Leonard Rosenman pounced on film scoring like a roaring lion, savaging the concept of Late Romanticism which had hitherto grazed happily across the Hollywood musical pastures. Invited to compose the music for East of Eden in 1955, Rosenman was initially insistent that the film be scored throughout with atonal music – a mode of composition almost totally alien to an industry which by now had an historical investment in providing modal melodic invention, not only as an attractive means of scoring films, but also as a way of promoting the movies themselves - via winning themes issued on commercial discs. Rosenman was persuaded to temper his ambitions, and East Of Eden emerged with a score where serial composition was only utilised in part - to illustrate the complexity of the tale’s more youthful characters - but nevertheless eyebrows were raised, feathers were ruffled, and batons were twitching. Rosenman had heralded his own entrance into Hollywood with what was essentially "new" music.
Of course Rosenman compounded his position as the creator of this fresh and vibrant musical landscape for movies with Rebel Without A Cause, and established his credentials as a major composing talent for film. And to this day it is mainly his music for these two films which upholds his (considerable) reputation. There have been those who suggest a decline in Rosenman’s compositional ability over the ensuing years - but this may merely be a reflection of the fact that the scores for films like The Bramble Bush, Shadow Over Elveron and Hellfighters were less demonstrative than their auspicious predecessors, and probably needed to be. And it has to be realised that the impact of those early Rosenman film scores was not something to be easily sustained – and in time the element of surprise, of shock, of outrage even, was going to diminish. But it also has to be recognised that down through the decades Rosenman has nevertheless composed scores of awesome modernistic power and diversity – from Fantastic Voyage to A Man Called Horse, from Beneath the Planet of The Apes to the animated Lord of The Rings. Of course a certain antipathy by some to Rosenman’s sterling work may be prompted by its very mode – his neoteric, often acerbic, and almost always uncompromising approach to composition is just not everyone’s idea of a cosy musical soiree.
With The Cobweb, scored soon after East Of Eden, Rosenman did get to score a film the way he wanted – with wall to wall atonal music. Perhaps the movie’s subject matter – psychological disturbance – lent itself to the type of music conservative Hollywood moguls might have viewed as "unhinged" in itself. Certainly Rosenman weighs in from the off with music at once urgently dramatic and stylistically challenging. The sheer rhythmic complexity of the scoring alone immediately sets new Hollywood musical precedents. Much of the music for the earlier East of Eden was groundbreaking – in a seismic sort of way – and here the tremors still reverberate. For The Cobweb the various problems and neuroses besetting patients and staff alike at the story’s mental institution are detailed in complex music which searingly reflects trauma and dramatic incident – and although there are moments of repose, often etched via engaging woodwind – the cogent scoring is in the main determinedly terse and stunning in its rhythmic audacity.
The Cobweb was a major enterprise for MGM – as witnessed by its powerhouse cast – Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame. Lillian Gish, John Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant and Lillian Gish – and helmed by the studio’s ace director, Vincente Minnelli – which makes the film all the more fascinating for being the first to be scored with twelve-tone music. Someone here – most probably producer John Houseman – must have really stuck his neck out to secure Leonard Rosenman for this project. But the gamble certainly paid dividends. This is extraordinary music of estimable quality, whether or not these compositions might have originally been intended for a film or for the concert hall. The term "classical" should be applied here in its purist sense.
A selection of music from The Cobweb was released on album a couple of years after the film’s release in tandem with a suite from Rosenman’s score for Edge Of the City, and this was reissued in Japan on LP in the Seventies – but for this first CD incarnation Film Score Golden Age Classics have seized the opportunity to provide the full score taken from the original MGM masters – including alternate versions for the End Title music - and in glorious stereo too – the previous truncated LP issues being in mono only. These extended selections – doubling the amount of music on the original commercial disc - are a wonderful revelation – and a very important milestone in the history of film composition has finally been brought to the public arena.
The suite from Edge Of The City has been transferred from the original album masters to retake its place alongside The Cobweb. Although no additional material has been made available, this was always a completely satisfying "concert" suite. The terms "dynamic" and "dramatic" seem hardly adequate vocabulary here – this is music so arresting, so cogent, so vital, that the impact of the listening experience is often akin to being boffed by a prizefighter - and "heavyweight" Rosenman has taken his gloves off too! And indeed the suite sports a musical fight sequence every bit as punchy as that in Rebel Without A Cause. But the composer is not completely "unforgiving" on this occasion – and amidst the modernistic musical mayhem there are resting some splendidly melodic motifs. Edge Of The City, starring John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier, was the first feature film to be directed Martin Ritt, and dealt with the brutal realities of dubious work practices and blind prejudice among New York dock workers – with Rosenman’s alternately feisty and reflective music perfectly complementing the film’s bruising action, gritty realism and aura of social crusading.
For anyone who holds Rosenman’s scores for East Of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause in high regard, even if they have not subscribed to many of the composer’s later works, the music for The Cobweb and Edge of the City should really be explored. These are essentially stylistic companion pieces to the two early feted scores for the James Dean movies. The cues have been transferred to CD with remarkable care. The stereo tracks for The Cobweb might have recorded yesterday, and whilst the mono sound for Edge Of The City betrays the cues’ age, the dynamics are resonant and full-bodied. And needless to say, from these producers, the accompanying bulging booklet is laden with background information on the films, the composer, a detailed track by track analysis of the music, and a legion of stills and poster artwork. The five star rating was surely invented for just this kind of important and outstanding album!