Ned Rorem (1923-2022), who was once referred to by legendary choral maestro Robert Shaw as, “the greatest art-song composer of all time,” passed away last month at the age of 99. With an amazing globe-trotting life that took him from Chicago to Morocco, and from Paris to Manhattan, Rorem’s experiences led to a titanic output of music and literature. He was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award, and served as the President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Rorem was born in Richmond, Ind., on Oct. 23, 1923. His father, Clarence Rufus Rorem (the family name was Anglicized from the Norwegian “Rorhjem”) was a medical economist who taught at Earlham College in Richmond. The work of his father would lead to the founding of Blue Cross and Blue Shield Insurance. His mother, Gladys Miller Rorem, was active in peace movements as a member of the Quakers. At the age of 10, Rorem began taking piano lessons with Margaret Bonds in Chicago, where he was introduced to the music of Debussy and Ravel. This was the beginning of his lifelong love of French music and culture.
After studies with Gian Carlo Menotti at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and working as a copyist for Virgil Thomson while at Juilliard, Rorem moved to Paris for 8 years beginning in 1948. He would go on to study with Arthur Honegger and became a patron of Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles. She introduced him to Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, John Cocteau, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, among others.
Many of the artists and musicians that Rorem met grew quite fond of him, and would often confide in him. In one instance, he visited Wanda Landowska, a legendary harpsichordist in Paris, to show her a keyboard work he had written. “No sooner had I entered,” he wrote in his diary, “than she took the pins from her hair, which fell in waves to her waist. ‘Take it,’ she said. ‘Take it in handfuls and pull, pull it hard and never go tell people I wear a wig!’”
Rorem returned to the U.S. in 1957, where he would serve on the faculties of the University of Buffalo and the University of Utah. He became head of the composition at Curtis in 1980 and would remain there until 2003.
Rorem composed over 500 songs, using texts from Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman. He also composed three symphonies, four piano concertos, chamber music for all combinations, eight operas, choral works of all kinds, ballets, and other music for the theater. He also contributed to the score for the Al Pacino film “Panic in Needle Park.” Rorem’s composition, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” an opera-length song-cycle for four singers and piano, incorporates 36 poems and 24 authors, and is considered his masterwork.
Not only a prolific composer, Rorem also wrote several books consisting of diaries and other autobiographical works. Although Rorem always considered himself a “composer who also writes, not a writer who also composes,” his diaries and other literary titles have appealed to a larger general audience. Having been given a wealth of personal information by those who chose to confide in him, these private details often ended up in his published works—much to the chagrin of those who thought they were speaking in confidence. He wrote about everything from politics to the Beatles, declaring that their best songs, “compare with those by composers from great eras of song: Monteverdi, Schumann, Poulenc.”
Later in life, he continued to take on ambitious large-scale works. These included a 10-song cycle, “Aftermath,” written in the months following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well the 2006 chamber opera “Our Town,” based on the Thornton Wilder play and with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy.
Rorem ran in the circles with some of the most well-known American composers. For Aaron Copland’s 85th birthday, he wrote in the New York Times about his weekend encounter with Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Virgil Thomson:
“As a teenager at Philadelphia’s very proper Curtis Institute I would occasionally head for New York to get into mischief. One weekend, before boarding the train (I was off to see Virgil Thomson, whom I’d never met, about becoming his copyist), a schoolmate, Shirley Gabis, said, ‘Why not drop in on my old friend Lenny while you’re up there.’ I did. Accordingly Bernstein put me on to Copland — ‘Aaron likes knowing what young composers are up to’ — and I spent an afternoon bleating my tunes for the famous musician. Well, I took the job with Virgil, became an instant fan of Aaron and Lenny, and for the next 42 years with many an up and down I’ve remained staunch friends with all three men. Some weekend!”
Few American composers could write both words and music like Ned Rorem. His incredible output of compositions illustrated the ability to take a very small idea and develop it into a towering masterpiece. Why did Ned Rorem compose music? In his words: “Because I want to hear it.”
We are fortunate to have many of Ned Rorem’s works in the NLS Collection. Please note that all materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.
Rorem, Ned. Knowing When to Stop: A Memoir. Autobiographical account of the early years of this Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and author of published diaries. Rorem presents his life in chronological order, beginning with his Midwestern youth, followed by his New York years, and ending with his move to Europe. As he reflects on his personal life, he contemplates musical and literary style, sexual partners, friends, and influences. (DB 40193)
Rorem, Ned. Barcarolles (1949). For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM24347)
____ Cycle of Holy Songs. For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM28667)
____ My Papa’s Waltz. For medium voice and piano. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM25929)
____ Poems of Love and the Rain. Song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM25256)
____ A Quiet Afternoon: for Rosemary’s children. For solo piano in bar over bar format. (BRM28584)
____ The Silver Swan. For high voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM30521)
____ Views from the Oldest House: Suite in Six Movements. For organ in Bar over bar format. (BRM28776)
____ Visits to St. Elizabeths: Bedlam. For medium voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM25943)
____ Women’s Voices: Eleven Songs for Soprano and Piano. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM26480)
____ O You Whom I Often and Silently Come. For high voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM27322)
Our colleagues in the Music Division recently published a blog, “Ned Rorem and the Library of Congress: An Appreciation.” This contains letters and diary entries from Ned Rorem illuminating the composer’s relationship with the Music Division at the Library of Congress.
Also available from The Library of Congress, this 1996 video is an interview with Ned Rorem given by composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.