Ned Rorem: American Composer and Diarist March 17 2023

"Divine fires do not blaze each day, but an artist functions in their afterglow hoping for their recurrence." —Ned Rorem.

Ned Rorem was perhaps a little humble when he spoke these words, as his output, both musical and written, is nothing short of prolific. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1976 for his Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra. However, this was just one of the dozens of pieces of music that he wrote, including chamber music, orchestral works, operas, symphonies, songs, and much more, as well as writing extensive diaries and essays on music.


Ned Rorem was born on October 23, 1923, in Richmond, Indiana, the second of two children. His father, Clarence Rufus Rorem, was a medical economist and one of the founders of the Blue Cross, and his mother, Gladys Miller Rorem, was an activist involved with the Society of Friends and various peace movements.

Ned Rorem Autograph 1977

 The family moved to Chicago when Rorem was eight months old when his father left his position on the faculty of Earlham College. It was there that his parents, although not musical themselves, began to expose Rorem and his older sister, Rosemary, to artistic and musical experiences. The children were taken to concerts featuring top pianists of the time, such as Ignacy Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Joseph Hofmann as well as dance performances from such notables as Mary Wigman, Ruth Page and the Ballets Russes.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] The composer in 1977, one year after been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Both Ned Rorem and his sister were also given piano lessons, although Ned quickly outstripped his older sister. His first piano teachers taught him piano, but not music. This was left to three women who taught him music through his childhood and profoundly influenced Rorem and his love of music.


His first teacher, Nuta Rothschild, endowed him with a lasting love of French music and, indeed, all things French, introducing him to the works of Debussy and Ravel.

Our first meeting opened the gates of heaven. This was no lesson but a recital. She played Debussy's "L'IsIe Joyeuse" and "Golliwogg's Cake Walk," and during those minutes, I realized for the first time that there was what music was supposed to be. I didn't realize this "modern stuff" repelled your average music-lover, for it was an awakening sound that immediately, as we Quakers say, spoke to my condition, a condition nurtured by Mrs. Rothschild, who began to immerse me in "impressionism."—Ned Rorem.

At the age of twelve, he was introduced to his next teacher, Margeret Bonds, and received similar revelations. Only ten years his senior, Bonds was a young black woman who introduced him to the contemporary American music of John Alden Carpenter and Charles Griffes. Although he had already been composing for some time, he could not notate his music, and it was Margeret Bonds who taught him this skill.

In 1938, Rorem was introduced to the classical piano repertoire by his third teacher, Belle Tannenbaum. In June 1940, he performed the first movement of Grieg's Piano Concerto, which he had learned under her tutelage. In the same month, he also graduated from high school, aged 16 years, at the University of Chicago Lab School. During this period, Rorem also met the poet, Paul Goodman, beginning a lifelong friendship, only ended by Goodman's death in 1972.

Ned Rorem AMQS

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Autograph music quote signed by the composer in 1965 inscribed to his friend Joseph Nicklas


Rorem was accepted at the Northwestern University School of Music based on his "creative potential." despite his previously mediocre academic results. His assessors were so impressed with his entrance audition that he was asked to add the study of piano as well as composition. Therefore, he studied piano with Harold van Horne alongside his composition studies with Dr. Alfred Nolte. During this time, he learned all of the works of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, demonstrating a hunger for piano literature that he has retained throughout his life.

In 1943, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia awarded Rorem a scholarship. At the Institute, he studied dramatic forms with Gian-Carlo Menotti and counterpoint and composition with Rosario Scalero. Unfortunately, Scalero placed little emphasis on composition. Instead, he was intent on concentrating on counterpoint exercises, much to Rorem's irritation.

Despite Scalero's lack of interest, Rorem persevered with composition and was able to hear his Seventieth Psalm performed by the Army Music School Chorus. Perhaps just as importantly, Rorem did make and maintain many friendships at Curtis, which have persisted through his life and career.

"What I retained from Curtis was not the wisdom of a dusty maestro but the still vital friendship of young pianists, notably Eugene Istomin and Shirley Gabis Rhoads; also the rich flock of wartime jeunesse: Gary Graffman, Seymour Lipkin, Jacob Latiener, Theodore Lettvin."—Ned Rorem.


Despite objections from his parents, Rorem left Curtis in 1944, moving to New York. Unfortunately, his parents proceeded to cut him off financially, and he was forced to support himself by becoming Virgil Thomson's copyist, for which he received $20 per week and orchestration lessons. Thomson introduced Rorem to a new piano teacher, Betty Crawford, who helped him find another paying job as Martha Graham's accompanist, for which he was paid $2 per hour. Unfortunately, Miss Graham did not appreciate his piano skills and fired him shortly afterward.


"I'm homosexual and alcoholic (a recovered alcoholic – I haven't had a drink of any sort in 34 years). I'm also an atheist, and a pacifist, totally atheist and totally pacifist. And I'm a composer. That's the only one that's problematic; people don't know what you're talking about when you say you're a composer." Composer Ned Rorem tells Frank J. Oteri in this 2006 video

After repeated urgings from his father, Rorem enrolled at Juilliard, completing a Bachelor's Degree in 1946 and a Master's Degree in 1948. Here he was fortunate enough to study composition with Bernard Wagenaar and was able to study with Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in the summers of 1946 and 1947.

During his years at Juilliard, most of Rorem's compositional efforts went into writing songs. However, he did write other music during this time, including music for some ballets, plays, and even for a puppet show. Although always prolific, Rorem's output at this time was high, even by his own standards. While at Juilliard, he wrote several hundred songs that have not been published.


In 1948, Rorem received two significant boosts to his career. First, the Music Library Association announced that The Lordly Hudson, a setting of a poem by Rorem's good friend Paul Goodman, was the "best published song of the year." Secondly, Rorem's Overture in C was the recipient of that year's Gershwin Memorial Award, a precursor of many further awards to come.

The $1000 prize fund for the Gershwin Award provided Rorem with an opportunity to fulfill a longstanding dream —to travel to France. The young composer intended to stay for three months, but his stay was to last nine years. However, during his first two years away from the US, he spent a lot of time in Morocco, in the home of his good friend, Dr. Guy Ferrand, which enabled him to learn the French language. Also, free of the distractions of the large city, he returned to his usual prolific output, writing a tremendous amount of material, including twenty large-scale compositions.

Rorem followed his success in receiving the Gershwin Award with the Lili Boulanger Award in 1950 and received the Prix de Biarritz for his ballet Mélos and a Fulbright Scholarship in 1951. Upon receiving the Fulbright Scholarship, he left Morocco for good to study with Arthur Honegger in Paris.


Upon his return to Paris, Rorem made the acquaintance of the Vicomtesse Marie Laure de NoaiIles, a patron of the arts with wealth, talent, and considerable influence. This acquaintanceship opened many doors for Rorem. He was introduced to all the leading French composers, poets, and performers of the day and has since attributed a large portion of his success to the Vicomtesse.

Ned Rorem Autograph

 "Back in 1951, my obstreperousness in the company of Marie Laure was both feigned and short-lived: an expression of dazzlement at so easily meeting half of legendary Europe at her table. Once the novelty wore off, my Quaker sense informed me that, above all, she's offered the leisure to work. She has not only provided three pianos, sponsored concerts, clothed and fed and housed me but has been the main cause of my staying on to compose in France for so long"—Ned Rorem.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Ned Rorem circa 1980

Many young composers in this situation would have let all of the socializing and access to high society distract from their work, not so with Ned Rorem. During his time under the patronage of Marie Laure, Rorem once more produced a prodigious body of work.

It was also during this time that Rorem, who is equally talented at writing prose as he is at composing music, began to write his diaries. With the Vicomtesse's encouragement, he became a keen observer of cultural life in Paris, beginning a record which he has kept through to the present day, both in France and the US.


After making three trips back to the US during his time in France, Rorem decided to make the move permanent in 1958. By this point in his career, her was attracting attention. Well-known conductors such as Ormandy and Reiner were including his music in their programs, and famous sopranos like Phyllis Curtin and Eleanor Steber were premiering his songs. The flamboyant lifestyle begun in Paris continued, as did his still-rapid pace of producing compositions.

During this period, Rorem began to concentrate more on instrumental music or vocal and instrumental combinations rather than on songs. However, he has often been quoted that he views all music as essentially vocal. His mixture of the two is apparent in the use of some of his unpublished songs when composing his later instrumental works.

His flamboyant lifestyle is described in the diaries begun in Paris in a frank manner, describing his issues with alcohol and drugs, his homosexual affairs, and his periods of depression. All of this is recalled alongside his observations of the arts and character observations of major artists, which can only be described as gossipy. When the first series of his diaries were published in 1966, they caused an uproar, shocking and offending many in the artistic world. However, they give us a great insight into observations on homosexuality and mental health from a time when these subjects were very much taboo.

Ned Rorem AMQS

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Autograph music quote signed by the composer, inscribed to his friend Steve Juscik 


From his time in Paris and on, Rorem would often get what he described as "ferociously drunk," and his problems with alcohol and drugs persisted throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a time he refers to as "my drinking decade." It took him many years to gain control of these vices, going to AA meetings and taking Antabuse. It was not until 1967, when he met James Holmes, that he was really able to reduce his dependence on alcohol.

James Holmes was a great friend and became a genuinely stabilizing influence on Rorem's life, enabling him to settle into an alcohol-free and less frantic lifestyle. Rorem stated in 2006 that he had not had a drink in 34 years:

Ned Rorem Signed Prospect

"I'm five things: I'm homosexual and alcoholic (a recovered alcoholic – I haven't had a drink of any sort in 34 years). I'm also an atheist, and a pacifist, totally atheist and totally pacifist. And I'm a composer. That's the only one that's problematic; people don't know what you're talking about when you say you're a composer. But you are a composer or you aren't, and you know that pretty early."

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Promo prospect signed by the composer with a lenght note, inscribed at the top.

His lifestyle changed further in 1974 when he purchased a house in Nantucket, where he has since spent his holidays and summers. This has led to a much more peaceful life, perhaps because he had gotten all of the wildness out of his system in his younger days, or maybe because he had simply mellowed with age.


In 1959, shortly after returning to the US, Rorem was offered the Slee Professorship at the University of Buffalo. This was the first of three teaching positions that he accepted over the next twenty years. Then, in 1965, he took a teaching position at the University of Utah as Professor of Composition and composer-in-residence. Unfortunately, neither of these positions was to last long. Rorem said of his Utah position:

"This is the kind of assignment that should not last more than two years, as a teacher begins to believe what he says after that long a time and becomes sterile."

It is clear that he has since changed his position on this as, having been given the role of Co-director to the Undergraduate Department of Composition at Curtis Institute alongside David Loeb, he has retained the position to the present day.


In addition to his Pulitzer Prize in 1976, Rorem received an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University in June 1977 to recognize his achievements. Further honors came from his hometown of Chicago, where Mayor Harold Washington declared March 22 and 23, 1984 to be "Ned Rorem Days."

On May 13, 1984, the Fund for Human Dignity presented Rorem with a plaque for his work in educating the public about the lives of gay men and lesbians. He has also received three ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards and, in 2003, an ASCAP Lifetime Achievement award. In addition, the Atlanta Symphony's recording of Rorem's String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles won the Grammy Award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording in 1989.


Ned Rorem's frantic creativity has never ceased, even into his nineties. It is impossible to list all of his work here, as that would fill a book by itself. Much of his compositional work since 1960 has been on a commission basis. He has received commissions from well-known organizations such as the Ford Foundation, Koussevitsky Foundation, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, and New York City Opera, as well as schools, churches, performing groups and private individuals.

Ned Rorem Book Knowing When to Stop

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] His book "Knowing When to Stop -A Memoir" published by Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994.

He often works on multiple commissions —in 1974 and 1975, he completed seven major works for the American bicentennial. He attributes his tremendous productivity to this reason:

"I definitely write for an audience. Also, since my music is mostly commissioned, I know who the audience will be. But I write for approval too; I want to be approved of by my parents, by the boys who beat me up in grammar school, by my peers, and by the young. A small order. The purpose of my work is not to make money, but if it didn't make money at it, I might stop. I need, first of all, to live, but I also need daily reassurance that I'm appreciated, or I get paranoid. The reassurance comes from having a piece asked for, paid for, played, reviewed, and published."

Rorem is still active as a composer. In February 2007, Indiana University's Jacob School of Music premiered a performance of Rorem's opera Our Town, which he based on the Thorton Wilder play. In addition, Rorem's works continue to be heard, appreciated and loved by new generations. As his 100th birthday in 2023 approaches, it has to be acknowledged that Ned Rorem is genuinely one of the greatest of modern American composers.


- Ned Rorem Signed Photograph

Ned Rorem Autograph Music Quote Signed 1965

- Composer Autographs at Tamino Autographs

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- Composer Signed Programs at Tamino Autographs


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