Clef Notes

Ned Rorem: In Memoriam


Composer Ned Rorem Christian Steiner

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem passed away on November 18, just a few weeks after his 99th birthday. The prolific American composer was especially renowned for his vocal works, writing over 500 art songs—more than any other American composer to date. That’s in addition to his ten operas, numerous choral works, three symphonies, four piano concertos, and a rich catalogue of chamber music.

Among the general public, he was perhaps more famous for his revealing diaries than for his compositions. Over the course of his life, he published a total of 16 books, including five volumes of diaries. In these diaries, he writes in vivid detail about his sex life as a gay man at a time when doing so could have ended his career—or worse. He spoke openly about his sexuality at a time when most gay musicians and artists were closeted, outing many of his colleagues in the process. But he never saw himself as brave or a pioneer of gay liberation, saying, “I didn’t think of myself as in any sense political or promotional. In [The Paris Diary], I was merely too lazy to pretend to be something I’m not,” and, “I am a composer, not a gay composer . . . Anyone can be gay—it’s no accomplishment—but only I can be me.”

Alongside the candid accounts of his sexual encounters and witty anecdotes about his famous acquaintances, he also wrote substantial pieces of music criticism, and his first book, The Paris Diary, sheds important light on the musical and intellectual climate of post-war Paris. He provides enlightening assessments of the composers and artists he was listening to at the time, including the Beatles, whom he believed were on a par with “composers from great eras of song: Monteverdi, Schumann, Poulenc.” His writings also provide insight into his unique ability to compose for the voice, explaining the relationship between music and words and the importance of respecting both the poet’s intention and the singer’s need to enjoy singing.

Ned Rorem was born on October 23, 1923, in Richmond, Indiana, to a family of Quaker pacifists. His family later moved to the Chicago, where he began studying piano with Margaret Bonds at the age of 10 and music theory with the “Dean of American Church Music,” Leo Sowerby, at 15. He began his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University at 17 but later transferred to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia thanks to a substantial scholarship.

While at Curtis, he would “occasionally head into New York to get into mischief.” On one such trip, he met three famous composers in one life-changing weekend: Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thompson, who would become his mentor. Rorem abandoned his studies to work as a copyist for Thompson in exchange for composition lessons. He later finished his bachelor’s at Julliard and stayed on for a master’s, which he completed in 1948. It was also during this time that he took summer classes at NYU, including an English literature course that inspired him to go out and buy his first journal.

In 1949, he travelled to Morocco and then to Paris, where he would stay until the late 1950s. In Paris, Rorem mingled with the cultural elite, including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Though these exciting years in France were marked by romantic entanglements and heavy drinking, they were highly productive for the composer. He won a Fulbright Fellowship while in France in 1951 and returned to the United States in 1957 with a Guggenheim Fellowship, offers of academic positions, and numerous commissions to his name.

His personal life became calmer to some extent in 1967 when he settled down with his partner, organist and composer James Holmes, until Holmes’s premature death in 1999. Throughout their partnership, Rorem continued to write, compose, and teach, returning to the Curtis Institute to serve on the composition faculty from 1980 to 2001.

Though Rorem’s music was never particularly “in fashion” and he never subscribed to a specific “school” of composition (forgoing the more avant-garde techniques of his contemporaries), he won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1976 for his orchestral suite Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra and a Grammy for Atlanta Symphony’s recording of his String Symphony in 1989. He continued to work well into his eighties, completing his final opera, Our Town, in 2006. But once he reached his nineties, he put down the pen, saying with his characteristic faux-hauteur, “I’ve kind of said everything I have to say, better than anyone else.” He passed away in his Manhattan home at the age of 99.

Of Rorem’s compositional output, he will be most remembered for his art songs, which critic Joshua Barone of the New York Times calls “unmatched in the American canon in their appreciation and understanding of the contours of the English language.” Even if his instrumental works have fallen in prominence, his songs remain popular among vocalists and audiences alike for their directness and friendliness to the voice.

He favored the writing of American poets, including Emily Dickinson, Donald Windham, Jack Larson, Theodore Roethke, and Kenneth Koch. Walt Whitman was a particular favorite, as evidenced by Five Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman (1957), War Scenes (1969), Whitman Cantata (1983), and Goodbye My Fancy (1988). Rorem’s songs range in scale from charming miniatures to evening-long song cycles like his master work, Evidence of Things Not Seen (1988). Scored for four singers and piano, it includes 36 poems by 24 different authors.

Rorem’s reverence for poetry is evident in the way he masterfully sets the English language. He could manipulate phrases of poetry to make the text flow organically in the context of song through syncopation, meter changes, accents, and other rhythmic devices. Harmonically, his language lies in the realm of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Hindemith, and his use of seventh, ninth, and eleventh chords lend many of his songs a “jazzy,” quintessentially American quality. At the same time, he stays true to foundational contrapuntal techniques, using ground bass, ostinato, imitation, and contrary motion in many of his piano accompaniments.

Recomended Listening

Vocal Works

Instrumental Works


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These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.