaboration between Vansittart, Miles Malleson and myself. The script and the music were conceived as a single entity; the three of us spent all day at the piano at Denham Place working out the details.
Vansittart and I never established a fixed pattern of working together. Sometimes the music came first, sometimes the Iyric. In the case of the 'Lullaby of the Princess' he wrote the poem first, which I then set to music and which in fact became the main love theme of the picture. With 'Sabu's Song', again an important song because it had to reappear throughout the film, the tune came first and the words followed later.
Letter from Vansittart
I soon became almost a permanent fixture in Vansittart's home. He spent the week at his flat in London, but every weekend we were together at Denham Place, and I soon got to know his enchanting wife. We never discussed politics, but these were critical days for Britain. Stafford Cripps was in Moscow trying to forge an alliance with the Russians, but was pipped at the post by Ribbentrop. The Russian-German agreement came as a great shock to England, but whether Vansittart was expecting it or not I am unable to say. Sometimes we would be working at the piano and the butler would come in to call him to the telephone. When he came back he never revealed whether it had been good or bad news (though sometimes he looked ashen-faced) and I never asked him. We would simply carry on from where we had left off.
The Figaro article
Somehow the foreign press got wind of the fact that he was writing the lyrics for The Thief of Bagdad. It was at about this time that Figaro in Paris printed an article to the effect that if the chief diplomatic adviser to the British Foreign Office had time to write Iyrics for a motion picture with me, there could be no immediate danger of war. A fortnight later, on 3rd September 1939, war was declared. Thereafter my relationship with Vansittart changed. He opened up and talked about subjects I wouldn't have dared mention to him. He told me fascinating things about the people he met in diplomatic circles, and about the past few years when he had constantly and unavailingly been trying to warn the British government of what was happening on the continent. He talked about the 1936 Olympics at which he and his wife had met Hitler. He spoke fluent, idiomatic French, and also German and Arabic, just as a senior British diplomat should. Even in 1936 he had been thought of as a Germanophobe and a warmonger. Hitler had been told that he was a swarthy little Jew and was shocked to be introduced to the tall, imposing British gentleman who spoke perfect German.
Vansittart presented me with two volumes of his poetry, suggesting I might find something in them to set to music. One collection, The Singing Caravan , he had written at the time he was British Ambassador in Teheran. I set two of them for contralto and piano, 'Beasts of Burden' and 'Un Jardin dans la Nuit'. I found the latter title too close to Debussy's 'Jardins sous la Pluie', and asked him if I could change it. It became 'Invocation', published later in America and re-published now in England.
There was panic in London at the outbreak of war because people were caught unprepared. On that Sunday, soon after Chamberlain had come on the radio to announce that 'a state of war exists between Germany and England', I was driving towards London when there was an air raid warning. It was a false alarm, but of course all the traffic was stopped and we had to get out and lie down in a ditch. Petrol rationing was introduced and I moved to a little cottage in Chalfont St. Peter only ten minutes away from the studios to make things easier. The Korda brothers set up home together in Denham village.
Slowly The Thief of Bagdad progressed towards completion. Two additional directors, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan, were put to work on it, but still sequences were missing and the picture took shape in a very haphazard manner, not as originally envisaged. Not until February 1940 did we get to the final recording sessions.
Sabu menaced by the Djinn (Rex Ingram)
I had met Maurice Martenot in Paris and I had once written a Berceuse for the electronic instrument he had invented, the Ondes Martenot. I decided it would be the right instrument to use for the Djinn. It would be an unworldly tone-colour for an unworldly happening, the Djinn escaping from his bottle and later flying through the Grand Canyon with Sabu on his shoulders. We wrote to Maurice Martenot asking him to bring his instrument to England and he agreed, but by the time of the recording he had been called up and was somewhere defending his country. So I had to forget about the Ondes Martenot for the next five years.
Eventually Berger returned to Holland leaving Bill Hornbeck to cut the picture together as best he could. Alexander Korda left for the States. My work on the film seemed to be complete, but one day I heard from David Cunnyngham that arrangements were being made to shoot the missing scenes in America and that United Artists were putting up the money. Everyone who was directly involved in the production would be needed in Hollywood to finish the film.
I had never even dreamed of going to America. My Variations had been well received when performed in Chicago, but America was a long way off and it took five or six days to get there, so you had to have a good reason for going. Well, I had to go now. I had fought so hard to write the music for The Thief of Bagdad, and if I didn't go to America now it would be finished by someone else, which was the last thing I wanted. David Cunnyngham explained the various ways I could make the journey. American and English passenger ships were no longer crossing the Atlantic directly, but I could get an American ship from Genoa, though that route too was likely to be closed shortly. I could take the train from Paris to Genoa, but getting from London to Paris was going to be the difficult part. There were two possibilities. I could either make the dangerous sea crossing, or I could fly. I had never been up in a plane, and I was a poor sailor. Cunnyngham said drily, 'You stand a good chance of being shot down over the Channel, which at least has the virtue of being a quick death. Or you could be sunk, which would be considerably less pleasant. It's up to you.' Sometimes I find the British sense of humour a little hard to take. I told Cunnyngham I had never flown in my life before and asked if he had. He looked at me from behind his glasses and said casually, 'Oh yes'. When I told this story to a friend later he burst out laughing. It turned out that Cunnyngham had been an ace RAF pilot in the First World War and that his answer to me had been a typical piece of British understatement.
I was sad to be leaving London. I had been happy there, I liked the English and I had felt at home. I had been able to write both my own music and music for films in the way I wanted to, always bearing in mind the kind of contribution Honegger had made to the cinema. I was sorry too to be saying goodbye to my beloved Trinity College and to the Civil Service Orchestra, who were still meeting every week to play good music badly but with great enthusiasm.
My plane left from Croydon, and I expected the journey to Paris to last about an hour and a half. After five hours or so, while we were still in the air, I began to wonder whether it would have been better to take the risk of being sunk by a submarine. Then suddenly I saw the Eiffel Tower. I learned that we had had to take a roundabout route via the Channel Islands to avoid German planes. The sight of Paris was incredible. We had had ten months of blackout in London; the foggy, unlit streets were a constant danger for the pedestrian, for even car headlights were masked. But Paris was lit up like a Christmas tree, another world altogether. Nobody seemed worried - they trusted their Maginot Line. I saw all my friends, said goodbye to them and caught the train for Genoa where I found my ship in the harbour.
The trip took ten long days. We were to call at Gibraltar on the way. I spotted a familiar face: it was Noel Coward. He usually sat reading in a deckchair. I was sure everybody must have recognised him, but he talked to no one, and no one bothered him. When we dropped anchor at Gibraltar a cutter came alongside and took him off. We waited about ten hours, then the boat brought him back and we set sail again. Later I read that he had been sent to America by the authorities for propaganda purposes, and I assumed that his short visit to Gibraltar was to meet the Governor or to receive a final briefing.
Charles Boyer's mother was also on board, a lovely, elegant, elderly lady. When at last we arrived in New York, there were Charles Boyer and his wife to meet his mother, and Gertrude Lawrence waiting for Noel Coward. They embraced and seemed overjoyed to see each other again.
After a few days at the St. Regis Hotel in New York (Korda's favourite), I set off for Hollywood. I went there, as I thought, for a month or so, forty days at the most. Now, forty years later, I am still there.
Rózsa, Miklós: Double Life: The Autobiography of Miklós Rózsa, Composer in the Golden Years of Hollywood.
Tunbridge Wells: The Baton Press. 1982. pp.77-87.
(Paperback edition 1984, ISBN 0 85936 141 1)
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