In Life and Music, Ned Rorem Was Unwaveringly Himself

Several years ago, during one in a series of visits I made to Ned Rorem’s apartment, he said with his trademark lightness that it would be “kind of cute” to make it to 100 years old.

This composer, diarist and reluctant pioneer of gay liberation was nearing 95 at the time, and had me convinced that he would live at least another five more. Rorem has always looked young for his age, and longevity runs in his family. Scandinavian genes, he liked to say. His memory had declined, and his wit — perhaps his greatest gift — was more sanded down than sharp.

Still, he was in good health — enough, perhaps, to witness his centennial year in 2023. Which he nearly did; Rorem turned 99 last month, but died on Friday.

Occasionally, when I would mention to someone that I was planning to stop by Rorem’s apartment — a relic of the Upper West Side’s middle-class past, with a generously sprawling layout at 70th Street and Central Park West — I would hear a reply along the lines of, “He’s alive?” If he was talked about at all, it was as distant history: as a fixture of the post-World War II Parisian arts scene; as an unabashed and brazenly open gay man in a time when that could end a career; as a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music, nearly 50 years ago.

“Yes, he’s very much alive,” I would say. That might have been an overstatement. Rorem’s twilight, like that of his peers, was a modest and quiet one. His niece Mary Marshall was his soft-spoken yet proud caregiver. Together, they would go for brief walks in Central Park and do the New York Times crossword puzzle; she would refill his cups of ginger ale and, especially on his birthdays, repeatedly remind him of his age and name.

Sometimes, he would play the piano, mostly his own compositions. The instrument was covered in stacks of scores, which also accumulated nearby with a collection of boxes bound for the Library of Congress, where his archive is held. The informal price of admission to this space was cookies, Rorem’s favorite snack; when feeling extravagant, I would stop at Magnolia or Levain bakeries on the way. It never seemed like enough, because to enter his salon was to take an invaluable leap back in time. Here, you could hear dishy stories about legends like Bernstein and Poulenc, or get feedback from a living composer on music written in the 1940s. The walls were a museum of portraits of him by the likes of Dora Maar and Jean Cocteau, alongside works by Degas and Klimt.

The art collection came from Rorem’s time in Paris, where he lived throughout most of the 1950s, taken care of by the Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles. He hobnobbed with Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Dalí and more luminaries of the day. He wrote music with an American heart but a French sensibility; it belonged to no particular school of thought or trend, but was simply what Rorem wanted to say. On his way out of Paris, he once told me, he took a score from the vicomtesse: a copy of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Der Jasager,” with an inscription by Weill. Rorem would later write his own English translation under Brecht’s text, casually creating a performance edition for his students that I read in his living room; it’s begging to be published today.

He had charmed the vicomtesse just as he had charmed everyone else — with gleeful self-awareness. Youthful and disarmingly handsome, he ingratiated himself with the leading American composers of mid-20th century, particularly the gay ones: Bernstein, Copland, Barber, Virgil Thomson. It’s this confidence that makes his diaries such a pleasure to read; first came the Paris and New York volumes, which cover 1951-61, and they continued over several more installments, up to 2005.

These books are unusually candid, whether about his prolific sex life (later replaced by routine masturbation) and recurring anxieties. In “Lies: A Diary,” from 1986 to ’99, the AIDS crisis is peripheral then personal; the death of his partner, the organist James Holmes, from the disease is documented in almost unbearably incremental detail.

As a body of work, the diaries are spiritual cousins of and precursors to novels by Edmund White, with their undisguised sexuality, and Andrew Holleran, with their uniquely gay wit. They came not long after books like Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar,” Truman Capote’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms” and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” — literature catered to a straight audience, and teeming with shame.

Rorem refused to connect himself to that lineage, over the years and in conversations with me. “I’m not a propagandist,” he once said. “I just wrote about it because, so what? I didn’t understand why anybody, including my parents, was particularly impressed.” It was here, not for the first time, that I found myself disagreeing with him. The diaries don’t have the political fervor to be a keystone of gay liberation, but they provided crucial support for it nevertheless.

I also often found myself furrowing my brow whenever Rorem would talk about his own music. Artists, like the clarinetist Thomas Piercy and the pianist Carolyn Enger, would stop by his apartment — with a treat, of course — to play his works. Mostly, Rorem would encourage them to play the score as directly as possible, to not interpret it. But that’s the core of performance, and of revelation.

Then again, Rorem didn’t seem to care about having the right opinion, or the “right” style. His music has never been in fashion, and may never be — he was open about not aspiring to be a Beethoven — but it rewards those who seek it out. “Air Music,” for which he won the Pulitzer, is a work of impressive craft and allure, though I am partial to the piano pieces: the sparking Toccata from his First Sonata, and the sweet miniatures he wrote for loved ones, collected in the Piano Albums.

His legacy will almost certainly be in his art songs, which are unmatched in the American canon in their appreciation and understanding of the contours of the English language. (Rorem also wrote two operas, the second of which, a 2006 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” is a tastefully restrained echo of the play’s text that has found a home on smaller stages but deserves bigger ones.) After I wrote a profile of Rorem for his 95th birthday, a young composer said on Twitter that there wasn’t a better song than “The Lordly Hudson.” Schubert’s lieder will always reign supreme, but it’s hard to disagree.

Especially in conservatories, Rorem’s songs thrived, even as his profile waned. His friends and peers were gone; “I wish everyone would stop dying,” he told me. He stopped writing, both scores and prose. In conversation, he would repeat some of the more comically extreme opinions that course through his books, like the belief that everything in the world is either French or German. Music is French or German; women are French and men are German; blue is French and red is German.

But in his 90s, Rorem said, he didn’t feel the urge to add to his already enormous output. After all, he told me, “I’ve kind of said everything I have to say, better than anyone else.”

I held out hope that this wasn’t true. But one afternoon, as I was visiting him and running late for a black-tie event at Lincoln Center, he let me change in his bedroom to save time. While there, I noticed a notebook on his night stand. Curiosity — the question of whether this could be a new volume of diaries in the making — got the best of me, and I opened it up.

Inside were only doodles and fragments, with no discernible order. So it was true. All we were, and are, left with is what came before: nearly a century’s worth of memories and music.

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