Eugene Zador (Zádor Jenő) is not among the better-known European composers who sought refuge in Hollywood during World War II, probably because his work in films was generally uncredited. He worked as an orchestrator, mostly for Miklós Rósza, rather than as a composer of original music. But Zador continued to write concert music and opera, much of it large in scale and original in concept.
Zador was born in Bátaszék, Hungary, on November 5, 1894. His parents had remained in the village after their horse died there as they were passing through. Zador heard piano music through a window as a child, stopped to listen despite freezing weather, contracted pneumonia, recovered, and was given a piano by his grateful parents. He started composing as a high school student in Pécs and went on to study at conservatories in Vienna and Leipzig, taking counterpoint classes with Max Reger at the latter. Zador served in the Hungarian army in World War I and began composing substantial works after the war. His Variations on a Hungarian Folksong were programmed in 1928 by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Berlin Philharmonic. Zador's comic one-act opera X-mal Rembrandt (1930) dealt with a painter making a copy of a Rembrandt self-portrait.
Zador prospered in the 1930s, buying a large house in Budapest, cultivating mutual respect and warm relations with Bartók, and writing several successful operas and a Dance Symphony (1937). The day after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Zador fled Vienna for Budapest and, reading the writing on the wall, began to make contacts in the U.S. He left Europe in March of 1939, bringing the mostly completed score of his opera Christopher Columbus. This opera was premiered in New York in October to a cheering audience of 2,000. Zador had several successful orchestral premieres in late 1939 and early 1940, but, as a European alone in a strange country, hoped for financial security. When he was offered orchestration work by MGM in early 1940, he jumped at the chance and moved to Hollywood.
This work paid well, but brought Zador little renown. His music is heard in The Thin Man Goes Home, among other films. Industrious as ever, he succeeded in buying a large Los Angeles house. He continued to compose concert music on the side; a massive Biblical Triptych (1943), based on writings of Thomas Mann, attracted performances by the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies, and was praised by Mann himself. The work was revived by the Budapest Symphony MÁV in 2016. Zador wrote several other successful orchestral works after the war, including the often-performed Divertimento for Strings (1955). His Five Contrasts for Orchestra (1965) were premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and in later life he wrote concertos for unusual instruments such as a cimbalom and an accordion. Zador died in Los Angeles on April 4, 1977.