Centuries & Eras with Composer Laurence Rosenthal

ATM sits down with film and opera composer Laurence Rosenthal. Rosenthal comes to talk about his life, passion, and inspirations.

ATM: Express the values you picked from a 19th Century born woman such as Nadia Boulanger.

LR: She was born in the 19th century. Up to the minute she was the greatest music teacher in the 20th century all around the world. She taught a lot of other composers. She was a profound influence and a great musician. I have never met anyone who came close to her in her knowledge and inspiration. She woke me up to so many things musically that I was not aware of. It was the most important two musical years of my life that I spent in her living room. She was phenomenal. Her knowledge of the entire music literature was tremendous. She inspired me to work. She said, “You can do it.” She made you want to compose. She rarely gave extravagant praise. She would say, “Yes this is good.” Once in my very lesson with her, I brought her a piece of music, she said, “Well, what can I say. It is beautiful.” This was the only time she ever used the word. She is very famous. I think about her every single day of my life.

ATM: Describe any gender bias that might have been around women composers during this time.

LR: No. I do not think anyone knows. Until the 19th century, there were almost no women composers. She was a very famous one during the Middle Ages. She was a nun. Her name was Hildegard von Bingen. She composed beautiful music. She wrote religious music for the church. I have never encountered anyone who was prestigious against woman composers. It is a part of the whole new feminine revolution. There have been very fine performers such as singers and instrumentalists. My teacher, Nadia, her youngest sister Lily was a great composer. She died at the age of 25. She was never able to realize her capacity. It is interesting you should ask about women.

ATM: During Hildegard von Bingen in the 11th century, she was not even considered a composer. She did not even get into the canon of Sainthood until 2012. She was never recognized for her work. A lot of her work was devoted to Christianity and the church. She also was not taken seriously because people focused on her sexuality of being a lesbian.

LR: To me, this issue is completely irrelevant for them to think. Her sexual orientation could not matter any less. She was an artist. Who cares who she loved. What she gave to the world was fantastic. Even though it is 100 years later, it is still being played.  

ATM: Yes, it is irrelevant, because she was an artist. People just like now judged artists on their sexual orientation. People looked at her personal life. She joined the canon many centuries later. She fell in love with music, and she did not plan for it. Her music represented the era of music that was to come forth by women and men composers.

LR: Yes, this is right. She was an exception. I do not know of any women during this time. There was probably some. Her music is so profound.

ATM: Take me back to when your ears first heard the exquisite natures of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven’s music.

LR: I started playing the piano at three years old. My mother was a pianist, and she taught me. Right from the beginning, I was immediately introduced to Bach, Mozart, and pieces by Beethoven. My influence from these composers started at this age. I am now 92. I never lost my complete connection with it. While studying with Nadia Boulanger, she opened me up to aspects of Bach I never knew. She introduced me to great music. This was a real education for me. It was enlightenment from her. I have been completely in the classical music world all my life.

During my early teenage years, I loved Big Band Swing. I was a great fan of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. I had a great appreciation for popular music at this time. This was the Golden Age during the 20s, 30s, 40s. The American popular music was at a level, which it has never been since. It was the era of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and more. These were great songwriters. I loved their music, and I still do. I loved to play it. Whenever my friends get together, we frequently call out these wonderful old songs and sing them.

I discovered when I was first getting to composing. I had gone away to music school at 17. I had realized something. My whole nature was I needed some inspiration that had nothing to do with music. This could be a poem, play, story, place, atmosphere, or an event in history. These were the things that started to make my wheels turn. I had to sit down to write a symphony; this was difficult. To write music or a song for theatre or film, this was where I felt most natural. There is a pretty good precedent for this. Now at my old age, I have started writing operas. I have written two of them. I scored about 125 songs in my life. I thought it was enough and wanted to do something else. After coming to New York, after leaving the Air Force, I started working in the theatre writing accidental music for the dramatic plays. I love the theatre more than films. In theatre, the composers get to work with live people. Whereas, in film, it is just images on the screen.

ATM: What is the difference with how you compose for operas vs. for television and music?

LR: This is an interesting question. I discovered composing music for film and television is good preparation for writing operas. They both involve putting music to a story. The only major difference is that in opera the characters sing. The song is not in the background, but it is the foreground. I have found that it is natural to write opera because I am affected by dramatic situations. When reading a script for a film immediately, I hear notes in my head or a sound that would be right. It is the same thing when writing for an opera. The mood and atmosphere of the scene would speak to me in opera. The music can get into the actor’s head and give you a feeling of them being frightened, in love, or nervous. Also, the same in opera has to do with the character’s inner emotional structure.

ATM: With music being only five letters, it is the foreground of the world, how powerful is music to you?

LR: It is completely powerful. It is what my life is about. It is at the center of my life. I live for music. It is my joy and my greatest interest. I hardly spend one day without playing my piano. It is like food for me. It has always been this way. I have never left it. I will tell you an interesting story about my father when I was about 16 years old.

My father and I were sitting on the porch at the front of our house for a summer evening. He said, Well, Laurence have you begun to think about what you like to do with your life. I said, “Well, I find whenever I walk into a hospital, I get excited. I do not know why. Something is fascinating about the whole idea of a hospital. The whole idea of treating, curing, and helping people. I tried to think of something.”

