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THE LIFE OF LEONARD ROSENMAN

PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS, THE FIRST SCORE, AND A FAMOUS FRIENDSHIP

(All sources for Rosenman quotes are listed at the bottom of this column. Paragraphs in italics are contributed by the editor)

Leonard Rosenman was born on September 7, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a grocer.

My early life as a musician did not exist: I was a painter originally, and I started piano lessons at the age of 15 just as a hobby. (S55)

[One day with a cold at age 15,] I lay in bed feeling sluggish and drowsy. Suddenly the radio poured out Stravinsky's Le Sacre de Printemps. It woke me up like a splash of water. I thought, what kind of a piece is that? It was like a weird sound in a strange jungle.

I picked up knowledge of the piano very quickly and, on the basis of very little evidence, decided I was a virtuoso. I went to a great teacher and proudly played a Bach prelude for him. He scowled at me and, with a thick German accent, said, "Do you believe Shakespearean drama can be interpreted on the stage by an illiterate? Well, Bach is like Shakespeare and you're a musical illiterate. If you're serious about music, you'll have to forget the modest amount you've learned up to now and begin all over again." (HQ)

[Piano teacher Julius Herford was] a monstrous man, a German taskmaster who told me I was not talented, should not go into music, must avoid Dostoyevsky -- whom I loved -- at all cost, and crossed out notes in my compositions. Although it was a destructive relationship, I studied with him from 16 to 19 when I entered the Air Force. (NYT)

Rosenman spent much of his time in the military delivering orientation lectures.

I found plenty of free time on my hands. I searched out textbooks on musical theory, harmony and spent a large part of every day on music. (HQ)

I met Leon Kirchner, the first composer with whom I had a steady intimacy. A kind of osmotic relationship grew and I got to understand the process of composition. In Hawaii I met Earl Kim. He and Kirchner both had studied with Roger Sessions and suggested I do the same. But first I wanted to try Schoenberg. (NYT)

When I came back, I went to the University of California, I studied with Roger Sessions and with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles.

Later on I won a scholarship, I went to Italy and studied with Dallapiccola. Then I became a composer and while trying to get a job as a professor in some large institute, a university or something like that, I was teaching piano on the side. (S55)

I met Jimmy Dean in 1953 when a mutual friend, poet-playwright Howard Sackler, introduced us. Jimmy wanted to study piano with me and became an on-and-off student. I felt he was gifted and sensitive but didn't have the patience or the rigor to practice. He never was able to figure out why he couldn't sit down and simply play the Beethoven sonatas without learning something about music. (LAT)

He became a roommate, he moved in with us, and we became very dear friends. (S55)

When I asked Howard about Jimmy (Howard had known him a number of years), he replied, "A tough kid...sleeps on nails." Actually, this wasn't true. His main attraction (and I feel this was the singularly important element in his public attractiveness) was his almost pathological vulnerability to hurt and rejection.

I have neither the desire nor the credentials to discuss the genesis of this in Jimmy. It is sufficient to say that it was there and required enormous defenses on his part to simply cover it up, even on the most superficial level. Hence the leather-garbed motorcycle rider, the tough kid having to reassure himself at every turn of the way by subjecting himself to superhuman tests of survival, the last of which he failed.

I was seven years older than he and the inner nature of our relationship was revealed to me in the following interchange one afternoon:

He asked me to come out and play ball with him. I said No, being preoccupied with something else at the time. He kept insisting and finally I shouted in exasperation: "You know I don't like sports. Why the hell is it so important that I play ball with you? "

Stammering, he replied, "It's...like...you want your father to play ball with you." It is not to my credit that I testily told him that if he wanted to play ball, to call his father and that I was not his father, etc., etc. That was the end of the discussion.

I recall another incident. I was reading some book by Kierkegaard at the time. Suddenly Jimmy was carrying around books by Kierkegaard and other philosophers, though he never did get to read them. His desire for respect as an "intellectual" was profound and, coupled with his impatience with ordinary formal learning experiences, resulted in what our friend Frank Corsaro called "a chapter-heading knowledge of things."

It was Jimmy who brought my work to the attention of director Elia Kazan, and thus he was responsible for my entrance into film music. (LAT)

I had a big concert in New York. James Dean took Elia Kazan to the concert. Kazan asked me if I'd be interested in writing the music for Jimmy's first film, which was EAST OF EDEN. (S55)

I knew absolutely nothing about films, and I asked for something I thought was impossible. I wanted to go through the whole process, from beginning to end, to watch the filming, work with the actors, and let the music be an integral part of the film. (HE70)

On East of Eden, I went along on location; I wrote the scenes while the film was being shot. I worked with Kazan right from the first day of shooting. And when the film was rough-cut the music was rough-cut. I played the music for the actors before they went out to do their scenes. In scenes where the music carries forth the rhythm of the scene rather than the dialogue, Kazan let me dictate the action of the scene by directing it with me like an opera. To my amazement, he said that he had often wanted to work like that. That's ideal. (FF)

The theme for Raymond Massey's character is first heard in the film when the actor hums it onscreen:

We arranged that. I wanted the music to be inaccessible from the dramatic framework, in other words, you couldn't extract it from the film. (S56)

Kazan said I should take over the administration of the entire sound of East of Eden -- bird sounds, footfalls -- and should supervise the dubbing, so that the entire style of the film was consistent. That included finding out whether the actor was a bass, a soprano, or a tenor, and scoring accordingly, or dubbing somebody's footfalls if you wanted that as part of the rhythm. Or silence. And that meant silence, nothing, no sound at all. The real filmmakers aren't afraid of those kinds of things. (FF)

