Leonard Rosenman: Oscar-winning film composer who introduced modernism into Hollywood movie scores

Four dozen films after 46 years in Hollywood might seem a slender output but Leonard Rosenman was determined to compose as he saw fit, and his outspoken criticism of musical illiteracy lost him some commissions. But those who kept faith were often richly rewarded. Rosenman mixed avant-garde techniques with deep psychological insight: "Write sad music for a sad scene – sure, I'll do it; but it doesn't offer me a great challenge."

Rosenman was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1924. He served in the US air force during the Second World War, then attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in music. He studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions and, at Tanglewood on a fellowship, Luigi Dallapiccola.

In the early 1950s, while living in New York, he met James Dean at a party. They became friends and Rosenman taught him the piano and wrote music for the play Dean was appearing in: Ezra Pound's translation of Sophocles' Women of Trachis. When Dean took Elia Kazan to a concert of Rosenman's music, the director commissioned him to score East of Eden (1955), though both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein had to encourage him to accept.

In the 1950s, younger composers were beginning to look beyond the "Golden Age" style of Max Steiner and Miklos Rózsa. Rosenman was in the vanguard, challenging it with more modernist music, and opening the door for others to follow. Where East of Eden might have suggested a traditional "American-epic" score, Rosenman looked deeper, providing Copland-esque Americana but then giving it an expressionist twist and a dash of jazz to create what he described as "a new and imaginative reality". Composing on set helped him to catch the film's mood, and the music was ready almost as soon as shooting was finished. Unsurprisingly Rosenman was signed up for Dean's next film, made the same year, Rebel Without a Cause, again giving the appropriate lushness a darker underside.

Amazingly, in 1955 he also produced a third standout score. Set in a psychiatric hospital, The Cobweb risked descending into overwrought melodrama but Rosenman, intending to show "what was going on inside characters' heads", countered it with Hollywood's first foray into dodecophony and a solo piano part inspired by Schoenberg's Concerto. Rosenman excelled in such fare and for Sybil (1976), another story of psychiatric difficulty, the orchestra includes two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart to evoke the heroine's fragmented personality.

From 1959 onwards, television provided a regular income with projects from the cult The Twilight Zone (1959), through Marcus Welby M.D. (1969) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1964-65).

For Fantastic Voyage (1966), he rejected the producers' idea of having a jazz score to create "the first hip science-fiction movie". The film's premise risked B-movie ridicule as a group of scientists including Raquel Welch are miniaturised to enter a man's body, but again Rosenman cranked up the tension, only scoring the second half of the film and filling it with rhythmically driving music and dissonant Ligeti-like clusters, finally resolving at the end into clarity. Ligeti also inspired his "tortured crawling" music for the Second World War-set TV series Combat! (1963).

Though an animated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978) included a traditionally upbeat striding theme and a limpid children's choir, there were also labyrinthine melodies and dark, curdling harmonies. At one point the choir intones "Dranoel Namnesor" – the composer's name spelt backwards. The soundtrack LP was popular, but the film failed and one of Rosenman's own favourite scores lost the longevity it deserved. Rosenman didn't only seek psychological authenticity; for A Man Called Horse (1970) he eschewed traditional "Hollywood Indian music", preferring to draw on the genuine article.

On several occasions Rosenman was drafted in to pick up franchises from other composers: his score for Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) is every bit the equal of Jerry Goldsmith's groundbreaking original, though Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is less inspired and RoboCop 2 (1990) misses the film's satirical humour. For Star Trek IV: the voyage home (1986), Rosenman was faced with a frantic production schedule, and his is the shortest Star Trek score.

His score for the Italian film Jurij (2001) included many of his typical touches and the story – of a violin virtuoso – allowed him to write an extended chaconne-concertino for the instrument. Though he developed frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative brain condition similar to Alzheimer's disease, he was still able to work on his music.

Ironically his two Oscars, won back to back in 1975 and 1976, were not for his own ground-breaking scores but for adaptations: of classical music for Barry Lyndon and of Woody Guthrie's songs for Bound for Glory. Picking up the second statuette he joked: "I write original music too, you know!"

Rosenman's cinema success damaged his concert career: after five major New York performances in a single year and sharing the bill with Milton Babbitt, "the minute I did my first film, I didn't have another performance [there] for 20 years". Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned a memorial to his second wife for orchestra and electronics, and his catalogue includes a double-bass concerto, two violin concertos and, in 1996, the "Dinosaur" symphony.

John Riley

Leonard Rosenman, composer: born New York 7 September 1924; four times married (one son, two daughters); died Woodland Hills, California 4 March 2008.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Calling All NQT's

£100 - £115 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Randstad Education are active...

General Cover Teacher

£100 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Secondary Teachers of all sub...

Helpdesk Team Leader / Manager

£45000 per annum + pension,medical: Ashdown Group: A successful & reputable gl...

General Cover Teacher

£100 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Secondary Teachers of all sub...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game