Ned Rorem, composer known for both his music and his diaries, dies at 99

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Ned Rorem, composer known for both his music and his diaries, dies at 99
Ned Rorem, a composer, at his home in New York, Oct. 18, 2018. Rorem, who was honored as a composer of beguiling music and famous for publishing revealing diaries about his life and loves, died on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 99. (Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

by Daniel Lewis

NEW YORK, NY.- Ned Rorem, who was honored as a composer of beguiling music and famous for publishing revealing diaries about his life and loves, died Friday at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 99.

Mary Marshall, a niece, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

Rorem won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1976 and for a man who had declared that “to become famous I would sign any paper,” it was both an ecstatic moment and, characteristically, an occasion for irony. The Pulitzer, he said, carried “the decree that bitterness is henceforth unbecoming. And if you die in shame and squalor, at least you die Official.”

The prize was awarded for “Air Music,” a suite commissioned for the U.S. bicentennial by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Though he wrote many other orchestral works — including his Symphony No. 3, which was given its premiere by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in 1959 — Rorem’s enduring appeal rested more on his vocal pieces.

Robert Shaw, who was America’s foremost conductor of choral music, called him the greatest art-song composer of his time. And it was a remarkably long time.

Rorem was 74 when his masterwork “Evidence of Things Not Seen” was first performed, in 1998. An eveninglong song cycle for four singers and piano, incorporating 36 poems by 24 authors, it was praised by New York magazine critic Peter G. Davis as “one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs” by any American composer.

Rorem had no use for avant-garde theories or their proponents — modern masters like Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter included. In turn, some critics found him short of original ideas and dynamism, a miniaturist unable to sustain longer pieces. Reviewing “Miss Julie,” the Rorem opera based on August Strindberg’s drama, when it was presented by New York City Opera in 1965, Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times wrote, “His melodic ideas are utterly bland, lacking in profile or distinction.”

While his compositions may have reflected a Midwestern Quaker conservatism, Rorem’s personal life was for many years a marvel of excess. One could simply cite his reckoning that he had slept with 3,000 men before settling down and let the case rest itself. But his writing about his experiences was a good deal more self-aware, funny and despairing than that claim might suggest.

He was an 18-year-old conservatory student when he met three important American composers in a single weekend: Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, who became his mentor. His recollection of that adventure appeared in one of the many essays he wrote for the Times — in this case, on the occasion of Copland’s 85th birthday. Typically, although he soon came around to treating the central subject with grace and affection, he began the story with himself:

“As a teenager at Philadelphia’s very proper Curtis Institute I would occasionally head for New York to get into mischief. One weekend, before boarding the train (I was off to see Virgil Thomson, whom I’d never met, about becoming his copyist), a schoolmate, Shirley Gabis, said, ‘Why not drop in on my old friend Lenny while you’re up there.’ I did. Accordingly Bernstein put me on to Copland — ‘Aaron likes knowing what young composers are up to’ — and I spent an afternoon bleating my tunes for the famous musician. Well, I took the job with Virgil, became an instant fan of Aaron and Lenny, and for the next 42 years with many an up and down I’ve remained staunch friends with all three men. Some weekend!”

Rorem went to Paris in 1949 and, except for two productive years in Morocco, stayed until the late 1950s. He charmed Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, a powerful patron of the arts, and was quickly welcomed into her mansion as well as her circle of friends.

“She has not only provided three pianos, sponsored concerts, clothed and fed and housed me,” he wrote, “but has been the main cause of my staying on to compose in France for so long.”

Soon he had met dozens of the great and glamorous figures of the day: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Man Ray; Jean Cocteau; composers Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud; Alice B. Toklas; and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Name-dropping is one thing. With the gossipy Rorem, it could reach the level of carpet-bombing. Beginning with “The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem,” adapted from his journals of 1951 to 1955 and published in 1966, he wrote a string of confessional books that mentioned hundreds of the famous and obscure while serving up a pastiche of explicit reports on his sex life, pieces of music criticism and charming anecdotes.

One day in Paris he visited Wanda Landowska, grande dame of the harpsichord, to show her a concertino he had written: “No sooner had I entered than she took the pins from her hair, which fell in waves to her waist. ‘Take it,’ she said. ‘Take it in handfuls and pull, pull it hard and never go tell people I wear a wig!’”

