Ned Rorem (born 1923) was widely regarded as the leading American composer of art songs. He was also well known as a diarist and essayist.
Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, on October 23, 1923. He received his early music training in Chicago, where he took piano lessons and studied composition with Leo Sowerby at the American Conservatory in 1938 and 1939. He continued his studies at Northwestern University (1940-1942), the Curtis Institute (1943), and the Juilliard School of Music (1946, 1948), where he earned both Bachelor's and Master's degrees. In New York he also studied privately with Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and David Diamond. In 1949 he went to Paris to study composition with Honegger. After a short stay in Paris he lived in Morocco for two years and then returned to Paris. Under the patronage of the Vicomtesse Marie Laure de Noailles he entered the musical circles of Paris and was befriended by Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, and Jean Cocteau, among others. In 1957 he returned to the United States, where he lived primarily in New York. From 1959-1961 he was composer-in-residence at the University of Buffalo and from 1966-1967 at the University of Utah.
Awards and Recognition
After first winning recognition in 1948 for The Lordly Hudson as "the best published song of the year," he won numerous awards and prizes: the Gershwin Prize (for an orchestral work from his student days), the Lili Boulanger Award, Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, the Prix de Biarritz, and Ford Foundation grants. He received the ASCAP-Deems Tayor Award three times: in 1971 for his book Critical Affairs; in 1975 for The Final Diary; and in 1992 for an article on American Opera in Opera News. In 1976 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Air Music (1974), an orchestral work commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony.
Rorem wrote about 300 songs for solo voice with piano accompaniment (including 17 song cycles), of which over 100 are unpublished. Some of his commissions for new works include: the Ford Foundation, the Lincoln Center Foundation, The Koussevitsky Foundation, the Atlanta Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and Carnegie Hall. The Atlanta Symphony recording of the String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles, received a Grammy Award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording (1989).
The considerable variety in his output-ranging from the short humorous I Am Rose, to the devotional Cycle of Holy-Songs, to the "jazzy" Early in the Morning, to the tragicomic Visits to St. Elizabeth's—results not only from the diverse compositional elements that make up his style, but also from his wide choice of texts. For his early songs he selected poetic texts from different literary periods, but after the mid-1950s he preferred the poetry of Walt Whitman and of 20th-century American poets such as Howard Moss, Paul Goodman, Theodore Roethke, and Kenneth Koch.
His songs are essentially lyrical, and their elegance, clarity, wit, and charm betray the influence of 20th-century French music, especially that of Ravel, Poulenc, and Satie. In his vocal writing Rorem showed a keen awareness of the capabilities of the human voice, and his melodies generally lie comfortably in the range of voice for which they were written. "Write gracefully for the voice—that is, make the voice line as seen on paper have the arched flow which singers like to interpret" was one of his mottoes for song-writing. In his melodies he was also able to capture the essential mood of the text.
In his early lyrical songs the melody was supported by full-textured chromatic accompaniment, while in the later ones a greater simplicity prevails, especially in the sparser, less chromatic accompaniments. In the Whitman songs and the dramatic songs of the late 1950s the vocal lines are more angular, have greater rhythmic variety, and alternate wide leaps with repeated-note passages. The piano parts of the more dramatic songs contain sharp contrasts in dynamics and texture and are as important as the voice in delineating the text.
In general, his songs are cast in the standard song forms, but some of the song cycles are unusual in structure. In Poems of Love and the Rain (1962), a cycle of 17 songs set to texts by American poets, Rorem set the same text (eight poems) twice, but in a contrasting manner. Each poem of the first half of the cycle receives a different setting in the second half and the poems appear in reverse order in the second half. The ninth poem is the central song and is set only once. In Sun (1967), for soprano and orchestra, the eight poems are presented as one continuous movement. Rorem's harmonic language, though basically tonal, was very much of the 20th century and showed the influence of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Hindemith. He used added-tone chords, chords based on superimposed thirds, chords arranged in fourths, polychords, and parallel chords. The extensive use of seventh, ninth, and eleventh chords gives some songs a jazz flavor. Contrapuntal techniques— ostinatos, imitation, contrary motion—also play an important part in many of the songs.
Rorem's Other Compositions
Although the songs occupy a central position in his output, Rorem also wrote operas, choral music, orchestral pieces (including three symphonies), chamber music, piano music, ballets, and incidental music for plays. Like his songs, his early instrumental works were also influenced by 20th-century French composers. In his later instrumental compositions he explored coloristic possibilities and the expansion of tonality through altered chords, modality, polymodality, and tone clusters. In works of the 1960s he used modified serial techniques. After 1958 he put aside sonata form in orchestral works and wrote instead semi-programmatic tone poems, variation forms, or multi-movement pieces.
In 1993 the premiere of Rorem's Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra received international attention and praise. In 1994 the New York Philharmonic debuted Rorem's Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, a commission form for the orchestra in honor of its 150th anniversary.
In 1994 in several venues around the country there were celebrations of Rorem's 70th birthday. The New York Festival of Song presented a Rorem tribute; the New York Philharmonic premiered his Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra; Rorem accompanied soprano Angelina Reaux on piano in his seven-minute opera "Anna la Bonne;" St. Thomas Church in Manhattan presented his choral works weekly through the spring of 1994; and Robert Shaw (described as the "dean of American choral specialists) offered an overview of Rorem's choral music in Atlanta. Shaw stated that Rorem was "the most significant American song writer of the last half-century."
Rorem also enjoyed a distinguished literary career. He has authored thirteen books. As a writer he was best known for his diaries: The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem (1966), The New York Diary (1967), The Final Diary (1974), The Later Diaries of Ned Rorem, 1961-1972 (1983), and The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-1985 (1987). In these personal journals he recorded with great candor, wit, and elegance his observations of the world, people, friends, and culture and also offered a vivid and engaging portrait of himself. In a 1994 New York Times interview, Rorem (age 70) described himself as "mellowing." He stated that he lived monogamously with James Holmes for 27 years, this in contrast to his younger, "wilder" years, when he claimed to have slept with 3,000 men. In addition to the diaries, he wrote the following books: Music from Inside Out (1967), Music and People (1969), Critical Affairs: A Composer's Journal (1970), Pure Contraption (1973), An Absolute Gift (1978), Setting the Tone (1983), and Knowing When to Stop (1994). He also contributed numerous articles to periodicals and newspapers. In spite of his abundant literary works, Rorem stated that he wanted to be remembered for his music. "No newspaper article can be me," he said. "My diaries have nothing to do with me, my music may be me."
Further Reading on Ned Rorem
Rorem wrote on autobiographical memoir titled, Knowing When to Stop in 1994. He also wrote a series of essays, Settling the Score: Essays on Music in 1988. The following articles discuss Rorem and his music: J. Oestreich, "At 70, an Enfant Terrible As Elder Statesman," New York Times profile (1994); G. Anderson, "The Music of Ned Rorem," Music Journal 21 (April 1963); B. Middaugh, "The Songs of Ned Rorem: Aspects of Musical Style," National Association of Teachers of Singing Bulletin 24 (May 1968); L.G. Rickert, "Song Cycles for Baritone," National Association of Teachers of Singing Bulletin 23 (November 1967); and P. L. Miller, "The Songs of Ned Rorem," Tempo (1978). Also recommended are Virgil Thomson, American Music Since 1910 (1971) and John Gruen, The Party's Over Now (1972).