At the age of 11, he wrote his first opera, Christmas in the Trenches. After completing his education at the Gymnasium Franz-Josef, he attended the Academy of Music in Budapest, where he studied with Leo Weiner. He also studied with Béla Bartók at the Liszt Academy, receiving diplomas in composition and conducting. He won a grant to study in Berlin in 1928, where he met Lilli Apel, another musician, whom he later married.
Kosma also met and studied with Hanns Eisler in Berlin. He also became acquainted with Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel. Kosma and his wife emigrated to Paris in 1933. Eventually, he met Jacques Prévert, who introduced him to Jean Renoir. During World War II and the Occupation of France, Kosma was placed under house arrest in the Alpes-Maritimes region, and was banned from composition.
However, Prévert managed to arrange for Kosma to contribute music for films, with other composers fronting for him. Under this arrangement he wrote the "pantomime" of the music for Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), made under the occupation, but released after the liberation. Among his other credits are the scores to La Grande Illusion (1937), La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) and Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (The Doctor's Horrible Experiment, 1959), the later made for television. He was also known for writing the standard classical-jazz piece "Les feuilles mortes" ("Autumn Leaves"), with French lyrics by Jacques Prévert, and later English lyrics by Johnny Mercer, which was derived from music in Marcel Carné's film Les Portes de la Nuit (1946).
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