Lust for Life: Minnelli Directs, Miklos Rozsa Composes Music

The distinguished composer Miklos Rózsa worked on several Vincente Minnelli pictures, including Madame Bovary and Lust for Life.  In his memoirs, he recorded the following observations about this experience.

I worked again with George Cukor on a much better picture, Bhowani Junction, set in India; but form my point of view it was very uninteresting, since for the most part all that was required was ethnic music (which I made up) to be used as a background.  The plum of the year came later.  John Houseman produced and Vincente Minnelli directed Lust for Life, the biography of Vincent Van Gogh, based on Irving Stone’s famous book.
I knew nothing of painting as a child, and it was only as a student in Leipzig that my interest began to develop (I have to admit with shame that the first time I enetered the Budapest museum with its magnificent Esterházy collection was when I was there in 1974).  Later in Los Angeles I got to know the works of Van Gogh and he quickly became one of my favorite modern painters.  For Lust for Life art galleries and private collections from all over the world were ransacked, among them Edward G. Robinson’s.  This was not the first time I had drawn inspiration from fine art in the composing of a film score.  In The Thief of Baghdad the sets and  scenery of Vincent Korda ravished the senses; in Spellbound Salvador Dali’s designs for the central dream-interpretation sequence suggested a musical complement, and literally coloured my concept of the score as a whole.

The picture was made mostly in Europe.  When I first saw it it was a good hour longer than the final version.  For me it wasn’t enough, it was so rich in fascinating details and character studies.  But studio policy intervened.  The picture couldn’t be more than two hours long; who wants to see a mad suicidal painter anyway  So it was boiled down and mutilated in such a way that it lost most of its former strength and depth, just as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was made to suffer later.  Nevertheless it was far better than the average Hollywood picture, and I was happy to be associated with it.  A great deal of care had gone into the art direction.  For example, the asylum at St. Rémy where Van Gogh stayed when his mind was going was painted by him many times.  In his pictures there is a large tree outside, which by the time our film-makers got there had disappeared.  They implanted one, so much did they care about authenticity.

I asked myself what sort of music Van Gogh would have known.  He was a Post-Impressionist, but Post-Impressionism in music comes much later than Van Gogh’s death at the end of the nineteenth century; pictorial trends are always between 25 and 40 years ahead.  The music he himself knew would have been that of the eighties – Wagner, Liszt, César Franck – but I felt that mid-nineteenth century romanticism had little in common with his work.  Somehow I had to evolve a suitable style in terms of my own music.  It had to be somewhat impressionistic, somewhat pointillistic, somewhat post-romantic and brightly, even startlingly colourful, much like the tenor of his paintings.  I worked with Houseman again in my bungalow, playing my music on the piano.  Once I was describing the scene when Gauguin arrived at Alres and makes his way to Van Gogh’s house.  I wanted to evoke and extrovert, south-of-France atmosphere, rather in the manner of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne.  Houseman’s criticism was that I was illustrating the scenery when I ought to have been reinforcing the emotion.  He was right, and I substituted a brooding, assertive theme for Gauguin which gave me the drama more positive support.  I have nothing against constructive criticism when it illuminates a dramatic point.  I’m annoyed by musical criticism from producers and directors who don’t know what they are talking about.  There was a great outburst of anger from Georges Auric, the French composer, when William Wyler tried to suggest changes in the music for Roman Holiday.  ‘I didn’t tell you how to direct your picture – don’t tell me how to write my music!’  My reaction was, ‘Bravo Auric!’  Later, on Ben-Hur, I ran into similar trouble of my own with Wyler.

Lust for Life afforded wonderful opportunities for music in the shape of the various scenes which were simply montages of Van Gogh’s paintings, symphonies of colour needing tonal interpretation.  I like Van Gogh himself, very well played by Kirk Douglas, who looked remarkably like him.  From my point of view, the picture was an artistic apotheosis.