Remembering Leonard Rosenman, Film and Concert Composer

Leonard Rosenman, conducting.

James Dean was already dead before I was born, but nevertheless, I couldn’t help but marvel at his performances in the movies Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. In fact, I admit it: I’m a big James Dean fan, even if there are only 3 movies. I vividly remember seeing those movies when I was a teenager at a repertory cinema (now there’s something that has gone away, a victim of DVD rentals and plasma screens), with Cynthia Nikitin, a friend who I still keep in touch with and is hopefully going to be visiting us here in Vancouver later this spring.

Dean’s movies, especially East of Eden, made a great impact on me. The emotions and moods that made up Cal’s world didn’t seem all that far from my own adolescent thoughts and feelings. I also remember that I immediately loved the soundtrack, which was as rich and complicated as the film’s plot, direction and acting, filled with angst and conflict. In that incredible scene where Cal’s father rejects his gift (money to pay him back what he’d lost in his refrigerated vegetable debacle — it’s no good because it was an ill-gotten gain from the war economy), I remember how Elia Kazan’s camera shifted to a strange tilt (mirroring the off-centre relationship between Cal and his father). I also remembered the brutal, stabbing music accompanying the trip that Cal takes his brother Aron to see his mother (now a Madame at a brothel in Salinas instead of being dead, as he had been told), an act of desperation and lashing out at his father and brother. It’s strong, angular, and very dissonant music, sounding far more like the works of Arnold Schoenberg than Hollywood.

There’s a reason that East of Eden‘s music is closer to The Second Viennese School than Sunset Boulevard: the composer of the score was Dean’s piano teacher, New York roommate and friend Leonard Rosenman. Rosenman died yesterday at the age of 83.

When Dean got his first acting break, he introduced Elia Kazan to Rosenman, and that’s how Rosenman got his first break as a film composer. He had actually already studied with Schoenberg, and also with the Italian composer, Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood on a fellowship (a place I attended as well). He had all the credentials of a New York Intellectual 1950s composer, and if things had gone the usual way, he would have probably become a professor at some college, teaching Music Theory and Composition, and writing an oeuvre of chamber music with the occasional orchestral commission, if he was lucky. (This is a career that for me as well, is the road not taken). That all changed after the film work. Rosenman despaired that his East Coast colleagues felt he had ‘sold out’ and wouldn’t even look at his serious pieces (much less perform them) after he left New York and the New Music scene. He eventually got some performances, but the move to LA meant that he had to channel his craft into film. By doing so, I think that Rosenman stands as one of the few bridges between Expressionist concert music (Schoenberg, et al), and cinema in the 1950s and 60s.

Both Schoenberg and Dallapiccola were serial composers, and it’s still difficult to say assess just what kind of an affect they had on music, even though it’s been a century (!) since Schoenberg wrote the first of his works that abandoned tonality. If Schoenberg’s techniques, or at least the sound world he gave birth to, were to hit the mainstream, East of Eden is one of those films where one of his pupils actually got through to the masses. The Expressionist aesthetic of that movie’s soundtrack is as close as Schoenberg’s sound as you ever hear in film from that era. It’s not just East of Eden, either. Rosenman also wrote the score to Fantastic Voyage in 1966, and that score is a dead ringer for Schoenberg’s ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’ of 1909. It still strikes me as amazing that the science fiction movie music accompanying miniaturized scuba divers and a nuclear submarine repairing the body of a scientist really had its roots in music written for the concert hall some 57 years earlier!

In some ways, Jerry Goldsmith (who also died recently in 2004) represented the bridge between Stravinsky and perhaps Bartok and cinema, but Rosenman is, I think, truly the heir to Schoenberg.

Rosenman had a long an fruitful career in Hollywood. Unfortunately, In recent years he’d succumbed to frontotemporal dementia. I hope that some of his concert and film music gets played. I discovered that the iTunes store indeed had a wonderful recording (far better than the original soundtrack orchestra) by San Francisco composer John Adams conducting the London Sinfonietta in the music from East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. It’s definitely worth getting.

Rosenman Cover Art

2 Replies to “Remembering Leonard Rosenman, Film and Concert Composer”

  1. The direction and score definitely add a whole element of European angst to the story. Kazan really ‘got’ the whole turbulence of adolescence and Dean was living it (plus, he was an actor with so much talent, perhaps on the brink of true greatness – I sometimes wonder what kind of movies he’d have made if he had lived longer.) Rosenman’s music is like an undercurrent of emotion for the whole work.
    I also didn’t mention Julie Harris’s performance, which is also phenomenal, given that she has to do the talking for most of the laconic male parts. Who knew that this charming and vulnerable girl-next-door attracted to the ‘bad boy’ would later become for many, synonymous with roles of woman writers like Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronté in later years (and as of today she’s still working, according to IMDB.)

    For me, East of Eden towers above Rebel Without a Cause as a work of sheer emotional power, but Rebel is probably more interesting as a cultural snapshot of what it was to be a teen in the early to mid-60’s, and hence gets most of the attention when people talk about Dean.

    I noticed that one of the authors of the book Live Fast, Die Young
    The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause
    by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, linked to this post. They apparently got to meet Rosenman and hear him play the theme to Rebel not too long before his death. Remarkably, that part of his brain remained intact, even though he could not remember Dean’s name or any of the details of his past. The video of his playing is very touching.

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