Ned Rorem, Pulitzer-winning composer and noted diarist, dies at 99

Ned Rorem, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and the author of more than a dozen published diaries that were remarkable for their candid entrance into elite gay and artistic circles from the 1960s onward, died Nov. 18 at his home in Manhattan. He was 99.

His niece Mary Marshall confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Mr. Rorem first gained fame when he was in his 20s as a composer of “art songs” — taut musical settings of poetry that were intended to be sung by classically trained vocalists, usually including an elaborate part for piano that was less accompaniment than full complement to the melody.

From the beginning, he had a clear understanding of what the human voice could and could not do. His melodies, although strenuous at times and moderately dissonant, were invariably linear, and the words usually came out in a natural, unforced rhythm, almost as enhanced speech, easy for a listener to follow.

By the time Mr. Rorem was 40, he had written more than 400 such songs, as well as three symphonies, several one-act operas and a great deal of chamber music, making him one of America’s most prolific composers. He won the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 1976 for “Air Music,” an orchestral suite.

But Mr. Rorem once named his song cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen” (1998) as his finest work. For this massive composition, which lasts more than an hour-and-a-half without intermission, Mr. Rorem selected 36 disparate texts, mostly poems but also fragments from sermons, journals and autobiographies, and set them to music for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and piano, with solo numbers interspersed with ensembles of all kinds.

The critic and historian of the voice Peter G. Davis, writing in New York magazine, called “Evidence” “one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer.”

By this point, however, Mr. Rorem was at least as well known for his diaries as for his music. In 1966, he published “The Paris Diary,” which stirred up considerable controversy, largely because of its frank, first-person account of the author’s sex life, which was both gay and many-partnered at a time when neither proclivity was considered a fit subject for conversation.

The book, said New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, was “worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet.”

“The Paris Diary” set the tone for the diaries that followed over the next four decades. They combined inspired cultural criticism and purple prose, set down in an episodic, anecdotal manner and tempered with an ironic wit.

Of Norwegian extraction, tall, blue-eyed, movie-star handsome and gifted with enormous personal charm, Mr. Rorem was once described by arts critic John Gruen as resembling “a mixture of the debonair and the calculating.”

Mr. Rorem seemed to know everybody in the cultural world — indeed, from 2000 to 2003, he served as the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Yet acquaintances could never be sure that they would not end up immortalized, for better or worse, in one of Mr. Rorem’s books.

He wrote candidly and explicitly of his love affairs, including what he called his “four Time magazine covers” (John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein and Noel Coward). He published a memoir in 1993 entitled “Knowing When to Stop,” which prompted a comment that was reported anonymously in the London Independent: “The trouble with Ned is that he doesn’t.”

Ned Miller Rorem was born in Richmond, Ind., on Oct. 23, 1923, the son of C. Rufus Rorem, a medical economist whose research helped inspire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and his wife, the former Gladys Miller, an antiwar activist in the Society of Friends.

“We were Quakers of the intellectual rather than the puritanical variety,” Mr. Rorem wrote in his second book, “The New York Diary” (1967). Throughout his life, he would describe himself as a “Quaker atheist,” finding no contradiction in the statement.

He grew up in Chicago, where he was introduced to the music of Ravel and Debussy by his first piano teacher. At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he spent a year studying with Gian Carlo Menotti, at the time America’s most popular opera composer.

Opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti dies at 95

Mr. Rorem graduated in 1946 from the Juilliard School in New York, from which he also received a master’s degree in 1948. To support himself in New York, he served as an assistant and copyist for the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who paid the young man $20 a week and gave him lessons in orchestration.

He also studied with composer Aaron Copland at what is now known as the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass.

Mr. Rorem moved to Morocco in 1949 and then to Paris, where he became the protege and constant companion of the Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, a wealthy patron of the arts; he lived with her until 1957, after which he returned to New York, as he put it, “for publication and performance.”

He was always frank about his ambitions: “To become famous, I would sign any paper,” he said, referring to the Faust legend.

By the time Mr. Rorem was in his mid-40s, he was an alcoholic, and a sometimes disputatious one. His early diaries are full of self-pity and self-recrimination for his condition.

“The reason to drink was to get drunk,” he told the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide in 2010. “I was never not drunk. Nobody believes it, but I was really very shy. If you drink a lot, you’re less shy. Because I was cute, people paid attention to me, and so I drank more than I should have. I stayed out later than I should have. Finally, I said to myself, anyone can get drunk, but only I can write my music.”

He achieved a general sobriety in the late 1960s and, after occasional relapses, took his last drink in 1973.

Although Mr. Rorem always considered himself a “composer who also writes, not a writer who also composes,” his diaries and other autobiographical works have reached a larger general audience. They describe both his early hyperactive love life and then the long period of happy domesticity he shared with the organist James Holmes, who died in 1999.

These books are filled with strong opinions — he disliked the music of Beethoven (who sounded “outmoded,” he said), Berlioz and most of his avant-garde composer colleagues, from Pierre Boulez to Philip Glass (who wrote, he said, in “a musical Esperanto”).

He took regular potshots at authors as diverse as William S. Burroughs (“Hype, the mask of the ungifted, was never more in evidence than on the PBS portrait of [his] charmless ego”) and Truman Capote (who “sold his talent for a mess of pottage”). Mr. Rorem also seemed impelled to share with his readers details they might plausibly have done without — the precise physical location of his herpes outbreaks, for example, and just how many trips he made to the bathroom every night.

Despite such private musings, Mr. Rorem was an inspiring teacher who gave master classes throughout the country and taught for many years at the Curtis Institute, where his students included Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon and opera composer Daron Hagen.

In a 2003 profile of Mr. Rorem, Hagen told the New York Times that he was once at an artists’ retreat and wrote his former teacher a letter “that described a doomed love affair, writer’s block, gossip and all sorts of nonsense. I got this beautiful little postcard back just saying: ‘Dear Daron: Colette said no one expects you to be happy. Just get your work done. Love, Ned.’ I put it up in my studio, and I got back to work.”

Mr. Rorem stopped teaching in his late 70s to devote his time to his own composition. In all, he wrote 10 operas of various lengths, large bodies of work for piano and organ, chamber music of all kinds and more than 500 songs.

In addition to his diaries and memoirs, Mr. Rorem published books of criticism, including “Music From Inside Out” (1967), “Setting the Tone” (1983), “Settling the Score” (1987) and “Other Entertainment” (1996). He also published a general collection of his letters, “Wings of Friendship” (2005), and a limited-edition gathering of his correspondence with the composer and novelist Paul Bowles, “Dear Paul, Dear Ned” (2007).

Mr. Rorem leaves no immediate survivors.

He told the Hartford Courant in 1993 that he was shocked at receiving the Pulitzer because he felt the “stuffy” music establishment would rather punish him for his “wicked ways.”

“But it sort of gives you a certain authority,” he added. “My name is now always preceded by ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning composer … So if I die in a whorehouse, at least the obit will say, ‘Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Ned Rorem Dies in Whorehouse.’ “

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