Skip to content

Chicago Classical Evaluation » » Remembering the famend American composer and diarist Ned Rorem

Composer Ned Rorem died November 18 in New York.

Information of the passing of Ned Rorem—the prolific American composer and famed diarist who died at age 99 at his house on the Higher West Facet of New York on November 18—despatched me again to our first assembly.

It was a steamy summer time day in Ohio, in 1976, solely weeks after he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music—the very best award a classical musician can obtain—for his orchestral suite AirMusic.

I used to be then in my fifth yr as music and dance critic of the Akron Beacon Journal. I had organized to talk to Rorem for a profile I used to be writing for the newspaper’s Sunday journal. He had come to city for the premiere of his track cycle Serenade on 5 English Poems, a fee for the American Bicentennial, like airmusic.

There he was—tall, blue-eyed, matinee-idol good-looking at 52—a distinguished American man of music and letters who had as soon as traveled in essentially the most soigné Parisian creative circles with a few of Europe’s most distinguished cultural figures, sitting down for an interview over a cheeseburger and fries at a diner in downtown Akron.

No person walked over to the sales space to ask Rorem for his autograph, as they’d be a soccer hero who had simply been awarded the Heisman Trophy. In truth no person appeared to acknowledge him in any respect. One in all America’s foremost composers was simply one other buyer grabbing a fast chunk.

Rorem got here throughout as an artist of disarming candor, fierce intelligence, urbane wit and, above all, monumental private appeal. We hit it off instantly and, regardless of the skilled boundaries that separate artistic artists and critics, grew to become buddies.

By the point of our first encounter, he had written a whole lot of artwork songs, the style on which his status as a composer mainly rests to today, together with a raft of orchestral, instrumental, choral and chamber music.

A decade had handed because the publication of The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem (1966), the primary in a protracted collection of candid, revealing, compulsively readable Rorem journals, scandalized the literary world with its indiscreet accounting of the younger composer’s carnal exploits within the Metropolis of Lights throughout the ’50s.

His openness about his homosexuality the truth is made him a hero for the pre-Stonewall homosexual motion as among the many first well-known artists to come back out of the closet, with out fuss or fanfare.

Following my transfer to the Chicago Tribune, Rorem and I saved in contact, on and off, for some 25 years. We had been certain by mutual respect, a predilection for naughty gossip and a form of journalistic synergy: I gave him media publicity, he gave me good copy.

I used to be amongst his company at just a few soirees he hosted within the tidy, art-filled Manhattan condo he shared for 32 years along with his companion, James Holmes, an organist and choir director, who died in 1999. Rorem loved holding courtroom and he did so like a latter-day Gertrude Stein, dishing out wit, knowledge and ads for himself with equal elan.

You by no means fairly knew whether or not you’d get lofty pronouncements about The State of Issues Cultural, recitations of his well being woes or grumblings about mundane home issues. (Or all three.) As soon as, over natural tea and raspberry tarts, he complained at size concerning the “racket” emanating from an enormous air con unit atop a constructing adjoining to his residence on West seventieth Avenue. He stated he had “bitched up a storm” concerning the noise to the unit’s proprietor, Itzhak Perlman, to no avail.

We additionally met when native performances of his items introduced him again to his beloved Chicago.

Chicago was the culturally alluring metropolis the place the Midwest-Quaker-reared native of Richmond, Ind., had grown up, the place his first piano trainer launched him to the music of Debussy and Ravel, and the place, at age 9, he wrote his first songs. Each return to town was a sentimental homecoming—an event to rekindle outdated friendships, to mirror on what first impressed him to set music and phrases to paper.

Ned Rorem wrote greater than 500 artwork songs all through his profession.

Regardless of Rorem’s many successes, notably these within the post-Pulitzer chapter of his profession, and the worldwide fame he got here to attain, his self-admitted inferiority complicated made him ever distrustful of a musical institution that had lengthy handled his elegantly lyrical, neo- romantic music with malign neglect.

