The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem, 1966
Music from Inside Out, 1967
The New York Diary of Ned Rorem, 1967
Music and People, 1968
Critical Affairs: A Composer’s Journal, 1970
Pure Contraption, 1973
The Final Diary, 1961-1972, 1974 (also known as The Later Diaries of Ned Rorem, 1961-1972)
An Absolute Gift, 1978
Setting the Tone: Essays and a Diary, 1983
The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem, 1951-1961, 1983
The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, 1973-1985, 1987
Settling the Score: Essays on Music, 1988
Knowing When to Stop: A Memoir, 1994
Other Entertainment: Collected Pieces, 1996
Lies: A Diary, 1986-1999, 2000
A Ned Rorem Reader, 2001
Ned Rorem (ROH-rehm), best known as a composer of American art song and opera, describes himself as “a musician who happened to write, not an author who happened to compose.” In addition to his prodigious output as a musician, composer, songwriter, and orchestrator, he is the author of a series of diaries and collections of essays that address a wide gamut of subjects.
Born in Richmond, Indiana, on October 23, 1923, Rorem was born to medical economist Clarence Rufus Rorem and his wife, Gladys Miller Rorem. According to Rorem, his parents were financially lower-middle-class and culturally highbrow, liberal, and well-read left-of-center Quaker converts. Although Rorem’s parents were not especially musical, they arranged for him to take piano lessons when he was seven. When Rorem was eight, the family moved to Chicago, where his parents exposed him to music by taking him to concerts and recitals. Insisting that he was born an artist, Rorem denied that his choice of a musical career was influenced by his parents; nevertheless, he acknowledged one particular event as having influenced his choice of a career. When he was ten, his piano teacher introduced him to the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel; thereafter, Rorem was determined to become a composer and to live in Paris.
At seventeen, Rorem began studies at Northwestern University’s School of Music. In 1942 he received a scholarship to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. From the Curtis Institute, Rorem went to the Juilliard School, from which he received his bachelor’s degree in 1946 and his master’s degree in 1948. In 1948 he also won the George Gershwin Memorial Prize for Composition. In 1949, having accomplished his goal of becoming a composer, Rorem fulfilled his other goal by moving to Paris. For the next seven years, he divided his time between Paris and Morocco.
Three years before his move to Paris, Rorem had begun keeping a diary, primarily “as a release from shyness, to investigate on paper what [he] could not say aloud.” The diary soon became a medium for the recording of Rorem’s preoccupations outside musical composition, and in 1966 Rorem, never shy about self-revelation, published the first of what would become a series of diaries. The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem was followed by The New York Diary of Ned Rorem, The Final Diary: 1961-1972, and The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem: 1973-1985. These diaries are, in Rorem’s words, “random and bloody and self-indulgent.” Entries are short, epigrammatic, outspoken, and often gossipy. The writing style is sometimes elegant, sometimes witty, and sometimes merely plainspoken. Since these early diaries were primarily concerned with Rorem, a continuity sustained the writing, with what some critics referred to as Rorem’s “inflated egoism” providing both the tone and the plot. Later diaries, however, reveal a mellowing artist. In The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem, Rorem is more meditative than dramatic and more concerned with the transitory nature of art and the passions than with the preoccupations of a young artist living in Paris. The change in tone and mood probably reflects as much as anything Rorem’s discovery that when a person reaches “a certain age, certain subjects become embarrassingly dull and nobody’s business.” The earlier chronicles of drunken escapades and a completely uninhibited lifestyle, which were everybody’s business, are replaced by perceptive and thought-provoking observations. Knowing When to Stop continues in the mellower tone to chronicle a life that no longer involves drug or alcohol abuse. The fifth volume of diaries, Lies, covers the years from 1986 to 1999 (ages sixty-two to seventy-five), looking back nostalgically on friends and colleagues, including life companion James Holmes, lost to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome(AIDS). This last installment, which also traces and comments on more than a decade of changes in social, artistic, and political values, still offers what the publisher called “the erotic fantasies, gratuitous slights, aphorisms, indiscretions, program notes, peeves, puns, punditry, and, quite frequently, beauty” that readers had come to expect from Rorem, but in a more reflective fashion.
As much as his diaries, Rorem will be remembered for his essays on music, for which he has won three ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. The first volume of these, Music from Inside Out, is a collection of lectures delivered at New York State University, Buffalo, where Rorem was Slee Professor of Composition. According to Rorem, the lectures deal with “how to answer other people’s questions” about “the so-called concerns of creation.” Critical Affairs contains, among other things, a discussion of the poetry of music, a condemnation of rock music, tributes to a pair of fellow musicians, criticism of music critics, and a reflection on Rorem’s Paris years from the vantage point of experience. His innate creativity, so apparent in his music, is also evident in his poetic, descriptive writing and carefully chosen vocabulary. Other collections contain miscellaneous blends of essays, lectures, journal entries, critical reviews, and random diary entries not included in the diaries.
Rorem’s writing style in the essays does not differ dramatically from that of the diaries. His opinionated nature, however, is somewhat mitigated in the essays by a genuine sensitivity to matters pertaining to the musical world. Even so, the constant personal references, the excessive name-dropping, and the often-interminable reiteration of the contents of various menus can make extended readings more tedious than entertaining. This self-absorption has caused some critics to downplay the importance of Rorem’s published works. They suggest that though his books do contain entries that are timely or timeless, his preoccupation with himself diminishes the value of his work to others; in the words of one, as a “revealing profile of the artist,” Rorem’s works have “too much profile and so little art.” Nevertheless, novelist Joyce Carol Oates characterized his prose as “fresh and unfailingly interesting as his music.”
In 1998 Rorem completed his massive thirty-six-song cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen, prompting Time magazine to name him the world’s best composer of art songs; his honors and awards for music include a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy. In 2000, he was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.