Ned Rorem



Born: October 23, 1923
"Anyone can be drunk, anyone can be in love, anyone can waste time and weep, but only I can pen my songs in the remaining years or minutes," wrote Ned Rorem. Known both as a writer and a composer, Rorem is intriguing as both a musical figure and as a personality. He is self-described as a profoundly diatonic composer and his music language betrays the influence of his French impressionist idols Debussy and Ravel. Rorem's harmonic palette is generally characterized by vertical extrapolations -- through modality, polymodality, and chordal alterations -- of an essentially tonal framework. Some works conduct innovative experiments in the song cycle form; Poems of Love and Rain, for example, sets eight different poems to music, then sets them again in reverse order to contrasting music. Many of his works juxtapose passages of harmonic and rhythmic complexity with moments of elegance and repose.

Rorem was the second of two children of Clarence Rufus Rorem, one of the founders of the Blue Cross, and Gladys Miller Rorem, a peace activist. The family soon moved to Chicago, where Rorem began studying piano and where he heard live such famous performers as Josef Hofmann, Sergey Rachmaninov, and the Ballets Russes. An early teacher exposed him to Debussy and the impressionists. Subsequent teachers taught him about American contemporary composers like Griffes and John Alden Carpenter, as well as the blues of Billie Holiday, and Rorem learned to notate the little tunes he had composed.

By the age of 16, Rorem had graduated from high school and already performed a concerto with the American Concerto Orchestra. He studied music theory with Leo Sowerby at the American Conservatory for a brief period before entering Northwestern University, where his time was largely spent absorbing a piano repertoire. In 1943, he accepted a scholarship from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he would study counterpoint with Rosario Scalero and musical-dramatic forms with Gian Carlo Menotti. After only a year there, Rorem moved to New York City, where he worked as Virgil Thomson's copyist in exchange for $20 a week plus composition lessons. Rorem also worked as rehearsal accompanist for Martha Graham and Eva Gauthier. Eventually Rorem entered Juilliard, where he completed bachelor's (1946) and master's (1948) degrees. He also studied with Aaron Copland during two summers at Tanglewood.

An award allowed Rorem to travel to France. What was intended to be a three-month visit ended up lasting 12 years. However, the first portion of his stay was largely spent in Morocco at the home of a friend, where he had the peace and quiet requisite for the 20 or so large-scale works he produced during this period. His work earned more honors, including the Lili Boulanger Award in 1950 and a Fulbright Fellowship the following year.

At this point, Rorem went on to Paris to study with Honegger. Through the influence of the Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, he entered a social circle that included Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, and Georges Auric. During this time, he also wrote several rather explicit diaries that were published a decade later to the shock and delight of many.

Rorem returned to New York in 1958 and during the next few decades held teaching positions at the University of Buffalo (1959-1960), the University of Utah (1965-1966), and the Curtis Institute (1980-1986). He still remained more of a composer than pedagogue, and is widely revered as the modern master of the art song genre. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Air Music, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and commissions from several major symphony orchestras.
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