If there was a classical composer of the modern era whose music embodied the quiet triumph of intuitive lyricism over systemic dogma, it was Ned Rorem, who died at the age of 99. Rorem did not align himself with any school of composition, preferring to write the music he “wanted to hear” rather than at someone else’s dictate, a deeply old-fashioned stance to take in the post-war era. Rorem composed music that many others wanted to hear or perform, especially singers.
The bulk of his output comprises more than 500 art songs, of which the 95-minute cycle, Evidence of Things Not Seen (1997), for four singers and piano, featuring 36 texts by 24 different writers, is only not just his magnum opus but a compendium of the expressiveness sought by Rorem as a composer. The fourth song, The Rainbowis a fine example of his innate gift for simple lyricism that captures the essence of the text, in this case Wordsworth’s My Heart Leaps Up.
The cycle was hailed in New York magazine as “one of the most musically rich, polished, and vocally-friendly songbooks…of any American composer”. Rorem’s genius for dramatic characterization is evident in the 34th songfeaturing the poem Faith by Mark Doty.
Although stylistically Rorem followed his own star, he largely followed the line of older colleagues such as Leonard BernsteinAaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, all met by Rorem during an extraordinary and formative weekend in 1942, when he was still a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Rorem maintained lifelong friendships (and more) with all three men, becoming Thomson’s copyist in 1944 (being paid while orchestrating), and a student of Copland at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood (1946-47) , while Bernstein created the best known and most seductive of his five symphonies, the Third (1957-58).
While the bulk of Rorem’s songs were arrangements for voice with piano, the range of poets he illuminated was incredibly wide and included Edith Sitwell, Demetrios Capetanakis, Theodore Roethke, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Yeats, Whitman and two Laureates Pulitzer Prize contemporaries (for poetry): Wallace Stevens (a 1972 set accompanied by cello and piano) and James Schuyler.
His Five poems by Walt Whitman (1957) juxtapose dark dramatic music and exquisite, delicate beauty. He also created a substantial body of choral music, from one-voice songs and motets to An American Oratorio for Tenor, Chorus and Orchestra (1983), on a collection of texts by 10 19th century American writers, including Longfellow, Poe, Twain, Whitman and Melville.
Rorem also composed in a wide variety of chamber and orchestral genres: of his five symphonies, only the three for large orchestra are numbered, with the Sinfonia for winds and percussion (1957) and the Symphony for strings (1985), outside the barrel; the latter’s recording by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Shaw, won a Grammy Award in 1989.
In 1976, Rorem received the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for Aerial music (1974), a vibrant orchestral concerto in the form of 10 studies, part of a sequence of multi-movement instrumental works inspired by the natural world, which includes the suite for harp music from heaven (1976).
Given Rorem’s sense for the dramatic and the lyrical in music, it was inevitable that he would be drawn to opera. He composed eight in all, including the much-revised Miss Julie (1965, the final version of which was first staged in Manhattan in 1994) and Our Town (2005), based on Thornton Wilder’s play, are the best known; the last entered the repertoire in the United States. Rorem was also drawn – ultimately – to the most theatrical of instrumental forms, the concerto, with its dramatic contrast between soloist(s) and orchestra. He composed four for piano (1948-91, the last for the left hand only) and others for violin (1984), organ (1985), English horn (1992), flute, cello (both in 2002) and percussion (Mallet Concerto, 2003).
The latter was written for Evelyn Glennie on his stipulation that no pitchless instrument should be featured—”pitchless percussion is superfluous, even in Beethoven”, he wrote at the time of the premiere, “I am morally against all cymbal crashes, and I believes that snare drums and bongos are strictly ornamental…The four elements of music are melody, harmony, counterpoint and rhythm.Rhythm is the most dispensable.
His talent for provocative lyrics – his orchestral music had featured its fair share of cymbal bangs, after all – often with an aspect of self-derision, were characteristic of the series of journals he published from 1966 to the turn of the millennium.
His candor about the people he knew, his homosexual relations with many famous personalities (Bernstein and Thomson, the composer Samuel Barber, Noël Coward, and many others), shocked literary and musical circles in the United States, particularly its output of characters whose sexuality is paramount. the orientation was not publicly known. Rorem was surprised by the reactions, remarking to The New York Times in 1987 that “it never occurred to me that anything you say about someone could be the wrong thing to say”.
Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, the youngest child of Clarence Rufus Rorem, a Norwegian-born medical economist (the surname was an Americanized form of Rorhjem), and Gladys (née Miller), a Quaker and peace activist. The family then moved to Chicago and it was there that Rorem’s musical education – and his love of French music – began, with introductions to the music of Debussy and Ravel.
He studied with organist-composer Leo Sowerby at the American Conservatory in Chicago in 1938, before going first to Northwestern University (1940), the Curtis Institute two years later on a scholarship, and the Juilliard School. of New York, from where he obtained a master’s degree in 1948.
He traveled to Paris and Morocco the following year, settling in the French capital in 1951 (thanks in part to a Fulbright scholarship) until 1957, when a Guggenheim scholarship facilitated his return to the United States. . High-level commissions and premieres continued unabated from 1959, from Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy, the choreographer Glen Teleyand many more.
Rorem’s appointment as composer-in-residence at the University at Buffalo from 1959 to 1961 marked an uneven engagement with academia. He was professor of composition and then composer-in-residence at the University of Utah (1965-1967), and in 1980 began teaching at the Curtis Institute, where he had studied four decades earlier.
That same year, he became composer-in-residence at the Santa Fe Festival, returning several times over the next 10 years. He also appeared as a guest lecturer at many institutions, including the University of Miami in 1978, where he met and encouraged then-undergraduate Kenneth Fuchs, who recalled, “He was extremely complimentary. [about some settings of William Blake] and encouraged me to move to New York to pursue my dream of studying composition at the Juilliard School with many of the great American symphonists and avant-garde who made up the composition center at the time”. Fuchs ended up living a block away from Rorem, the start of a friendship that continued until Rorem’s death.
Rorem’s life partner from the late 1960s was organist James Holmes, who died in 1999. Rorem was outlived by all of his immediate family.