I thought about going to medical school. My father was a businessman. He was very sensitive, but he was not an artist in any way. He said, Okay, you want to go to medical school. I will support you in every way I can. I will support you morally and financially to the best of my ability. But I’ll like to ask you a question. Do you think you will ever be happy being an amateur weekend as a musician? I was stunned. The very next week I applied to music school. I had never heard of it. Here I was proposing to be a doctor. It is the noblest profession. He talked me out of it. He knew music was my life. He could tell. I never regretted it. I am grateful for him because I might have gone off to medical school. It is okay and nothing wrong with being a doctor. I realized this was not what I wanted to be. I am a born musician and always will be.

ATM: Did America’s Great Depression in any way influence your decision making or connection to music?

LR: This is interesting. I did live through this depression. There was an atmosphere in the country. Even though I was about five or six years when it began in 1933. Mostly I remember my family was never really poor. We never suffered. I never went hungry. My father who had a business would have to keep the business open to sometimes 10 pm or 11 at night hoping customers would come in. I remember the atmosphere at home. It was not depressed, but we were aware of the fact times were hard, and money was scarce. The amazing thing was my parents never made me suffer. My piano lessons went on. They never took this from me. I never heard, “We cannot afford your piano lessons.” They could not, but they did anyway. They were like everybody. We were strapped for money. I had great parents.  They were wonderful people. They were killed in an automobile accident when I was about 33. I am sorry they missed a good part of my career.

ATM: Wait, they never got to see you score a film?

LR: Well, yes, they did. The one thing they got to see. I was very happy. They supported me all the time I was in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger. I wonder if they thought it was worth it. I got back shortly before they died. I came to New York. They came to Carnegie Hall. A composition of mine was being premiered by Leonard Bernstein. Now, I think they realized it was worth something. I had accomplished something they had been supporting all them years. This was a great event for me.

ATM: What was the progression of your native city in terms of past to present?

LR: Detroit was a real city. It was a lot different than how it is now. It was a very cultural city. They had a great orchestra and an art museum and university. I had a great piano teacher. You were able to live comfortably during these days before the 2nd World War. Everything changed because a lot of workers came from the South to work in the war plants. Suddenly there was a lot of racial tension. I never felt it. I did not live in a black neighborhood. I knew black kids who were musicians. I never experienced anything. Detroit was fine, but years later, I most certainly do not want to live there now. I have not been back there for many years. I still have cousins who live there. I have been through a lot of things. I have lived in New York for a few years. These were important years when I was getting my career going. New York was the place to be. I used to do films in New York and Europe. Then, during the 1970s the films dried up, and everything was going through LA. I had to start going out to LA to do films. I hate Los Angeles. My parents lived there.

ATM: Why?

LR: I just do not like the atmosphere. It is very materialistic. It is full of “How green is your lawn? How shiny is your car?” The film business is what I tolerated. After a while, later on, I married a wonderful woman who lived in San Francisco. From this point on, I moved from New York to San Francisco. This is a lot closer to LA. I love San Francisco; it is a great city. Now, more and more I spend more time in Europe. I built a little house in Switzerland, in the Alps of the mountains. I love it there. It is very quiet. I compose and read. I play the piano, and it is a wonderful life. I had lived in wonderful places. I am 92 now. I love being close to nature.

ATM: Which of the 88 piano keys do you tend to push on more when on the piano?

LR: You cannot really say this. “Oh, I push on the T sharp.” Every composer develops certain patterns of writing. When you listen to a piece by Beethoven or Gershwin, you can spot it. Their style is so characteristic. My kids tell me they can always spot my music because I have certain harmonies, chord progressions, and ways I bend a melody. You cannot say there is a key on the keyboard. It is the relationship with one note to another. From one chord to another. From one rhythm to another. Everyone has habits. We could not live if we did not have certain habits. We could not drive a car if we had to think about every little movement you were going to make.

Your mind does not tell you this; it becomes automatic and manual. When sitting down to compose, I think “how am I going to start this piece? Low or high? What is my mood? What is the music trying to say?” I do believe good music says something. It does not say it in words. If it said it in words, then there would not be any music. It says it in the tones. Unless music a communicate something from the composer and listener, unless you catch feeling from the music, it does not have any meaning at all. There is a lot of 2nd, 3rd, 4th-grade music, and yes, it is music, but it does not have an influence on you. But if you listen to a song or symphony by Schubert or Beethoven, oh boy it has a character that was built by a great mind and spirit.

ATM: Explain your composing behavior during the Marilyn Monroe Era.

LR: During the 1950s, I was just getting started. I got out of the Air Force in 1955. I was aware of Marilyn Monroe. I cannot say I was ever influenced by her, except sometimes when writing music for a film – then I might have written music that was related to the same era of her. I loved Marilyn Monroe. Who didn’t?

ATM: What do you see when looking in the mirror?

LR: Like anybody else. I look in the mirror and say, “You do not look bad today, or you look lousy today.”  I do not think about it very much. I do not think about 92. Everybody thinks about it more than I do. I know people say that your age is just a number. Your real age has to do with the quality of your energy. I have a lot of energy. I wake up in the morning. I go out to my studio. I start working. I do not think, “Oh you are 92 years old.” The level of energy is important. Some people are already middle-aged when they are 30. Other people never seem to get old.

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