American composer Ned Rorem has died at age 99. The Pulitzer Prize winner was best known for his art songs — and his controversial diaries. Rorem died Friday morning at his home in Manhattan. His publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, confirmed his death from natural causes to NPR.
Ned Rorem was quietly defiant, in more ways than one. The first was through the music he chose to write. While he did compose symphonies, concertos and operas — the kinds of pieces that will win you a Pulitzer — his reputation rests on his enormous body of more than 500 art songs.
The song "The Lordly Hudson" won Ned Rorem his first award. The composer got an early start with a scholarship to study at Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music when he was just 19. Then came a Fulbright, then a Guggenheim and, in 1976, the Pulitzer for his orchestral work Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra.
Air Music was an exception when it came to the composer's musical language — something that marked another bit of defiance on Rorem's part. In general, he held on to a conservative approach at a time when the prevailing style was academic and atonal "serial music" in which practitioners did away with traditional tonality and favored series of notes that were meant to seem unfamiliar.
And as Rorem told NPR in 2003 with his typical wit, his defiance meant nobody paid any attention to him.
"When the serial killers came along, a lot of very tonal composers defected to the other camp, and they wrote what was being written in those days," he said. " A few still do. But some defected, and came back. I felt like the prodigal son's older brother — I'd always been a good boy."
A lot of people saw things quite differently when it came to things non-musical. In fact, Rorem was "licentious" and "highly indiscreet," in the words of The New Yorker writer Janet Flanner. She was talking about his prose, and she meant it as a compliment. Over the years, Rorem became known for his diaries — perhaps even more than for his music. It started in 1966 with his Paris Diary, which included an explicit chronicle of gay life long before such a thing became routine.
Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic himself, is a fan of Rorem's prose. "Even though I admire his compositions a lot," Page says, "I would say that in some ways, the diaries and the criticism are the things which mean the most to me. The bracing thing about Ned is that even when you disagree with him, he gets you thinking — and I think that's one sign of a real master critic."
Rorem, who was born Oct. 23, 1923 in Richmond, Ind., shared different parts of himself depending on which medium he was working in. The written word is where he shared the details of his personal life. In his music, not so much.
"Ned almost prided himself on a certain emotional detachment, on a certain sort of craftsmanship. His diaries were where he kept his diary — his music was something else," Page says.
Here's how Rorem himself put it in one of his books, called Lies:
"I don't believe that composers notate their moods, they don't tell the music where to go. It leads them ... Why do I write music? Because I want to hear it. It's simple as that. Others may have more talent, more sense of duty. But I compose just from necessity, and no one else is making what I need."