Ned Rorem obituary | Classical music

If there were a classical composer of the modern era whose music embodied the quiet triumph of intuitive lyricism over systemic dogma, it was Ned Rorem, who has died aged 99. Rorem aligned himself with no compositional school, preferring to write the music that he “wanted to hear” rather than at someone’s else’s diktat, a deeply unfashionable stance to take in the postwar period. Rorem composed music that many others wanted to hear, or to perform, particularly singers.

The bulk of his output comprises more than 500 art songs, of which the 95-minute-long cycle, Evidence of Things Not Seen (1997), for four singers and piano, setting 36 texts by 24 different writers, is not only his magnum opus but a compendium of the expressivity Rorem sought for as a composer. The fourth song, The Rainbow, is a fine example of his innate gift for simple lyricism catching the essence of the text, in this case Wordsworth’s My Heart Leaps Up.

The cycle was hailed in New York magazine as “one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs … by any American composer.” Rorem’s genius for dramatic characterisation is evident in the 34th song, setting Mark Doty’s poem Faith.

Although stylistically Rorem followed his own star, he followed broadly in the line of older colleagues such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, all of whom Rorem met during one extraordinary and formative weekend in 1942, while he was still a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Rorem maintained lifelong friendships (and more) with all three men, becoming Thomson’s copyist in 1944 (being paid in lessons in orchestration), and a student of Copland at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood (1946-47), while Bernstein premiered the best known and most appealing of his five symphonies, the Third (1957-58).

While the bulk of Rorem’s songs were settings for voice with piano, the range of poets he illuminated was breathtakingly wide, and included Edith Sitwell, Demetrios Capetanakis, Theodore Roethke, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Yeats, Whitman, and two contemporary Pulitzer prizewinners (for poetry): Wallace Stevens (a 1972 set accompanied by cello and piano) and James Schuyler.

His Five Poems of Walt Whitman (1957) juxtapose music of dark drama and exquisite, delicate beauty. He created a substantial body of choral music, too, from single part songs and motets to An American Oratorio for tenor, chorus and orchestra (1983), on a collection of texts by 10 19th-century American writers, including Longfellow, Poe, Twain, Whitman and Melville.

Rorem composed in a wide variety of chamber and orchestra genres, too: of his five symphonies, only the three for full orchestra are numbered, with the Sinfonia for winds and percussion (1957) and the String Symphony (1985), outside the canon; the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s recording of this last-named, conducted by Robert Shaw, won a Grammy award in 1989.

In 1976, Rorem was awarded the Pulitzer prize for music, for Air Music (1974), a vibrant orchestral concerto in the form of 10 etudes, part of a sequence of multi-movement instrumental works drawing inspiration from the natural world, which includes the harp suite Sky Music (1976).

Given Rorem’s sense for the dramatic and lyric in music, it was inevitable that he would be drawn to opera. He composed eight in all, of which the much revised Miss Julie (1965, with its final version first staged in Manhattan in 1994), and Our Town (2005), based on Thornton Wilder’s play, are the best known; the latter has entered the repertoire in the US. Rorem was also drawn – eventually – to that most theatrical of instrumental forms, the concerto, with its dramatic opposition of soloist(s) and orchestra. He composed four for piano (1948-91, the last for left hand only) and others for violin (1984), organ (1985), English horn (1992), flute, cello (both 2002), and percussion (Mallet Concerto, 2003).

Ned Rorem at a performance of his work at St Thomas Church, New York, in 2003. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

This last was written for Evelyn Glennie on his stipulation that no unpitched instruments were to be featured – “non-pitched percussion is superfluous, even in Beethoven”, he wrote at the time of the premiere, “I am morally against all cymbal crashes, and feel that snares and bongos are strictly ornamental … The four elements of music are melody, harmony, counterpoint and rhythm. Rhythm is the most dispensable.”

His knack for provocative utterances – his orchestral music had featured its fair share of cymbal smashes, after all – often with a self-deprecating aspect, were characteristics of the series of diaries that he published from 1966 to the turn of the millennium.

His candour about the people he knew, his homosexual relationships with many celebrated figures (Bernstein and Thomson, the composer Samuel Barber, Noël Coward, and many others), shocked literary and musical circles in the US, especially his outing of figures whose primary sexual orientation was not publicly known. Rorem was surprised at the reactions, remarking to the New York Times in 1987 that “it never occurred to me anything you say about someone can be the wrong thing to say”.

Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, the younger child of Clarence Rufus Rorem, a medical economist of Norwegian stock (the family name was an Americanised form of Rorhjem), and Gladys (nee Miller), a Quaker and peace activist. The family later moved to Chicago and it was here that Rorem’s musical education – and his love of French music – began, with introductions to the music of Debussy and Ravel.

He studied with the organist-composer Leo Sowerby at the American Conservatory in Chicago in 1938, before moving on first to Northwestern University (1940), the Curtis Institute two years later on a scholarship, and the Juilliard School in New York, from where he graduated with a master’s in 1948.

He travelled on to Paris and Morocco the following year, settling in the French capital in 1951 (thanks partly to a Fulbright scholarship) until 1957, when a Guggenheim fellowship facilitated his return to the US. Commissions and high-profile premieres continued unabated from 1959, from Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy, the choreographer Glen Tetley, and many others.

Rorem’s appointment as composer-in-residence at Buffalo University from 1959 to 1961 signalled a patchy engagement with academia. He was professor of composition, then composer-in-residence at Utah University (1965-67) and in 1980 began teaching at the Curtis Institute, where he had been a student four decades before.

In the same year, he became composer-in-residence at the Santa Fe festival, returning several times over the next 10 years. He also appeared as guest lecturer at many institutions, including the University of Miami in 1978, where he met and gave encouragement to the then undergraduate Kenneth Fuchs, who recalled: “He was extremely complimentary [about some settings of William Blake] and encouraged me to move to New York City to pursue my dream of studying composition at the Juilliard School with several of the great American symphonists and avant-gardists who comprised the composition facility at the time”. Fuchs ended up living a block away from Rorem, the start of a friendship that continued until Rorem’s death.

Rorem’s life partner from the late 1960s onwards was the organist James Holmes, who died in 1999. Rorem outlived all of his immediate family.

Ned Rorem, composer and diarist, born 23 October 1923; died 18 November 2022

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