Ned Rorem and the Library of Congress: An Appreciation

The following is a guest post by Music Division Specialist Loras John Schissel who has compiled letters and diary entries from Ned Rorem illuminating the composer’s relationship with the Music Division at the Library of Congress.

Look not to things that are seen, but to that which is unseen;
for things that are seen pass away; but that which is unseen is forever.
2 Corinthians 4:18

It is at once by poetry and through poetry, by music and through music,
that the soul divines what splendors shine behind the tomb.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Poetic Principle

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

–Texts selected by Ned Rorem as a preludium to his program notes for
Evidence of Things Not Seen, co-commissioned by the New York Festival of Song and
the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust in the Music Division of the Library of Congress.

We take this opportunity, upon the passing of the distinguished American composer and author Ned Rorem, to survey materials documenting the seventy-year history of collaborations and commissions between Mr. Rorem and the Music Division of the Library of Congress.

Ned Rorem’s music was first presented in a concert at the Library of Congress on November 28, 1952, when the Hufstader Singers gave the premier performance of From an Unknown Past (a cycle of songs for unaccompanied chorus, 1951) under the auspices of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. In a letter to Dr. Harold Spivacke, chief of the Music Division, Rorem supplied his hand-written texts for these songs for inclusion in the printed program.

Handwritten letter, stamped as recieved by the Library of Congress

Ned Rorem to Harold Spivacke, November 12, 1952. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation File, Music Division.

Printed program

Program for performance by Hufstader Singers at the Library of Congress, November 28, 1952.

December 3, 1952

Dear Mr. Rorem,

              Thank you very much for your telegram. We missed you at the concert but enjoyed your work very much. The Coolidge Foundation would like to present you with a recording of the performance so that you might hear it. In accordance with Dr. Rorem*, we are making the copies on 12 inch at 78 R.P.M.

Sincerely yours,

Harold Spivacke

Chief, Music Division, Library of Congress

*C. Rufus Rorem, a distinguished medical economist and Ned Rorem’s father.

–Music Division Old Correspondence

—————————————————————————————————————–

In 1965, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress commissioned Rorem to compose Letters from Paris (on texts by Janet Flanner for mixed voices and small orchestra).

Prior to a 1978 performance at the Library of Congress, Rorem wrote to Music Division chief Donald L. Leavitt.

Typed letter

Ned Rorem to Donald L. Leavitt, August 19, 1978.  Serge Koussevitzky Fund File, Music Division.

In 1972, Dr. Spivacke offered Rorem a commission under the auspices of the division’s McKim Fund for a work for violin and piano. The resultant piece was Night Music. Dr. Spivacke closed his letter saying:

“I hope that you will find the terms of this commission satisfactory and will agree to accept it. If you do, I know that you will produce a beautiful piece of music, and I look forward to the pleasure of hearing it.”

McKim Fund Collection, Music Division

—————————————————————————————————————–

January 15, 1980

Dear Ned:

Happy New Year to you, too. I am glad the tapes were finally made, that you received them, and most of all, that they pleased you. I like The Nantucket Songs in every way and am proud, both personally and for the Library, of our association with them and with their creator.

Sincerely,

Donald L.  Leavitt

Chief, Music Division, Library of Congress

-Music Division Old Correspondence

—————————————————————————————————————–

From Ned Rorem’s liner notes for the release of the commercial recording of the first performance of The Nantucket Songs. Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano, the composer at the piano.

The Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation [in the Library of Congress] commissioned me to write a group of songs, stipulating that I must be the pianist not only for the premiere but for an entire vocal program with any singer I wished, within reason. I asked for Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who (being reasonable) accepted. Thus with her talents continually in mind I withdrew to the Island of Nantucket where, since 1974, I have owned a house, and where, between November 1978 and May 1979, I completed The Nantucket Songs. A subtitle might be “Popular Songs,” insofar as popular means entertaining rather than classically indirect.  Indeed, these songs—merry or complex and strange though their texts may seem—-aim away from the head and toward the diaphragm. They are, as collegians say, emotional rather than intellectual, and need not be understood to be enjoyed.

The first rendition of The Nantucket Songs occurred in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, October 30, 1979.

Nothing a composer can say about his music is more pointed than the music itself. But here is a final thought: “the performance of The Nantucket Songs, during which Phyllis Bryn-Julson and I, unbeknownst to each other, both had fevers of 102 degrees, is by definition live and unedited.”

-Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation File, Music Division

Rorem wrote in a post-concert note to Donald L. Leavitt:

“It already seems so long ago! I was truly pleased with it all—your graciousness, the great piano, and the reviews.

If only we could do this every month!

Fondly,

Ned

-December 4, 1979, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation File, Music Division

—————————————————————————————————————–

For years I’ve wanted to compose a work called Art of the Song, an evening-long work of 24 pieces for solo voices and piano, on poetry in English by various authors, ranging from birth to death. Contained would be eight solos, six duets, six trios, and four quartets. Who would commission such a piece, and who would perform it where?

-Diary entry, December 7, 1995, Ned Rorem Collection, Music Division

—————————————————————————————————————–

Evidence of Things Not Seen— Commissioned by the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust in the Library of Congress.

At the Library of Congress, the presentation of Evidence, one hundred minutes without pause, was the best performance I’ve ever had. Each of the four voices, Monique McDonald, Delores Ziegler, Rufus Muller, Kurt Ollmann, and pianists Stephen Blier and Michael Barrett, were without ego, inhabiting the texts with emphatic conviction. During these minutes my bodily anxieties were suspended, and the music was engrossing as though by another composer. I wept— and I never weep, at my own or anyone’s music. (“Is weeping French or German?”  asks Michael later.  German, of course.) To my honor, Rosemary [Marshall, Rorem’s sister] and three generations of her family came, Sylvia [Goldstein of music publisher Boosey and Hawkes], Marie Arana, Eugene and Martita [Istomin], Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and Mattiwilda Dobbs.

-Diary entry April 20, 1998, Ned Rorem Collection, Music Division

—————————————————————————————————————–

My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer’s present mood which, were it inscribed an hour later, could emerge, quite otherwise. I don’t believe that composers notate their moods, they don’t tell the music where to go- it leads them. . .Why do I write music?  Because I want to hear it- it’s simple as that. Others may have more talent, more sense of duty. But I compose just from necessity, and no one else is making what I need.

-Ned Rorem from Music from Inside Out (1967)

Thank you Ned Rorem for your music. Thank you Ned Rorem for your words. Thank you Ned Rorem for the many years of pleasant and fruitful collaborations with the Music Division at the Library of Congress. Thank you for a life well-lived.

Black-and-white photograph of head and shoulders portraid

William Claxton, photographer. Ned Rorem, circa 1955. Music Division Iconography File.

A Fragmented History in the Giant Bible of Mainz

In the following guest post, Music Division Archives Processing Technician Dr. Rachel McNellis investigates a musical connection within the recently digitized Giant Bible of Mainz from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. On April 4, 1952, Lessing J. Rosenwald donated an exquisite treasure to the Library of Congress: the Giant Bible of Mainz. The […]

Concerts from the Library of Congress Announces Fall 2022 Concert Series

It feels great to be able to announce the full return of Concerts from the Library of Congress to the Coolidge Auditorium! We have a wonderful series planned for you this year, to be revealed in two parts. You can read the press release for the fall segment here. While we will continue to have […]