I took into account that Julie Harris was a soprano, James Dean a tenor and Raymond Massey a bass-baritone. The design of the instrumentation and of the thematic material itself was influenced by these vocal ranges and qualities. Often "holes" were left in the scoring for the voice to be utilized as a sort of speaking instrument. Sometimes in moments of high tension or concentrated dialogue music was not used at all, and entered later for punctuation in quiet reactive moments. (CH)

Kazan and I worked together to fit the music to the film. This is not the general practice because it's too expensive -- and the studios don't care about music anyway. But I couldn't have done the job otherwise because I hadn't learned enough. I was very green. I remember going up to a little man at a desk in the music building at Warner Bros. and asking him, "Do you know what a click track is?" He said, "Yes, I invented it." The little man was Max Steiner. (MM)

I remember the first time they recorded Eden. I had a solo flute play something and he stopped in the middle and looked around; I said, "What's the problem?" He said, "There isn't anyone playing with me." I said, "No, I'm afraid you have to count." So it became an entirely new development, having a large orchestra but using small chamber ensembles within that orchestra, and using very few entire orchestra sections. You had a curiously different sound in film music. You had much more of a clear focus of the drama, a potentially much greater palette of color in the score. Jack Warner felt rather strange about that because he saw all the orchestra doing nothing, and he didn't like the idea of not having them playing at the same time.

There's too much music in movies. When I first started to work in films I worked at Warner Bros., and they had wall-to-wall music. If the film was an hour and a half long the score was an hour and a half long. At that time the last of the filmic Mesozoic giants, Jack Warner, was the head of the studio; he had been indoctrinated very strongly by his own experience in silent films. The function of music in the silent films was to add sound effects and also to cover up all kinds of realistic sounds -- popcorn, the toilet flushing, the projection machine -- to remove the idea of reality so that the audience would be able to suspend disbelief. The minute you suspend disbelief you are in films. Like most of the early pioneers in films, Jack evidently felt that music had a magical mystery power, a subliminal power. So they began to use it indiscriminately. It was like an enema in the Jewish family tradition. "It can't hurt you" was the idea.

They did not realize that diminishing returns set in -- that if you had music from frame alpha to frame omega, you had come back to the original idea of the silents: after a while you didn't hear the music anymore. If you happen to see an old Warner Brothers movie like Anthony Adverse, those films with wall-to-wall music, after a while you feel like saying "Stop the music!Ó Music couldn't possibly do for the audience what Jack and the other old filmmakers felt music could do. Because if you don't hear it, why use it? Max Steiner was a creator of a kind of Mickey Mouse music, so that if a man in a film walked along with a club foot, the music walked along with him with a club foot. Max is very important in our craft, of course, because he wrote he first original score to a film, which was King Kong. He made an outstanding contribution to our craft.

I knew nothing about movies except that I liked them. When I came on the scene, the big composers were Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was already dying but was still there.

The kind of music these composers wrote basically had its roots in the nineteenth century with the romantic music of Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Brahms. If, for example, there was a single line in a film, that line was not played by an oboe or a flute; that line was played by all the violins, all the trumpets, all the flutes, all the oboes, and all the clarinets. No one ever took any chances. If you hear a lot of the old scores extracted from the films -- which you can today because the soundtrack records are coming back -- the music has an incredible thickness to it. It's not a thickness of luster, it's a thickness of turgidity, a lack of profile, a lack of inner voices moving, a lack of counterpoint. It just sounds elephantine. (FF)

With an unrealistically swelled head, I expected an Academy Award, but I didn't even get nominated.(HQ)

Rosenman's score was, in fact, one of the ten scores short-listed for the Oscar that year, but indeed failed to earn a nomination. The film ultimately earned four Oscar nominations, including Actor, Directing and Writing, and Jo Van Fleet won Best Supporting Actress. The score Oscar went to Alfred Newman for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.

For years I didn't get any performances of my own work because I did films. In 1954 I did East of Eden, my first film. That year I had five major performances in New York, where I lived. The minute I did East of Eden, I didn't have any performances in New York for 20 years that's because suddenly I was a "film composer." I didn't get performances and since people didn't hear my music for a long time, they'd say, "Oh, he's not writing any more." And I had a whole pile of stuff. (S55)


NEXT TIME: More early scores, and the loss of a friend.


CH: The Composer in Hollywood by Christopher Palmer; published by Marion Boyars, 1990
FF: Filmmakers on Filmmaking: The American Film Institute Seminars on Motion Pictures and Television, edited by Joseph McBride; published by Houghton Mifflin, 1983
HE70: Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, June 29, 1970: "Rosenman: Man Behind Film Scores," by Karen Monson
HQ: Home Q&A: Lyn and Leonard Rosenman, by Marshall Berges; circa 1976
LAT: Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1977: "Jimmy Dean: Giant Legend, Cult Rebel," by Leonard Rosenman
MM: Music for the Movies by Tony Thomas; published by Silman-James Press, 1997
NYT: New York Times, August 29, 1982: "A Composer Seeks Artistic Prestige After HollywoodÓ by Joan Peyser
S55: Soundtrack vol. 14, No. 55, September 1995, interview by Wolfgang Breyer
S56: Soundtrack vol. 14 no 56, December 1995, interview by Daniel Mangodt


Edited by Scott Bettencourt

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