Mr. Rorem first achieved fame in his twenties as a composer of “art songs”—taut musical settings of poetry intended to be sung by classically trained vocalists, usually including an extended piece for piano that had less accompaniment than full used to be. addition to the melody.
From the beginning he had a clear understanding of what the human voice could and could not do. His melodies, though strenuous and moderately dissonant at times, were invariably linear, and the words usually came out in a natural, casual rhythm, almost like enhanced speech, easy for a listener to follow.
By the time Mr. Rorem was 40, he had written more than 400 such songs, as well as three symphonies, several one-act operas, and a great deal of chamber music, making him one of America’s most prolific composers. He won the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 1976 for “Air Music,” an orchestral suite.
But Mr. Rorem once called his song cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen” (1998) his best work. For this extensive composition, which lasts more than an hour and a half without intermission, Mr. Rorem selected 36 diverse texts, mainly poems but also fragments from sermons, magazines and autobiographies, and set them to music for soprano, mezzo and soprano, tenor, baritone and piano, with solo numbers interspersed with all kinds of ensembles.
The critic and historian of the voice Peter G. Davis, writing in New York magazine, called “Evidence” “one of the musically richest, most exquisitely formed, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard from an American composer. “
At that time, however, Mr. Rorem was at least as well known for his diaries as he was for his music. In 1966, he published “The Paris Diary,” which generated much controversy, largely because of its candid, personal account of the author’s sex life, which was both homosexual and multi-partnered at a time when neither inclination seemed an appropriate topic for conversation. .
The book, said New York writer Janet Flanner, was “worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet.”
“The Paris Diary” set the tone for the diaries that followed over the next four decades. They combined inspired cultural criticism and purple prose, delivered in an episodic, anecdotal manner and tempered with an ironic humour.
Of Norwegian descent, tall, blue-eyed, handsome movie star and gifted with tremendous personal charm, Mr. Rorem was once described by art critic John Gruen as “a mixture of debonair and calculating.”
Mr. Rorem seemed to know everyone in the cultural world – indeed, from 2000 to 2003 he was president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But acquaintances could never be sure that they would not be immortalized, for better or for worse, in one of Mr. Rorem’s books.
He wrote candidly and explicitly about his love affairs, including what he called his “four Time magazine covers” (John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, and Noel Coward). He published a memoir in 1993 entitled “Knowing When to Stop”, which led to a comment reported anonymously in the London Independent: “The problem with Ned is that he doesn’t.”
Ned Miller Rorem was born in Richmond, Ind., on October 23, 1923, to C. Rufus Rorem, a medical economist whose research helped inspire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and his wife, the former Gladys Miller, an activist with the Association from Friends.
“We were Quakers of the intellectual rather than the Puritan variety,” wrote Mr. Rorem in his second book, “The New York Diary” (1967). All his life he would describe himself as a “Quaker atheist” and find no contradiction in the statement.
He grew up in Chicago, where his first piano teacher introduced him to the music of Ravel and Debussy. At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia he studied for a year with Gian Carlo Menotti, the most popular opera composer in America at the time.
Opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti dies at the age of 95
Mr. Rorem graduated from the Juilliard School in New York in 1946, where he also received a master’s degree in 1948. To support himself in New York, he served as an assistant and copyist to the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who paid the young man $20 a week and gave him lessons in orchestration.
He also studied with composer Aaron Copland at what is now known as the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Mr. Rorem moved to Morocco in 1949 and then to Paris, where he became the protege and constant companion of Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, a wealthy patron of the arts; he lived with her until 1957, when he returned to New York, as he put it, “for publication and performance.”
He was always upfront about his aspirations: “To become famous, I would sign any paper,” he said, referring to the Faust legend.
By the time Mr. Rorem was in his mid-forties, he was an alcoholic and sometimes a quarrelsome one. His early diaries are full of self-pity and self-blame for his condition.
“The reason for drinking was to get drunk,” he told the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide in 2010. “I was never not drunk. Nobody believes it, but I was really shy. If you drink a lot, you’re less shy. Because I was cute, people paid attention to me, so I drank more than I should have. I stayed out later than I should have, and in the end I said to myself: Anyone can get drunk, but only I can write my music.”
He achieved general sobriety in the late 1960s and, after occasional relapses, took his last drink in 1973.
Although Mr. Rorem always considered himself a ‘composer who also writes, not a writer who also composes’, his diaries and other autobiographical works have reached a wider general audience. They describe both his early hyperactive love life and the long period of happy domesticity he shared with organist James Holmes, who died in 1999.
These books are full of strong opinions – he disliked the music of Beethoven (which sounded “obsolete,” he said), Berlioz, and most of his avant-garde composer colleagues, from Pierre Boulez to Philip Glass (who, he said, writing in “a musical Esperanto”).
He regularly photographed authors as diverse as William S. Burroughs (“Hype, the mask of the ungifted, was never more in evidence than on the PBS portrait of [his] charmless ego”) and Truman Capote (who “sold his talent for a stew”). Mr. Rorem also seemed compelled to share details with his readers that they probably couldn’t have missed – the precise physical location of his herpes outbreaks, for example , and how many trips he made to the bathroom each night.
Despite such private musings, Mr. Rorem was an inspirational teacher who gave masterclasses around the country and taught for many years at the Curtis Institute, where his students included Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon and opera composer Daron Hagen.
In a 2003 profile of Mr. Rorem, Hagen told the New York Times that he was once at an artist’s retreat and wrote his former teacher a letter “describing a doomed love affair, a writer’s block, gossip and all sorts of nonsense. I got this lovely little postcard back saying, ‘Dear Daron: Colette said no one expects you to be happy. Just finish your work. Love, Ned.” I hung it in my studio and went back to work.
Mr. Rorem stopped teaching in his late 70s to devote his time to his own composition. In all, he wrote 10 operas of various lengths, large oeuvres for piano and organ, all kinds of chamber music and more than 500 songs.
In addition to his diaries and memoirs, Mr. Rorem critical books, including “Music From Inside Out” (1967), “Setting the Tone” (1983), “Settling the Score” (1987) and “Other Entertainment” (1996). He also published a general collection of his letters, “Wings of Friendship” (2005), and a limited edition collection of his correspondence with the composer and novelist Paul Bowles, “Dear Paul, Dear Ned” (2007).
Mr. Rorem leaves no immediate survivors.
He told the Hartford Courant in 1993 that he was shocked to receive the Pulitzer, feeling that the “stuffy” institution of music would rather punish him for his “bad manners”.
“But it gives you a kind of authority,” he added. “My name is now always preceded by ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning composer… So if I die in a brothel, at least the obituary will read: ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem dies in brothel.’ ”