For three decades, it has been NYFOS’ pleasure and honor to throw musical birthday parties for Ned Rorem. Our first was for his 70th, which brought in the largest audience we ever had at our home at the Greenwich House Music School. Five years later, we commissioned Ned’s magnum opus Evidence of Things Not Seen in tandem with the Library of Congress, performed it in New York, Washington, Utah, and Nantucket, and made a Grammy-nominated recording of the work. Five years after that, Michael Barrett and I revived Evidence at Columbia’s Miller Theatre and bravely consented to be interviewed alongside the charismatic, outspoken composer. We missed Ned’s 85th, when he was preempted by a Bernstein / Bolcom double-birthday tribute. But we did a 90th birthday tribute with Ned in attendance, and now we celebrate our departed friend on the occasion of his centenary.
Rorem’s songs have resounded in my musical world ever since I was a teenager. Around that time, I read an interview with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in which she said that no American could possibly sing German lieder properly. After all, they wouldn’t know how to utter the world “wald” unless they had spent some serious time in the Black Forest: “The color of the vowel would never be convincing.” These were dispiriting words for a young person interested in song recitals. I assumed that, by extension, no American pianist could play German art song with any authority. According to this monstre sacré, I was licked before I started.
But at the Library for the Performing Arts, I came across an LP of Rorem’s songs. Here was an American making a passionate stand for the songs of this country. Unlike another teen idol of mine, William Bolcom, Ned didn’t write jazzy music—not rhythmically, anyway—and yet he wrote chords that sounded like the great jazz icon Bill Evans. Since I have always been more easily seduced by harmony than by rhythm, Ned’s piano textures and Häagen-Dazs chords worked their wiles on me. And “The Lordly Hudson” rocked my world. Here was an art song about the river that I saw from my own window. I wouldn’t need to go to the Schwarzwald for sixth months to understand it. Maybe after all there was a repertoire of songs I could call my own. I breathed a sigh of relief.
During those years, Ned answered another of my deepest needs. In the 1960s, it was agonizing for a teenager like me to realize he might be gay. There were few positive role models around, and it seemed that coming out would propel me into a dank, joyless underworld. Such were the cultural messages I was receiving in an era when most prominent gay musicians were closeted, often unhappily locked into heterosexual marriages. But I remember hearing about Ned Rorem’s books, and one afternoon I surreptitiously leafed through a copy of The Paris Diaries at Doubleday’s on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. I didn’t want to seem too eager, and I carefully kept looking around to see if anyone had spotted me holding a book I suspected might be as racy as Fanny Hill. Ned wrote about being gay with a kind of sangfroid I had never imagined possible. In that early work, he was discreet about the mechanical details of his relationships—he was to get more explicit in future volumes. Yet his intense attraction to men is a hunger he does not hide. Titillated and frightened in equal measure, I hurried to put the book back on the shelf. But I came away with something invaluable: The man who wrote a song about my river had also written a book about my secret. Two important seeds had been planted, and they would change my life.
As an artist, Ned has affirmed three other things I hold dear and about which I have often been made to feel guilty: a deep respect for song, an adherence to tonal music, and a preference for French composers over German ones. In an interview with Phillip Ramey for New World Records, Ned stated, “I always think vocally. Even when writing for violin or timpani, it’s the vocalist in me trying to get out. Music is, after all, a song expression, and any composer worthy of the name is intrinsically a singer whether he allows it or not.”
This philosophy is so close to my own, and in Ned’s words it no longer seemed like a limitation but a credo, a source of pride. Ned mused in one of his diaries that song specialists are “the least intellectual of composers”— and he implied that he included himself in that category: “At work on a piece of any length, I’m distracted before it’s half written. To see the bridge’s other side eliminates the need for arriving there.” But not being intellectual about music is not the same as not being intelligent about music. In fact, as the years go by, I have begun to think the two things may be opposites. Yes, some highly intellectual music does pack an emotional punch, like dry ice—so cold it’s hot. But I find much of it inedible, cheese-food instead of real cheese. And I do not think I would have the courage to publish that thought without Ned’s example.
