Ned Rorem, award-winning composer and author, dies aged 99

Ned Rorem, the prolific Pulitzer-winning musician known for his vast output of compositions and for his barbed and sometimes outrageous prose, died Friday (Nov. 18) at 99.



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The news was confirmed by a publicist for his longtime music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, who said he died of natural causes at his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The beautiful, energetic artist produced a catalog of thousands of works ranging from symphonies and operas to solo instrumental, chamber and vocal music, in addition to 16 books. He also contributed to the score for the film starring Al Pacino Panic in Needle Park.

Time The magazine once called Rorem “the world’s best composer of art songs”, and he was notable for his hundreds of compositions for the solo human voice. Poet and librettist JD McClatchy writes in The Paris revuedescribed him as “an untortured artist and dashing narcissist.”

His music was mostly tonal, though very modern, and Rorem did not hesitate to direct his printed words at other prominent contemporaries who espoused the dissonant avant-garde, such as Pierre Boulez.

“If Russia had Stalin and Germany had Hitler, France still has Pierre Boulez,” Rorem once wrote.

He had a basic motto for songwriting: “Write gracefully to the voice—that is, make the vocal line as seen on paper have the curved flow that singers like to interpret.”

Rorem won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1976 for his “Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra”. He never personally won a Grammy (despite three nods), but the 1989 Grammy for Outstanding Orchestral Recording went to The Atlanta Symphony for Rorem’s “String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles.”

His 1962 “Poems of Love and the Rain” is a 17-song cycle set to texts by American poets; the same text is set twice, in a contrasting way.

Born in Richmond, Indiana, Rorem was the son of C. Rufus Rorem, whose ideas in the 1930s were the basis of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance plans, who turned to Quaker philosophy and raised his son as a pacifist.

The younger Rorem attended day school at the elite University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. When he was 10, his piano teacher introduced him to Debussy and Ravel, who “changed my life forever,” said the composer, whose music was steeped in French lyricism.

He went on to study at the American Conservatory of Music in Hammond, Indiana and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, then the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York.

As a young composer in the 1950s, he lived abroad for eight years, mostly in Paris but with two years in Morocco.

Paris Diary covers his stay there and is filled with famous names of people he met – Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, Balthus, Salvador Dali, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Man Ray and James Baldwin. The late writer Janet Flanner called it “worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet.” Rorem himself said that his text was “filled with drunkenness, sex and talk of my betters.”

His literary self-portrait continued through 1985, contained in New York Diary, The later Diaries and The Nantucket Diary.

“His essays are composed like musical scores,” McClatchy once wrote of him. “The same characteristics that we listen for in Rorem’s music will be found in his essays a well: Indirection, instinctive grace, intellectual aplomb, a lyrical line.”

Some were appalled by Rorem’s infamous account of his relationship with four great men of music: Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson. He also struck out a few others.

But most of his private life centered around James Holmes, an organist and choir director, with whom he lived for three decades in New York City. Holmes died in 1999. A statement from Boosey & Hawkes said Rorem died surrounded by friends and family and is survived by six nieces and nephews and eleven great-nieces and great-nephews.

Based on his upbringing, Rorem based his The Quaker Reader — a collection of pieces for organ — on Quaker texts.

Regarding his non-musical writing, he said: “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 , if it was entered an hour later, could turn out quite differently.”

Rorem’s essays on music appear in anthologies titled Setting the tone, Music from the inside outand Music and people.

“Why do I write music?” he once asked. “Because I want to hear it – it’s as simple as that.”

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