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September 7, 2004
Leonard Rosenman Turns 80
Pioneering Composer to be Honored in Rome by Jon Burlingame

Leonard Rosenman
Leonard Rosenman turns 80 this week.

The composer who gave us such memorable scores as East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Cross Creek; whose groundbreaking music for The Cobweb and Fantastic Voyage shook up the Hollywood status quo; whose television scores for The Defenders and Combat! still resonate with baby boomers; and who won Academy Awards for Barry Lyndon and Bound for Glory, is being remembered in the coming weeks for his accomplishments in both the film and concert worlds.

Rosenman will be honored Oct. 10 at a concert at the Parco della Musica in Rome, Italy. Scott Dunn will conduct the Rome Sinfonietta in film-score excerpts including Eden, Rebel, Cross Creek, Star Trek IV; and concert pieces including Chamber Music I (1960) and the world premiere of one movement of Rosenman's "Dinosaur" symphony (1996).

"A lot of his early film scores," says Dunn, "are works of genius, fantastically beautiful and complicated music. There's nothing trite about it, ever. He had huge recognition early on but like so many people in Hollywood, as the years have gone on he was forgotten by the people who hire composers to do films. He's turning 80, and it seems like a great time for us to acknowledge him and remind the world of this great composer."

Rosenman was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 7, 1924, and began playing the piano during his teen years. After the war, he moved to California, where he studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions; and in 1952, he received a fellowship to study with Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. Widely regarded as one of the most promising young composers in America, Rosenman was teaching piano and writing chamber music in New York when director Elia Kazan invited him to compose the score for East of Eden (1955).

Rosenman and Dean
James Dean and Rosenman
on the Warner Bros. lot, 1955
The story is now legendary: Playwright Howard Sackler had asked Rosenman to compose music for a play that happened to star the young James Dean. Dean asked Rosenman to help him learn piano; the two became fast friends and ultimately roommates. Dean asked Kazan to attend a performance of one of Rosenman's pieces, and Kazan – who had earlier launched the film career of Alex North – took a chance on Rosenman, inviting him to return to California. Initially skeptical, Rosenman asked Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein about the proposition, and both urged him to accept the assignment.

"Thus I found myself on the first day of shooting on location in Mendocino, California, already brewing musical ideas on the scenes to be shot," Rosenman wrote in the May 1955 issue of Film Music. "I played my daily sketches for Kazan and we discussed the material at hand as it applied to the scenes in question. Thus when the film was rough-cut the music was rough-cut too, and when the picture was complete I had only to orchestrate the score, and we recorded it."

It was an auspicious debut, and while the score ranged from the simple, folk-inspired Americana of the main theme to dissonance in depicting the adults of the story, Rosenman's next assignment would demonstrate that a bold new voice had arrived in Hollywood. Producer John Houseman hired him for his psychiatric-clinic drama The Cobweb (1955) – "over the protests of the music department," Houseman said in his 1979 memoir Front and Center – and the result was the first predominantly twelve-tone score for a major studio feature.

Conducting "Fantastic Voyage"
Conducting "Fantastic Voyage"
In an interview for Roy Prendergast's 1977 book Film Music: A Neglected Art, Rosenman said that the choice was not motivated "simply because I thought it was important to write a serial score.... I felt that it would have set off the film as not simply a potboiler melodrama which happened to center around an insane asylum but rather a film in which this kind of expressionistic music could be, so to speak, mind-reading.... It was more my intention to show what was going on inside characters' heads."

Rebel Without a Cause (1955), another Dean classic, was directed by Kazan's friend Nicholas Ray. As Royal S. Brown pointed out in his notes for John Adams' 1995 London re-recordings of the Eden and Rebel music, "Rebel's cues allowed Rosenman to expand his advanced musical idiom into what might be termed action ballets that have a mild symphonic-jazz flavor."

Rosenman was never a Hollywood favorite and remained a maverick, charting his own course. He rarely endeared himself to producers and directors, sometimes publicly chastisting them for shocking levels of musical ignorance and serious lack of taste. In that sense, he followed in the footsteps of the similarly outspoken David Raksin and Bernard Herrmann.

But he managed to make his voice heard, and to use feature-film assignments as experimental laboratories for advanced musical ideas that reached fruition in his concert work – something that Rosenman never forsook.

"While writing his score for the TV film Sybil (1976)," Sabine Feisst pointed out in a May 2000 article for the journal 21st Century Music, "he experimented with microtonality to illustrate musically the drama of a young woman's split personality. He used a string orchestra, two harps and two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, four children's voices and electronics. Immediately thereafter Rosenman employed similar microtonal techniques in his highly energetic, three-movement Double Bass Concerto." The Sybil score, incidentally, won him one of his two Emmys for outstanding music score.

Rosenman often resisted what he considered nutty ideas in order to create highly original music when the films demanded it. For George Burt's 1994 book The Art of Film Music, he related this anecdote about the music of the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage: "A producer asked me to write a jazz score, and I asked him why. He said he wanted the picture to be the first hip science fiction movie. I said that's a great idea for an advertising agency, but it doesn't fit the film."

Instead, Rosenman wrote a startlingly contemporary score for Fantastic Voyage, a movie about miniaturized human beings who undertake a trip inside the bloodstream of a human body. "The most compelling aspect of the score," Burt points out, "is that it consists almost entirely of multileveled clusters of sound.... Easily discernible thematic ideas are generally avoided." The "gentle shifting of orchestral colors, dissonant levels, and textures... intensifies the otherworldliness of the moment by creating a sense of floating buoyancy."

Sci-fi and fantasy films proved especially receptive vehicles for Rosenman's musical ideas: A bizarre choral "Mass for The Holy Bomb" for Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); "eerie marches, strange chases and wild battle scenes," as Rosenman put it, for his sophisticated, Golden Globe-nominated score for Ralph Bakshi's animated version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1978); and a delightful, Oscar-nominated score for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) that incorporated a joyous, Bach-style fugue for the endangered whales that the Enterprise crew must rescue in the time-traveling plot.

Conducting in the 1980s
Conducting in the 1980s
Even Rosenman's more conventional scores were often remarkable, including his sensitive, Oscar-nominated music for the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings memoir Cross Creek (1983); his Emmy-winning score for the acclaimed TV-movie Friendly Fire (1979); and his two Oscar-winning challenges, adapting Handel and Schubert for Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) and Woody Guthrie's folk songs for Bound for Glory (1976). (His acceptance speech for the second Oscar included the memorable quip, "I write original music, too, you know.")

His TV scores ran the gamut, from the triumphal brass fanfare for the law in The Defenders (1961) to the complex, Ligeti-style "tortured crawling" music – Rosenman's words – for the World War II drama Combat! (1962) and the diverse musical needs of seven seasons of the Robert Young doctor series Marcus Welby, M.D. (beginning in 1969).

Rosenman's last feature film score was for Jurij (2001), an Italian film about a young violinist. Its producer-director, Stefano Gabrini, is behind the concert in Rome, and excerpts from Rosenman's score will be performed. Rajmund Onodj, who played the title character, will play the violin solos.

The composer is no longer able to do interviews, as he suffers from Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), a degenerative brain condition that shares some symptoms of Alzheimer's and primarily affects behavior and cognitive abilities. In spite of his illness, Rosenman continues to work on his music and will attend the concert in Rome with his wife Judie.

Additional concert performances of Rosenman's work are expected to be scheduled over the next several months in both New York and Los Angeles.

©2004 Jon Burlingame

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