Ned’s lack of interest in 12-tone music was an extremely un-PC, even dangerous, position to hold in the 1950s and ’60s, when serialism (like heterosexuality) ruled the day. Answering Ramey’s inquiry on the subject, Ned explained: “It’s pretty much meaningless to me. But I wouldn’t presume to say that 12-tone writing is necessarily unvocal, in the light of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Twelve-tone music by its nature can only illustrate emotions gone awry, since there are no harmonic resolutions. Show me a convincing 12-tone song on a merry text.” I couldn’t help flashing back to my father’s reaction to Wozzeck when we heard it in Tanglewood in 1969: “That kind of music … it’s … it’s only good for describing … crazy people!” It seems that my father was also intelligent but not intellectual about music—and I think he hit the nail on the head.
Ned’s essential Frenchness—and his nonchalant alienation from German culture—was another minority viewpoint that gave me courage in my early years. When I was studying in the 1960s at Tanglewood and at Yale, the music of France was considered frivolous and unimportant. Some people thought Berlioz was marginally OK, and a couple of people liked the more academic works of Franck, but most of my fellow students were contemptuous of Ravel, Fauré, Poulenc, Bizet—and of anyone who gravitated to their music. I once heard a prominent musician say in an Aspen master class that French piano literature simply wasn’t worth discussing because it couldn’t be analyzed. Once again, Ned provided a lifeline when I had no defenses, no information, and only my feelings to guide me.
I believe I met Ned in person the night of Paul Jacobs’ memorial concert at Symphony Space—in February 1984. Paul had a day job as the pianist for the New York Philharmonic but also had an important career as a solo pianist. He moonlighted as a teacher too, and I had a series of significant lessons with him in the early 1980s before he succumbed to the ravages of AIDS. At the afterparty, I was too shy to talk much with Ned, but we must have made enough contact for me to get invited to tea some time thereafter, a ritual repeated every few years. Given Ned’s love of provocation, these could seem more like psychology experiments than social events. He once put me at a table alongside the combative drama critic John Simon, then sat back to watch. Simon’s unremitting vitriol nearly melted my contact lenses. I kept my mouth filled with Sachertorte as an antidote, did my best not to sock him in the jaw, and beat the earliest retreat I could manage without offending my host. But at another gathering, when Ned asked me over to hear a recording of his 1991 cantata Swords and Plowshares, he invited me to share a score with the best-looking guy in the room. That time I had no trouble staying till the end of the party.
I find that it is not easy to write about Ned’s songs for two reasons. First off, their beauties are hard to analyze (maybe that teacher in Aspen had a point), and when I asked Ned to explain his compositional method, he responded with one of his enigmatic aphorisms that didn’t answer the question. And secondly, they have been extolled for so many decades that it has come to seem almost repetitious to praise their beauties. Ned’s salient qualities have been touted so often—including the now-ubiquitous citation in 1964 by Time magazine as “probably the world’s best composer of art songs”—that paying tribute to Ned can assume the feeling of a ritual.
Without apologies, let us admire Rorem’s great virtues as a songwriter once again. Though he claimed not to have any technical understanding of singing, he had an excellent instinct for the human voice. I think this emerged from Ned’s deep connection to the words he chose to set. Since he was led by a need to make sung poems comprehensible, he was inspired to write gracious vocal lines, satisfying but realistic in length and range. High notes usually come during melismatic passages so that the singer can begin and end a word in a tessitura where they can speak clearly—and also let the voice soar unimpeded. As he wrote, “I set words to music as I talk them: which is what makes my songs personal—if indeed they are.”
For years, the first thing Ned told me after performances was, “I could understand all the words,” often adding, “and only Evelyn Lear bothers to do that any more. Is she still singing?” (Lear retired in 1985, three years before NYFOS’ first concert.) He usually followed this with, “Shall I tell you what I liked or what I didn’t like?” You may imagine my response.
Ned often said that whatever his merits as a song composer, he had infallible taste in choosing texts. Even Ned’s shortest, silliest songs (like “I Am Rose”) have unimpeachable literary credentials, and I often find myself absorbed in the lyrics to his songs long before I work my way around to exploring his musical setting. NYFOS was the beneficiary of this great gift when Ned wrote Evidence of Things Not Seen for us to celebrate his 75th birthday, in 1998. The project was his idea, a magnum opus on the subject of youth and age, life and death, health and illness, desire and abstinence. The 36-song cycle boasts twin glories: Ned’s colorful, passionate music and a brilliant “libretto” culled from 25 writers—American, English, and French. At his 90th birthday tribute, Ned declared that if he were to be remembered for just one work, it should be Evidence. Tonight, we feature four songs from that work, “Life in a Love,” “A Glimpse,” “The Comfort of Friends,” and “Come In.”
