Ned Rorem: The Contentious Union of Music and Literature

Year

2014

"A song is a bastard," Ned Rorem said in 1998. "It is uniting two art forms that did not ask to be forced together." However, this contentious union has not intimidated the composer. Throughout his long career, Ned Rorem, who turns 81 this October, has consistently united music and literature by setting poems to music, an endeavor that led Time magazine to call him the "world’s best composer of art songs."

The list of texts Rorem has set to music is long, ranging from the biblical psalms to poems by Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Theodore Roethke, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Gunn, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery, among others. Of his ability to marry words with music, Rorem has said, "It’s a question of taking a pre-existing lyric, often a lyric masterpiece, and then assuming that you can add something to it."

Rorem has also composed three symphonies, four piano concertos, six operas, and an array of choral works, ballets, and musical pieces for theater. In 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral suite, Air Music, and in 1989 he received a Grammy Award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording for String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He has also penned 15 books, including Paris Diary, A Ned Rorem Reader, and Lies: A Diary 1986-1999, in which he chronicles the latter part of his life--the passing of his parents, the indignities of growing old, and the painful decline of his partner, who in the end succumbed to AIDS.

In 1998, the New York Festival of Song commissioned Rorem to write a song cycle called Evidence of Things Not Seen. It premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and was later performed at various venues, including the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Composed for four voices and a piano, the thirty-six-song cycle is based on the work of twenty-four poets, including Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Goodman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and Oscar Wilde. "The songs are, indeed, among the best in the contemporary canon," wrote Alex Ross in The New Yorker magazine, "showing Rorem’s uncanny ability to breathe notes into words while leaving a poet’s thoughts intact." The songs, which speak of love and innocence, war and despair, and finally solitude and death, represent the full cycle of human life.

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