Rózsa completed his String Quartet No 1, Op 22, in September 1950. He had been under contract to M-G-M for over two years and was working intently on his music for Quo Vadis. It was a prime period in both halves of his double life (he would soon write his violin concerto for Heifetz—one of his most popular works), and it must have brought him great pleasure to balance the colourful and exotic music he was composing for the film with the intellectual rigour of chamber music. The Compinsky Quartet gave the premičre of the work in Los Angeles in 1951 (Manuel Compinsky often advised Rózsa on technical aspects of writing for strings); it is dedicated to Peter Ustinov, who played the would-be composer Nero in Quo Vadis.
The first movement features two themes. The cello introduces the first, a wide-ranging, expressive melody built in fourths (although answering phrases from the other three instruments move in thirds). The second theme is quicker and far more agitated, announced in the viola and subsequently in the second violin, first violin and cello in fugal fashion. In a highlight of the development, Rózsa combines these ideas in counterpoint—a technique he returns to in the coda, where the viola plays the first theme against the second theme, played pizzicato by the cello. The scherzo, In modo ongarese, frames a rustic peasant dance, first played by the viola and later in the lower register of the cello, with a capricious, playful idea in fast quintuple metre. The dance motif returns on ghostly harmonics in the coda, like a distant echo heard across the night-time sky in the Hungarian countryside. The third movement is a dark Nachtmusik, one of many Hungarian nocturnes Rózsa incorporated into his compositions over the years, but in this case with perhaps a bit more of an acerbic edge. Written while the composer was sailing from Europe (where he had been in Rome working on Quo Vadis) to America, it seems to evoke a particularly nostalgic longing for the homeland he had left twenty years before. All four instruments are muted throughout. The material builds to a ferocious unison climax before slowly winding its way down to a tranquil but not entirely reassuring C major conclusion. The little Lydian-mode figure heard at the end of the third movement anticipates the principal theme of the finale. Again Rózsa suggests a folk-dance, with double-stops thickening the texture and a prominent Lydian fourth on the downbeat. He contrasts this robust idea with more lyrical material in a tightly constructed sonata-rondo form. Rhythmic tension ebbs and flows but never ceases; changing metres and cross-rhythms propel the movement throughout.
Though Miklós Rózsa became one of the most admired of film composers, he had always written music in other forms and his two published string quartets reveal important facets of his musical background. String Quartet No. 1 was written in 1950 when he was under contract with M-G-M and, with its nocturnal and folk-dance imagery, is redolent of his Hungarian youth. String Quartet No. 2 is prophetic of his later sparer style, though it too is infused with great energy and high drama. The String Trio, Op. 1 has beeen recorded in its original 1929 published version.
In 1992 Rózsa araanged the first movement for a fuller string orchestra (Andante For String Orchestra, Op 22 A) and in early 2018 the other movements were given the same treatment by Michael Hrshell and premiered in Dresden Germany by Mr Hurshell conducting the Neue Jüdische Kammerphilharmonie.