Ned’s respect for poetry tends to make his songs musically transparent. Even when there is a lot of activity in the piano writing, or if he tumbles duetting vocal lines in jerky counterpoint as in “Life in a Love,” his prosody remains amazingly clear. He only seems to have dropped this guiding principle once: when he wrote for the coloratura soprano Gianna d’Angelo, who had a wonderfully easy high extension that Ned (briefly, and rather surprisingly) indulged. For anyone with high E’s and F’s to burn, those songs are a gift. Just be ready to see your audience dive for their program booklets to follow the poems as you head for the stratosphere.
Ned’s songs are often compared to the mélodies of Poulenc, and occasionally they do seem to imitate those of the great French master. It makes sense; Ned famously spent his early adult years in France immersing himself in Parisian culture. No wonder that Ned’s “Ferry Me Across the Water,” for example, sounds like a gorgeous rewrite of Poulenc’s “La grenouillière.” But mostly Ned seems like Poulenc’s great-nephew rather than his son. Their tonal language is related, but what the two musicians truly share are principles and methods. Both took difficult poets (Eluard, Ashbery) and elucidated them through music. And like Poulenc’s, Ned’s song oeuvre falls into recognizable genres—machine-like perpetuo moto songs, broadly lyrical ones, wise-child singsong, floaters, as well as some astonishingly angry, angular works. Ned was brought up as Quaker, a faith his mother embraced after her brother was killed in World War I. Ned was a passionate pacifist his entire life, and his anti-war material often takes on a vehemence unlike anything else in his song output.
Tonight, we’ll sample all of Ned’s genres in a program that includes some of his most famous pieces as well as some that are less well known. But we wanted to make this a real party, so we’ve invited some guests along—a cadre of Ned’s friends and teachers who offer a complex, multifaceted window into what’s known in architecture as mid-century modern. I felt their array of voices would shed a special light on the birthday boy, and they also opened the door for us to include Ned’s voice as a writer. In true Rorem style, he gets to gossip about his guests without having to lower his voice.
When I showed Ned the list of composers sharing the stage with him tonight, he quietly exclaimed, “Hmm. They’re all queer.” (This was true, and not exactly an accident; I’d always wanted to do a second edition of Manning the Canon, our show celebrating gay men, and I’d privately thought of Ned Is Ninety as M.T.C. Part Deux.) Ned continued to peruse the announcement card. “Well, Marc [Blitzstein] was married, of course, and so was Paul [Bowles]. But then aren’t most composers gay? Really, at least 60 per cent.” This brought the conversation to a temporary halt. Then Ned looked at me and challenged, “What was Theodore Chanler’s sex life like?” I promised him I’d find out.
My 30 years’ acquaintance with Ned never exactly brought me closer to him. He was a man who loved contradictions, aphorisms that turn into enigmas, intimate confessions that open one door while blocking another. I once told him that the more I knew about him, the less I felt I understood who he was. “Maybe I don’t know either,” he murmured. For some reason I persisted. “The same is true of your music—the appeal is enduring, the craftsmanship immaculate, but something always remains elusive. I’m always looking for the meaning of your songs …” With a Chesire cat smile, Ned said, “Oh, I’m not so sure I believe in the concept of ‘meaning’ anyway.”
My deepest understanding of Ned came not from his music or his published writing, but from the inscriptions he wrote me in two of his books. On the title page of Knowing When to Stop, he said, “My life is in your hands, Love, Ned (Rorem).” And a few years later, he signed my Rorem song anthology, “With anxiety, Ned.” Ned’s carefully crafted persona, created when he was an unspeakably handsome golden boy, seldom admitted to anxiety or need so nakedly. But Ned’s private words took me closer to him than anything I had ever experienced in all the time of our friendship.
Ned’s anxiety was needless. The evergreen beauties of his music will adorn concert halls and recordings as long as there are pianists, singers, and audiences. New generations are constantly discovering his songs and making wonderful use of them. I shall continue to use my own hands to maintain Ned’s legacy—and I shall not be alone.
Ned at 100: A Rorem Celebration will be performed at The Peter Jay Sharp Theater at The Juilliard School on Thursday, January 18, 7:30PM. Tickets and livestream available here.