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. I am going to have to watch East of Eden again now that I have this new insight into the music . Very inter­est­ing , thanks for sharing.

  2. 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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