The American Ned Rorem would have liked it that he would die on the centenary of Marcel Proust’s death, aged 99. Rorem once stressed that he was a composer who also wrote, and no writer who also composed; but it was his very candid Parisian diaries that caused a stir in the 1960s and earned him a reputation among a wide audience. Rorem passed away Friday at his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He and his life partner, the organist James Holmes (1939-1999), were together for more than thirty years.
The diaries – Rorem has published more than ten since 1966 – form his ‘self-portrait as an untormented artist and elegant narcissist’, thus The Paris Review in 1999. Unlike Proust, Rorem was not secretive about his sexual orientation. His elegantly written notes are full of unvarnished descriptions of affairs with composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson and writers such as Noël Coward, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. The suggestion that there was ‘star-fucking’ Rorem conceded The Paris Review of the hand: “Of the 3,000 people I slept with between 1938 and 1968, only four were famous…I can’t sleep with celebrities, it’s a clash of egos.”
But the diaries were about much more than intimate confessions: Rorem, also an essayist, wrote sharply about his art and that of others, targeting many a figurehead. His compatriot and colleague Elliott Carter (who lived to be even older than he was: 103) was a favorite target, as were minimal composer Philip Glass and avant-garde leader Pierre Boulez: “Just as Russia had Stalin and Germany had Hitler, France still has always Pierre Boulez”, wrote anti-modernist Rorem.
Long before the juicy diaries colored Rorem’s public image, he achieved fame as a composer. He was born in Indiana in 1923 and grew up in Chicago, in an environment of culturally interested Quakers. Immediately after the Second World War he studied at the Juilliard School in New York and in 1949 he left for France, where he stayed for eight years and moved in circles of artists and society figures who had known Proust: the waning days of a frivolous old world with which the handsome, ever-groomed Rorem felt related.
He wrote operas, symphonies and chamber music and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his orchestral suite Airmusic. But the center of gravity of Rorem’s legacy rests in the gigantic corpus of songs he leaves behind: there seem to be five hundred, a number that rivals Schubert – even though he died at the age of thirty-one. Rorem himself considered the giant song cycle Evidence of things not seen (1998), on an eclectic collection of poems, sermons and other texts, as his best work. NRC once characterized him as ‘an impulsive composer with a great sense of color nuances and effect’.
Last summer, during the Grachtenfestival, his song cycle was still on Four Dialogues (1954), but in general Rorem’s music is rarely heard here anymore. Twenty years ago Rorem composed his Cello Concerto, a collection of eight miniatures, also commissioned by the Residentieorkest. At its premiere in 2003, it found no favor with the NRC reviewer, who called the composer a “French-oriented American”: “butterfly-light music that just flutters around, without any development or purpose… The instrumentation is transparent and the David Geringa’s tasteful cello solo recalls Rorem’s reputation as a renowned song composer. But eight of those little things placed in a row will eventually become objectionable.”
Read also: The sexual mobility of Marcel Proust