by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 20, 2003
Ned Rorem will not go away. For decades, he has been an elegant anomaly among American composers, adhering to an austerely lyrical Franco-American style that went out of fashion sometime during the Eisenhower Administration. He came of age in the nineteen-forties, when a young composer could go to Paris, dash off a bundle of unaffectedly beautiful songs, and get written up in the weeklies alongside Norman Mailer and Montgomery Clift. Rorem was among the last American artists to pull off a plausible Parisian exile, and when he came back, in 1957, he found that composers were being hailed not for the excellence of their craft but for the extravagance of their theories. Time passed, and Rorem kept writing. The high-powered modernists who dismissed him as irrelevant became irrelevant themselves. Now he is celebrating his eightieth birthday, and, just as the man himself looks twenty years younger than he is, the music is sounding peculiarly fresh. Nothing in his thousand-work catalogue radiates genius, but the career gives off a kind of accidental grandeur—accidental because Rorem has famously disavowed the grand gesture in composition.
The oddity of Rorem’s career is that ever since he made his literary début, in 1966, with “Paris Diary,” he has been known more for his writing than for his music. The writing has an insolence and a swagger that the music lacks. The spectacular self-absorption of the diaries—“A stranger asks, ‘Are you Ned Rorem?’ I answer, ‘No,’ adding, however, that I’ve heard of and would like to meet him’”—made the young Rorem famous for being famous in his mind. He was, at the same time, a pioneer of modern gay culture, speaking freely and fearlessly of his desires. The musical essays and reviews hold up better; they may not be quite as deft as those of his mentor Virgil Thomson, but they are less often egregiously wrong. (After rereading Rorem’s superb appreciations of Benjamin Britten, I turned to Thomson on “Peter Grimes”: “not a piece of any unusual flavor or distinction.”) The “Ned Rorem Reader,” a recent compilation from Yale University Press, can stand beside Berlioz’s “Memoirs,” Debussy’s “Monsieur Croche the Dilettante-Hater,” and Morton Feldman’s “Give My Regards to Eighth Street” as one of the wisest and wittiest composer books ever published.
Rorem the composer is a more reticent being. He has his heart-on-sleeve moments, but more often he speaks in shy, gentlemanly phrases. Melancholy lurks in even the brightest corners of the music—a melancholy that has surfaced more strongly in Rorem’s recent writing, in particular his diary “Lies,” which recounts the final illness of his partner, the organist and composer James Holmes. Would we pay less attention to Rorem if he did not have such a way with words? Perhaps, but it is also possible that Rorem would never have acquired a literary reputation if he had not made his name in music first. As usual, he says it best: “I am a composer who also writes, not a writer who also composes.”
Early on, Time called Rorem “the world’s best composer of art songs.” The phrase has followed him around like a faithful puppy ever since. The songs are, indeed, among the best in the contemporary canon, showing Rorem’s uncanny ability to breathe notes into words while leaving a poet’s thoughts intact. In 1997, he produced a tour de force of his text-setting art, the cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which incorporates thirty-six poems by twenty-three poets. It takes the listener on a quietly epic journey from innocence to experience and on to solitude and extinction—essentially, the entire span of a human life. The Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia, will present the cycle on Rorem’s birthday, which falls on October 23rd; the Miller Theatre, in New York, will reprise it the following day.
The songs are a given; it’s the instrumental music that is in danger of being overlooked. In the last decade, Rorem has written three string quartets that rival any modern American efforts in the form. All are made of short movements in succession; most of Rorem’s longer instrumental pieces follow this pattern. The individual movements sound like genre studies or cast-off sketches, but they coalesce into unexpectedly gripping narratives. The Fourth Quartet, which the Emerson Quartet recently played at Zankel Hall, includes a once-in-a-lifetime movement called “Self Portrait,” in which the cello holds forth in a rambling, halting chant while the three other strings play frigid chords around it. It’s like a less innocent version of Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” a work in which solo voices ring out against a background of unchanging, oblivious strings. Here, oblivion appears to encroach on the protagonist and eventually stamp out all embers of emotion.
Rorem’s writing for orchestra is equally impressive. He capitalizes on his reputation for understatement by saving huge sonorities for significant occasions; as a result, his rare musical outbursts seem not so much theatrical as visceral, as if they were blows sustained in real time. The thirteen-minute tone poem “Eagles” unleashes a welter of sound, but the clean, treble-heavy orchestration never thumps in place or plods along; it simply lifts off, like the birds of the title. The recent Cello Concerto nods several times to favorite predecessors—pealing, dissonant fanfares recall Messiaen; a kind of slide show of contrasting chords brings back the Interview Scene in Britten’s “Billy Budd”—but it also includes three extended songs without words which could have been composed only by Rorem, each one sadder, lonelier, kindlier than the next. There are many first-rate pieces of this kind—the Third Symphony, the Violin Concerto, “Lions,” “Sunday Morning,” the Piano Concerto in Six Movements—but it is a rare day that you hear any of them in the composer’s home town of New York.
A paradox haunts Rorem’s career. He insists that he has no interest in making “Major Statements,” yet he has always longed to be taken seriously—to have major statements made about him. He has grumbled many times in print over the genuflections rendered toward an atonal showman such as Elliott Carter, who happens to be celebrating his ninety-fifth birthday this year (and looks eighty). Indeed, Carter has benefitted from a version of the intentional fallacy, according to which any music that is complex in design is automatically held to be complex in effect. Rorem’s scores seem, by comparison, modest and naïve, but this description applies only to their surface, and not to their emotional or psychological import. Rorem resembles such latter-day figurative painters as Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, who followed the onslaught of Abstract Expressionism with landscapes and still-lifes. Their deceptively conventional images conceal large, ambiguous worlds of feeling.
The recent diaries of Rorem are painful to read, not because the author is indulging the old exhibitionism but because he is exposing losses suffered by his ego. One entry shocked me: he notes that for nearly a year he heard nothing from the Beaux Arts Trio about his work “Spring Music,” which he had been commissioned to write for them. It’s one thing not to get a phone call returned—but a half-hour composition? Rorem may have a famous name, but he works down in the trenches with the thousand American composers who labor more for love than for fame, and never for money. Notably, his eightieth-birthday celebrations are unfolding not at Lincoln Center but at smaller venues like the Miller Theatre, Merkin Hall, and the 92nd Street Y and at music-loving churches such as St. Thomas and St. John the Baptist. (Likewise, Rorem’s music has tended to thrive on independent labels; among the best current releases are “Bright Music” and the three symphonies, on Naxos; “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” on New World; “Eagles,” on Albany; and “War Scenes,” on Phoenix.) If Rorem has been frozen out of the pretentious marketplace of neue Musik, he has the satisfaction of seeing his music prosper in communities for which it fills an immediate need. He is following Britten’s great injunction: “Our job is to be useful, and to the living.”
To read Rorem’s writing is to feel the agony and the bravery of composing in America. Anyone who writes music for a living is a hero, and Rorem is more heroic than most, because he has compromised so little of what he holds dear. His prose will outlast the sneering of his critics, and his music is too mysteriously sweet to die away. To him should go the final word: “The frustration of being nonexistent keeps us awake.”
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