Ned Rorem

Ned Rorem

1923 -

Words and music are inextricably linked for Ned Rorem. Time Magazine has called him "the world's best composer of art songs" (which number in the hundreds), yet his musical and literary ventures extend far beyond that specialized field.


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Photo: The Official Ned Rorem Website


Born in Richmond, Indiana, on October 23, 1923 to Quaker parents, Ned Rorem was raised in Chicago, where his father became a co-founder of Blue Cross and his mother espoused activist pacifist causes. He demonstrated an early interest in composition and piano, studying with Margaret Bonds, who introduced him to American music, and Nuta Rothschild, who awakened his Francophilia. Rorem then pursued advanced musical studies at Northwestern, the American Conservatory, Curtis, and finally at Juilliard, from which he took his master's degree in 1948. He also worked privately with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood and Virgil Thomson in New York.

In 1948 Rorem traveled to Morocco and in 1950 to Paris, where he remained for seven years, achieving international recognition and recording his experiences in a candid diary published to literary acclaim in 1966. The first of several books Rorem would publish, The Paris Diary, for all its gossip, shed valuable light on the musical and intellectual climate of the post-war era. His subsequent diaries and essays offer elegant and erudite analyses of aesthetic questions.

Since his return to the United States in 1957, Rorem has divided his time between Manhattan and Nantucket. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his suite Air Music. He has composed three symphonies, four piano concerti, an array of other orchestral works, music for numerous combinations of chamber forces, ten operas, choral works of every description, ballets, and other music for the theatre. He is the author of sixteen books, including five volumes of diaries and collections of lectures and criticism.

With more than 500 songs in his catalog, Rorem is one of the most prolific composers of the American art song. Heavily influenced by his interest in poetry, he has described the song as “a lyrical poem of moderate length set to music for single voice and piano.” In choosing texts, Rorem has the innate ability to select those of exquisite craftsmanship. While he has set the texts of British poets, including Edmund Spenser, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, he has also favored American writers such as Theodore Roethke, Paul Goodman, Kenneth Koch, and Walt Whitman. Indeed, Rorem has turned to Whitman’s writings as inspiration for a number of his compositions, including Five Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman (1957) and War Scenes, both for voice and piano (1969); Whitman Cantata for men’s chorus, brass, and timpani (1983); and Goodbye My Fancy for alto and baritone soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1988).

Sources --Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing --Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D. --Ned Rorem Web site

Time magazine dubbed Ned Rorem “the world’s best composer of art songs,” and the appellation certainly fits. There are 500 songs in Rorem’s catalog, which easily tops the efforts of nearly every other American composer (Charles Ives is perhaps the closest second, with nearly 200 songs). But Rorem’s output also includes three symphonies, four piano concertos (including one for the left hand alone), numerous choral and chamber works, ten operas, ballets, and other music for the theater. And then there are nearly twenty books, including a series of diaries and collections of lectures and criticism.

Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana on October 23, 1923. As a child he moved with his family to Chicago, where he began piano lessons. Through this early instruction, he was exposed to the music of Debussy and Ravel, which heavily influenced his craft, especially in song composition. When he was seventeen, Rorem entered the Music School of Northwestern University to study piano. In 1943, he was awarded a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied counterpoint with Rosario Scalero and Gian Carlo Menotti. Further study in composition took place at the Juilliard School in New York, where Rorem obtained his B.A. degree in 1946. In 1948 he received his M.A degree there, along with Juilliard’s George Gershwin Memorial Prize in composition. Following graduation, Rorem worked for a time as Virgil Thomson’s copyist; as compensation he received $20 per week plus orchestration lessons.

In 1949, Rorem moved to France, where he lived for almost a decade. Experiences from this time were later chronicled in The Paris Diary (1966), the first in a succession of published diaries. Although notorious for their candor, the diaries have received critical acclaim as some of the foremost examples in the English language of the contemporary diarist’s art. Rorem returned to the United States in 1958, where he held several teaching positions, including appointments at the University of Buffalo (1959-61), the University of Utah (1965-67), and the Curtis Institute (1980-86). He remained active as a composer, and in 1976 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his suite Air Music. Other honors bestowed on Rorem include a Fulbright Fellowship (1951), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968), three ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards, and an ASCAP Lifetime Achievement award (2003). In 1989, the Atlanta Symphony’s release of String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles won the Grammy Award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording.

Rorem’s songs display a wide variety of styles. They are set to a vast number of poets, and range from short miniatures to lengthy cycles. The earlier settings feature texts from different literary periods, but for songs composed after 1950, Rorem generally preferred the texts of American poets, including Walt Whitman, and, from the 20th century, Howard Moss, Paul Goodman, Theodore Roethke, and Kenneth Koch. A master at text-setting, Rorem learned early in his craft how to manipulate square phrases in the poetry, and how to make the text flow smoothly and naturally by means of syncopation, meter changes, misplaced accents, and other rhythmic devices. Equally important are his accompaniments; Rorem is a first-rate pianist and this is reflected brilliantly in his songs. Rorem’s harmonic language mirrors those of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Hindemith; his songs often include complex chords, such as seventh, ninth, and eleventh chords, which account for the “jazz” flavor found in some of the songs. In addition, Rorem is particularly fond of using contrapuntal techniques--ground bass, ostinatos, imitation, and contrary motion--in his songs.

In 1998, in celebration of Rorem’s 75th birthday, the New York Festival of Song gave the premiere performance of Rorem’s Evidence of Things Not Seen, a song cycle featuring 36 poems by 24 authors, and a repeat performance was later held at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium. In 2003, in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday, a “Roremania” festival, essentially a two-week celebration encompassing Rorem’s works in every genre, was held at the Curtis Institute of Music. And in 2006, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music presented the premiere performance of Rorem’s opera Our Town, based on the acclaimed Thornton Wilder play of the same name.

--Stephanie Poxon, Ph.D.

Songs & Song Collections BY Rorem (entered to date)

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