(Sixth in a series.)

By Denis Whitaker 

“I conceive all music…vocally.
Whatever my music is written for—
tuba, tambourine, tubular bells—
it is always the singer within me crying to get out.”  

“Arguably no artist grows up: if he sheds the perceptions of childhood he ceases being an artist.”
Ned Rorem

“If you want to know how much I love Lenny,
listen to my songs.”
—Ned Rorem, speaking about his friend
on Medal Day at the MacDowell Colony, 1987.

Ned Rorem

Ned Rorem

Larissa MacFarqujar interviewed Ned Rorem for The New Yorker in August, 2005.
It can’t be improved upon, so I’m lifting it whole:

“As a young composer, Rorem was famous for his beauty. When he lived in Paris, in the nineteen-fifties, he knew everybody—Cocteau, Picasso, Nadia Boulanger. No one could resist him. He boasted that he had slept with four Time covers: Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Noël Coward, and John Cheever. These early conquests furnished the material for the first of his six published diaries, written in his arch, baroque prose (in the letters, “Swarthy James of the cranberry triceps” is a characteristic salutation). Inevitably, then, the passing of his youth was painful. “Now when entering a bar . . . no head turns,” he wrote in a long, unsent letter to Claude Lebon, a musical dentist who broke his heart in 1956. “To think: just two days ago I was always the youngest at parties….  I’ve no more time to lose with those who don’t pay me court.”

Well then…

It’s good to report that Rorem, born in 1923, is still with us at age 94. His musical output is considerable: three symphonies (the third of which was premiered by Bernstein and the NY Phil in 1959), a dozen concertos, two full-length operas, many other orchestral and chamber works, and dozens of wonderful songs. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1976, and the ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. And yet today his place in music rests mainly on his deserved reputation as the foremost composer of American art songs. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham released an album of his songs, written for her; and Thomas Hampson, Brian Azawa, and Judy Collins have recorded his songs. A few years ago, Festival Opera, in Walnut Creek, presented his opera, Our Town, based on Thornton Wilder’s play, which was first produced in 2005, when its composer was 81.

He is, if anything, even more famous—maybe notorious is a better word—for his frank and provocative diaries, which spare no details, and shed light on what it was like to be as out as you could be in the 1950s, when being gay was, after all, illegal almost everywhere. (Of course he spent years living in Paris! The French just don’t care about that sort of thing.) The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem was the first of the diaries. When it came out in 1966 it caused quite the scandal. Besides five more volumes of diaries, he has also published well-respected books of music criticism.

When Lenny won the MacDowell Medal in 1987 he chose his old friend (and lover), to deliver the address. Rorem said then, “… what really matters in music is that which can’t be imparted except through itself; even the composer isn’t always clear about how he makes things tick. Anyone can learn to write a perfect piece, but not how to make that piece breath and bleed. Bernstein’s pieces bleed and breath. Expressivity is their goal, simplicity their device.”

Paul Monette’s grave market, Forest Lawn Cemetery, Hollywood

Paul Monette’s grave market,
Forest Lawn Cemetery, Hollywood

In 1988, in the depths of the AIDS crisis, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus commissioned Rorem to write a piece for them. The words are from the gay poet and writer Paul Monette; the first poem from his collection, Love Alone, Eighteen Elegies for Rog. He wrote: “Roger Horowitz, my beloved friend, died on 22 October 1986, after nineteen months of fighting the ravages of AIDS. He was forty-four years old, and the happiest man I ever knew.” The overall title comes from Millay’s verses:

…many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

Monette himself died from AIDS in 1995.

The Oakland-East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus first performed “Love Alone” many years ago, and we’re proud to offer it up again, to remember and grieve for all those we have lost.

“Inspiration can be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced.”
­­ Ned Rorem