That music, whereas peppered with delicate dissonances and generally pungent chromaticism, is couched in an accessible idiom that remained basically unchanged from the day when Rorem and different tonal composers pitted themselves towards the atonal hard-liners of the Boulez-Carter brigade—the “serial.” killers,” as he famously referred to as them—who dominated classical music composition within the postwar many years.

He paid shut thoughts to what was written about his music, all of the whereas pretending indifference to evaluations. At any time when he knew of my having lined a efficiency of one in every of his works by him, I’d virtually invariably obtain a handwritten postcard of implicit thanks, signed “Eternally, Ned”.

Rorem at all times thought of himself “a composer who additionally writes, not a author who additionally composes.” Even so, the 15 diaries and books of important essays he revealed over the course of roughly three many years introduced him to a bigger viewers than his music.

Dip down anyplace in these volumes—crammed with trenchant cultural criticism, philosophical musings, entertaining anecdotes and depraved wit—and you’re sure to search out selection aperçus and pithy observations. For instance:

“The twelve-toners behave as if music needs to be seen and never heard.”

“With Debussy you get what you pay for. With Mahler you get greater than you pay for.”

“Twyla Tharp’s rag-doll, loose-limbed choreography is all about appeal, whereas she herself has none. Conversely, Elliott Carter, the person, drips with appeal, whereas his work by him has none.”

But it was within the medium of artwork track, of which Rorem wrote greater than 500, that he excelled, to an extent no different American composer has equaled or surpassed, both in amount or high quality.

In a latest tribute, a New York Occasions critic wrote that “you’d be hard-pressed to search out greatness in Mr. Rorem’s huge oeuvre.”

I couldn’t disagree extra strongly.

Begin with any variety of his artwork songs, such because the early items “Early One Morning,” “The Lordly Hudson” and “Little Elegy,” exquisitely crafted miniatures that seduce the ear with their elegant lyrical magnificence. Rorem’s melodies, with their swish linear movement, flip phrases into enhanced speech.

From there, flip to later masterpieces akin to Proof of Issues Not Seen (1998), his magnum opus, an evening-length track cycle for 4 voices and piano that pulls on 36 disparate texts to create a wondrous vocal tapestry.

Rorem the Quaker pacifist rears his head within the highly effective declamation of the cycle Warfare Scenes (1969), 5 settings of excerpts from the Civil Warfare diaries of Walt Whitman, devoted to the casualties of the Vietnam Warfare.

There are additionally gems in Rorem’s orchestral output, akin to his String Symphony (1985), sunday morning (1977) and Third Symphony (1958)—clear, well-honed, eminently accessible translations of his vocal idiom right into a large-scale symphonic framework.

Nor ought to one neglect such prime instrumental works because the Piano Sonata No. 2 (1950), totally French in sensibility, and the Concerto for Piano Left Hand (1991), a positively wrought showpiece that takes up the place Ravel left off 60 years earlier.

The final time I spoke with Ned Rorem was by telephone in 2002, on the eve of the world premiere, at Ravinia, of his track cycle, Aftermath, a track cycle for baritone, violin, cello and piano with texts (spanning Shakespeare to Randall Jarrell), impressed by the terrorist assaults of 9/11. It stays one in every of his most private and deeply felt works by him, summing up the “quizzical melancholy” that appeared to eat him within the winter of his life.

However even when American music’s onetime enfant terrible-turned-elder statesman was sifting via the tea leaves of his mortality–questioning how a lot time he had left (truly he had 20 extra years)–he discovered room for usually quotable hyperbole.

“I believe American society has obtained ten extra years to go, after which we’re gonna blow ourselves up,” Rorem lamented. “If we do not, we will probably be one large mediocre household consuming at McDonald’s…”

Or at a greasy spoon in Akron.

Posted in Articles


Go away a Remark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *