The last few years I’ve been exploring works of the contemporary composer Ned Rorem. These thoughts are my very modest attempt at understanding and sharing his works.
Rorem was born in Richmond, IN in 1923. He lived in France from 1949-1958 and wrote about those years in The Paris Diary and The New York Diary. Among his hundreds of works are “Spring Symphony,” “Sunday Morning,” “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” “Eagles,” symphonies, concertos, chamber works, and songs. Many artists and conductors have performed his music, including Bernstein, Ormandy, Previn, mezzo Susan Graham, Itzhak Perlman, and others. Time magazine once called him “the world’s best composer of art songs,” a quote one often sees in any discussion of his music. According to his bio (http://www.nedrorem.com/bio.html) he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for “Air Music,” and also a Fulbright Fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship. Among many other honors, he won the ASCAP’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the French government named him Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.
Much of Rorem’s music is available. So far I’ve downloaded some of Rorem’s chamber music like “Book of Hours for Flute and Harp,” and also the “String Symphony,” “Sunday Morning,” “Seven Motets for the Church Year,” “Three Motets on Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins,” “Three Hymn Anthems,” the second piano concerto, and the cello concerto. I also have a CD of Susan Graham’s lovely recording of several songs.
Rorem is well known for his prose writing. The Paris Diary (1966) made Rorem “a pioneer of modern gay culture, speaking freely and fearlessly of his desires,” according to Alex Ross in his appreciative article, “The Gentleman Composer: Eighty Years of Ned Rorem” (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/20/031020crmu_music) Rorem has also written essays, a memoir called Knowing When to Stop (which ends at 1951, the year of his first published diary), and a series of diaries, two of which I love to dip into.
I discovered Rorem via a book catalog listing of Lies: A Diary (covering the years 1986-1999). The description introduced the book as a compendium of musical analysis, gossip, cultural observation, and sexual fantasies, a combination which sounded intriguing. There aren’t many of the latter (one concerns the sunglass-wearing cop who questions Janet Leigh in Psycho). But I’ve enjoyed Rorem’s many comments on music, culture, celebrities whom he knows, and the domestic life of him and his partner, organist James Holmes. The entries for 1995-1999 are heartbreaking as Rorem writes of Holmes’ decline and death from cancer and AIDS. As the introductory essay states, a diary may be among the best ways to depict the tragedy of AIDS and its slow, cruel progress.
Not long afterward, I found a copy of The Nantucket Diary, which covers the years 1973-1985. This, longer diary is also very enjoyable to dip into as Rorem similarly makes judgments and observations about the musical world, grumbles about slights and medical problems, and shares aspects of his and Holmes’ domestic relations and their lives in both New York City and Nantucket.
Here are a few representative entries—I hope I haven’t quoted too much.
“In writing vocal music I have never used special effects–no whines, shrieks, whispers, elongations, nor even world repetitions. My aim toward poetry is, I suppose, to intensify rather than to reinterpret. In a word, my music is expressivity, rather than novelty.” (ND, p. 39).
“Alcoholism, like homosexuality, is something outsiders never quite grasp. But whereas alcoholism is by all standards bad, homosexuality is not. Homosexuality is only a problem to those who make it one. Yet even during the sixties, when youth practiced tolerance in the antiwar movement, gayety was never a real part of the scene. Radical liberals have always been more queasy about sexual “deviation” than have capitalists, while tolerating, even encouraging, drugs and drink.” (ND, p. 153)
“Sopranos, like cheesecakes, are of two kinds: velvet or satin, vanilla or chocolate, silver or gold. The moist voice of Leontyne Price versus the diamond streak of Judy Collins.” (ND, p. 165)
“An artist declares: “I never repeat myself: that way lies sterile boredom,” and the public thrills: an artist never repeats himself! Well, you know and I know that they know that the declaration is pure bunk. An artist may consciously try to avoid self-imitation, yet it’s not for him to know, finally, whether in fact he succeeds…. The best of us have no more than four or five ideas during our whole life; we spend that life chiseling those ideas into various communicating shapes. that sentence states one of my four or five ideas, and I’ve said it over and over.” (ND, p. 409)
“The startling lack of charm in all of [Elliott] Carter’s music, early and late, when he himself possess so much of it. To say that his music “reflects our time” and can’t afford charm is to know all times. You who know all times, tell us: What time was ever without anguish? (Tom Prentiss in his latest letter: “Concerning repetition: E. Carter declares his dislike of it, which is just as well; we need listen to his work but once.”)” (ND, p. 443)
“Has anyone, even Britten in War Requiem, made music about war that is as harrowing as the bare bones displayed daily in newscasts? The whole question about what should and shouldn’t be set to music (and why one chooses this text and another chooses that text, and how their musical–as well as their literary–approaches differ) is settled only by the realization of the mad illegitimacy of any setting of any text.” (ND, p. 535)
“Poulenc never penned an original note: every measure can be traced to Chopin, or Mussorgsky, or Ravel, or Stravinsky, or even Faure whom he reviled. Yet every measure can be instantly identified as sheer Poulenc, by that mad touch of personal chutzpah that no critic can define” (Lies, p. 15)
“Debussy looks like Mandy Patinkin” (Lies, p. 56)
“I gave you the best years of my life.
Yes, and it’s I who made them the best years” (Lies, p. 107)
“Last night reread Letters to a Young Poet for the first time in 45 years. I never quite bought it in 1943 while a student at Curtis, and I still don’t buy it. Humorless biblical clichés about dedication and sacrifice. But Rilke was not that much older (only 27) than the Young Poet when he penned these truths, and still no doubt felt there were formulas for a good life.” (Lies, p. 134).
“The Beaux Arts Trio, for whom Spring Music was written as a gift from Carnegie Hall, have had the music for close to a year without giving a sign of its receipt, much less of whether they like it. Since the premiere is tomorrow, I swallowed my pride last week and phoned the Trio. It hadn’t occurred to them that the composer might want to hear it. Rehearsal yesterday.
“Spring Music lasts 31 1/2 minutes–seven minutes longer than I’d projected–and I’m glad: Its imminent public failure will carry more weight.” (Lies, p. 207)
“Went to Angels in America, from duty and guilt (I never go the theater anymore but am always sounding off about it), and from opportunism and curiosity (maybe Kushner will write me a libretto). Well, you can’t laugh it off, and I did sit through till the end. But nothing that long can be all good, and much of it is easily trimmed. Well-acted but unmoving, often vulgar. Not just the endless “fuck you” screams from one and all, but also the pandering to the all-too-willing audience…” (Lies, p. 255)
“I do read. The usual Simeon, including the dud Maigret et le voleur paresseux and the Balzacian masterpiece Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk. The short stories of William Maxwell, which, in their potless New Yorkerish idiom, never quite take the plunge, though they move the non-intellectual heart. To re-examine the last of Flaubert’s Trois Contes, called “Hérodias,” is to discover how much of a slave the master was to brand names, like Judaic tribes and types of precious stone; how the story, paradoxically, is high camp without humor; and how Wilde’s Salomé owes its very existence, if not its superiority, to this narrative.” (Lies, p. 336)
It occurs to me that living a very artistic and cultural life holds an analogous attraction as Thoreau’s Walden: not many of us are going to live a solitary life beside a pond, and fewer of us are going to contribute importantly to art and culture and to share time with famous people (Rorem shared a cab with John Updike and later regretted his testiness to what seemed like Updike’s foolish question about composing). But how enjoyable to imagine such a life, as one reads Rorem’s thoughts about other composers (he was friends with Barber, Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, and others), and complains about the acclaim lavished upon certain performers, while composers are treated indifferently. (In an interview, Rorem notes that “America is the only country in the whole world that is embarrassed by art. The minute art is mentioned, it becomes a conspiracy. Like Mappelthorpe and the NEA. With all of this discouragement, a composer is not even a despised parish, because in order to be despised he has to exist. A composer doesn’t even exist in the ken of the intellectual public. The irony is that there are more young composers around than there ever were before.” Quoted from: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/distler/rorem-interview.php)
In the earlier quoted article, Alex Ross notes that “Rorem was among the last American artists to pull of a plausible Parisian exile, and when he came back, in 1957, he found that composers were being hailed not for the excellence of their craft but for the extravagance of their theories. Time passed, and Rorem kept writing. The high-powered modernists who dismissed him as irrelevant became irrelevant themselves.”
Ross continues: “A paradox haunts Rorem’s career. He insists that he has no interest in making “Major Statements,” yet he has always longed to be taken seriously—to have major statements made about him. He has grumbled many times in print over the genuflections rendered toward an atonal showman such as Elliott Carter…Indeed, Carter has benefited from a version of the intentional fallacy, according to which any music that is complex in design is automatically held to be complex in effect. Rorem’s scores seem, by comparison, modest and naïve, but this description applies only to their surface, and not to their emotional or psychological import. Rorem resembles such latter-day figurative painters as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, who followed the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism with landscapes and still-lifes. Their deceptively conventional images conceal large, ambiguous worlds of feeling…. ”
Ross concludes,”To read Rorem’s writing is to feel the agony and the bravery of composing in America. Anyone who writes music for a living is a hero, and Rorem is more heroic than most, because he has compromised so little of what he holds dear. His prose will outlast the sneering of his critics, and his music is too mysteriously sweet to die away.” (New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/20/031020crmu_music)
After reading Rorem’s many expressions of appreciation of and love for Holmes—and his inability to comprehend how he could live without Holmes’ companionship and practical skills—I feel sad (for what it’s worth) that Rorem has had to live without him for twelve years. (Holmes died in January 1999, aged 59.) I plan soon to order Rorem’s more recent writings. A quick survey of the internet reveals recent performances of his works, for instance the new Hudson Chorale.
The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-1985, by Ned Rorem. North Point Press, 1987.
Lies: A Diary, 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem. Da Capo Press, 2002.