Reviewing “The Paris Diary” for the Times, Eliot Fremont-Smith was struck by Rorem’s complexity as a confessed “coward” who dared to tell all at a time when so many gay musicians and artists were closeted and as an outrageous narcissist who could nevertheless see himself as ridiculous:

“In my canary-yellow shirt,” he wrote, “my golden legs in khaki shorts, my tan sandals and orange hair, I look like a jar of honey.” But he went on: “Famous last words of Ned Rorem, crushed by a truck, gnawed by the pox, stung by wasps, in dire pain: ‘How do I look?’”

The erotic parts of the diary could be self-mocking, too. Traipsing about Europe in a state of weepy lovesickness over an Italian man, he observed, “The choice of lover is one’s own business, but if you’re Beethoven in love with a hatcheck girl, or a hatcheck girl in love with Beethoven, or Tristan, or Juliet, or Aschenbach, or the soldier on furlough, the suffering is equally intense and its expression just as banal.”

Rorem outed many a gay acquaintance over the years, and he knew the consequences. Yet in a conversation with the Times in 1987, he told the somewhat incredulous interviewer that “it never occurred to me anything you say about someone can be the wrong thing to say.”

For all his romantic entanglements and heavy drinking, the years in Paris produced much work, and he returned to the United States with his future in hand: a Guggenheim fellowship and the prospect of a succession of commissions, foundation grants and academic positions.

Back home, he turned more and more to American poets for the texts of his song. His 1963 song cycle “Poems of Love and the Rain” used the work of Emily Dickinson, Donald Windham, Jack Larson and Theodore Roethke, among others. There followed “War Scenes,” with text by Walt Whitman, and over the ensuing four decades dozens more songs and song cycles.

He also continued to write instrumental pieces large and small, including “String Symphony.” It was given its premiere by the Atlanta Symphony in 1985, and the orchestra’s recording of it won a Grammy Award for outstanding orchestral recording in 1989.

As for his other career, Rorem followed the Paris diary with an equally frank New York diary in 1967. Then his life was changed for the calmer by his union with James Holmes, an organist and composer with whom he shared his New York apartment and Nantucket, Massachusetts, house for 32 years, until Holmes’ death in 1999.

“The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-85” was more domestic than erotic. “Lies: A Diary, 1986-99” was candid and amusing as ever, but shot through with the dark thread of his partner’s terminal illness: “He is depressed. Feels he’s an albatross around my neck. Is aghast at the mounting medical bills. But he is my life. And what is money for?”

Critics generally agreed that Rorem’s writings about music — illuminating assessments of Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin, whomever he happened to be thinking about or listening to — though often overshadowed by the intimate revelations of the diaries, represented some of his best work.

He liked the Beatles, too, saying that their best songs “compare with those by composers from great eras of song: Monteverdi, Schumann, Poulenc.” He proceeded to an analysis intended to show that “genius doesn’t lie in not being derivative, but in making right choices instead of wrong ones,” citing the “increasingly disjunct” arch of “Norwegian Wood.”

Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, on Oct. 23, 1923. His father, Clarence Rufus Rorem — the family name was an Anglicized version of the Norwegian Rorhjem — was a medical economist who taught at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. His mother, Gladys Miller Rorem, was active in peace movements as a member of the Society of Friends.

When Ned was still a child the family moved to Chicago, where he took piano lessons from a teacher who introduced him to the music of Claude Debussy and Ravel. It was the start of his lifelong weakness for the French and their music.

He studied at Northwestern University’s music school for two years before going to the Curtis Institute on a scholarship, and then completed his formal training with a master’s degree from Juilliard in 1948. The next year he was off to Paris, already a Francophile and Francophone and more than willing to fall in love.

No immediate family members survive.

Well into the 21st century, when quite a few of his modernist critics had passed into irrelevance, Rorem was still going strong. Admirers turned up at concerts to help celebrate his 80th birthday, his 85th, his 90th, his 95th; the audiences looked that much older each time around, while he looked pretty much as always.

He continued to tackle ambitious projects, including a 10-song cycle, “Aftermath,” written in the months following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His chamber opera “Our Town,” based on the Thornton Wilder play and with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy, was given its premiere by the Indiana University Opera Theater in 2006. It played to good reviews at the Juilliard Opera Center in 2008 and continues to be a popular work for conservatory groups and small opera stages like Denver’s Central City Opera, where it was performed in 2013.

Over this long career, Rorem wrote hundreds of pages about music and words and the relationship between the two, about the importance of respecting the poet’s meaning and the singer’s need to enjoy singing. But his reason for writing the music itself, he said, was simple: “Because I want to hear it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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