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FastNotes

  • Leonard Rosenman was something of a rebel himself. Just 30 years old when he wrote his first three film scores – East of Eden, The Cobweb, and Rebel Without a Cause, all in 1955 – he helped bring the sound of the 20th-century concert hall into the movie theater.
  • By life’s chance, James Dean and Rosenman became friends when Dean asked Rosenman for piano lessons; when Dean landed his first major film role in East of Eden, he suggested Rosenman to director Elia Kazan for its score. A six-decade, Oscar-winning career in film and television followed.
  • Rosenman brought his modernist sensibilities to the movies. Eden’s score was more straightforwardly emotional, in the vein of Aaron Copland Americana. The Cobweb, set in a psychiatric ward, featured the very first 12-tone film score. Then came Rebel Without a Cause.
  • Rosenman’s nonconformist approach suited Rebel like a leather jacket. His score explores the heightened emotions of its young characters, mingling jazzy saxophone melodies and jagged atonality with a lush Hollywood love theme in sync with the teenage experience
  • It’s with a measure of irony that tonight’s performance of Rosenman’s score for Rebel Without a Cause – its world premiere live-to-picture – repositions one of the composer’s best Hollywood works inside a concert hall. In a funny way, it’s almost an act of rebellion.

Leonard Rosenman was something of a rebel himself. Just 30 years old when he wrote his first three film scores – East of Eden, The Cobweb, and Rebel Without a Cause, all in 1955 – he helped bring the sound of the 20th-century concert hall into the movie theater, storming an art form that had calcified into staid Romanticism.

Born in Brooklyn in 1924, Rosenman’s first draw to the arts was painting, but by age 15 he switched his studies to music. He served as an airman in the Pacific theater of World War II, and afterwards pursued a music degree at UCLA, apprenticing with modernist composer Roger Sessions. He returned to New York in 1951, and studied under Arnold Schoenberg during the final year of the premier serialist’s life.

Rosenman was set to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, but paid his bills in the meantime as a pianist at Manhattan cocktail parties. It was at one of these events in 1954 where Rosenman was noticed by a young James Dean — who showed up at the composer’s apartment a month later. “My doorbell rings about 11 o'clock at night,” Rosenman later recounted. “I open the door, and here's a guy I don't remember all dressed in leather, motorcycle stuff. I said, ‘What can I do for you?’ And he said, ‘I’d like to study piano with you.’”

The two hepcats became friends, and when Dean landed his first major film role in East of Eden, he suggested Rosenman to director Elia Kazan for its score. (The director had just employed Rosenman’s friend Leonard Bernstein for On the Waterfront.) A six-decade, Oscar-winning career in film and television followed.

In retrospect, Rosenman resented the abrupt turn his career took east of Eden and into Hollywood – not because he didn’t enjoy writing music for films, but because it seemed to have stripped him of his “serious” credentials. “The year I did my first film, I had five major performances in New York,” he said in a 1997 interview. “The minute I did my first film, I didn't have a performance there for 20 years. They would never say, ‘I don't like them.’ They wouldn't look at them.”

The East Coast highbrows’ loss was Tinseltown’s gain, as Rosenman brought his modernist sensibilities to the movies. Eden’s score was more straightforwardly emotional, in the vein of Aaron Copland Americana (albeit laced with a layer of Stravinskian oddity). The Cobweb, set in a psychiatric ward, featured the very first 12-tone film score. Then came Rebel Without a Cause.

Director Nicholas Ray’s film, based on his own story (and fleshed out by screenwriter Stewart Stern), rode in with a pack of movies attempting to capture the American youth in a rawer, more realistic way. “It is a violent, brutal, and disturbing picture of modern teen-agers that Warner Brothers presents in its new melodrama,” began the New York Times review. “Like Blackboard Jungle before it, it is a picture to make the hair stand on end.”

Starring Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, and shot on distinctive locations around Los Angeles (notably the Griffith Observatory), Ray’s film examined the Leave it to Beaver era from a teen’s-eye-view – finding an underbelly of overbearing mothers, emasculated fathers, and angst-ridden adolescents. “You’re tearing me apart!” Jim Stark wails to his parents early in the film, providing an unforgettable concentrate of the film’s ethos which, combined with Dean’s premature death only a month before the movie opened, helped enshrine it as a kind of American folk tale.

Rosenman’s nonconformist approach suited Rebel like a leather jacket. His score explores the heightened emotions of its young characters, mingling jazzy saxophone melodies and jagged atonality with a lush Hollywood love theme in sync with the teenage experience – a stiff cocktail of lust and danger. “It isn’t hardcore modernism,” clarifies Scott Dunn, tonight’s conductor. “It’s more along the lines of Tadeusz Baird. It’s this sort of aching romanticism interspersed with serialism and free-tonality.”

Dunn, who counted the composer as a friend and mentor, says Rosenman remained envious of his contemporaries Bernstein and Copland, who dabbled in film music but maintained a classical career and institutional respect he so craved. (Although, Dunn wryly notes, Rosenman’s starving New York buddies were just as jealous of their friend’s lucrative life in Los Angeles.)

“Back in the day, once you went Hollywood – for whatever reason – you were just labeled, and that was it,” says Dunn.

It’s with a measure of irony that tonight’s performance of Rosenman’s score for Rebel Without a Cause – its world premiere live-to-picture – repositions one of the composer’s best Hollywood works inside a concert hall. In a funny way, it’s almost an act of rebellion.

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.