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Words and music are inextricably linked for Ned Rorem. Time Magazine has called him "the world's best composer of art songs," yet his musical and literary ventures extend far beyond this specialized field. Rorem has composed three symphonies, four piano concertos and an array of other orchestral works, music for numerous combinations of chamber forces, six operas, choral works of every description, ballets and other music for the theater, and literally hundreds of songs and cycles. He is the author of fourteen books, including five volumes of diaries and collections of lectures and criticism.
Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana on October 23, 1923. As a child he moved to Chicago with his family; by the age of ten his piano teacher had introduced him to Debussy and Ravel, an experience which "changed my life forever," according to the composer. At seventeen he entered the Music School of Northwestern University, two years later receiving a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He studied composition under Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, taking his B.A. in 1946 and his M.A. degree (along with the $1,000 George Gershwin Memorial Prize in composition) in 1948. In New York he worked as Virgil Thomson's copyist in return for $20 a week and orchestration lessons. He studied on fellowship at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood in the summers of 1946 and 1947; in 1948 his song The Lordly Hudson was voted the best published song of that year by the Music Library Association.
In 1949 Rorem moved to France, and lived there until 1958. His years as a young composer among the leading figures of the artistic and social milieu of post-war Europe are absorbingly portrayed in The Paris Diary and The New York Diary, 1951-1961 (reissued by Da Capo, 1998). He currently lives in New York City and Nantucket.
Ned Rorem has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship (1951), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968). He received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in 1971 for his book Critical Affairs, A Composer's Journal, in 1975 for The Final Diary, and in 1992 for an article on American opera in Opera News. Among his many commissions for new works are those from the Ford Foundation (for Poems of Love and the Rain, 1962), the Lincoln Center Foundation (for Sun, 1965); the Koussevitzky Foundation (for Letters from Paris, 1966); the Atlanta Symphony (for the String Symphony, 1985); the Chicago Symphony (for Goodbye My Fancy, 1990); and from Carnegie Hall (for Spring Music, 1991). Among the distinguished conductors who have performed his music are Bernstein, Masur, Mehta, Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Previn, Reiner, Slatkin, Steinberg, and Stokowski; his suite Air Music won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in music.
The Atlanta Symphony recording of the String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles received a Grammy Award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording in 1989.
Rorem's orchestral scores of the past decade include Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra (1991), premiered by soloist Gary Graffman with André Previn conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music; and Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra (1993), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in honor of its 150th anniversary season. Kurt Masur conducted the premiere, with Tom Stacy as the soloist. His most recent orchestral work is a Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; Raymond Leppard conducted longtime Rorem advocates Jaime Laredo (violin) and Sharon Robinson (cello) in the work's premiere in October 1998. One week after the work's debut in Indianapolis, Leppard and his soloists traveled to the U.K. to perform the concerto with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Ned Rorem turned 75 on October 23, 1998; leading the birthday-year celebrations was the premiere of his evening-length song cycle for four singers and piano, Evidence of Things Not Seen. Consisting of 36 songs, the three-part cycle represents Rorem's magnum opus in the medium. The New York Festival of Song premiered the cycle at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in January 1998, followed by a performance in April at the Library of Congress. New York magazine called Evidence of Things Not Seen "one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer;" Chamber Music magazine deemed it "a masterpiece."
Other Entertainment, Rorem's latest book, is a collection of essays and short reminiscences, issued by Simon and Schuster in 1996. In addition, Da Capo has recently issued The Paris Diary and The New York Diary in a single paperback volume. Rorem has said: "My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer's present mood which, were it inscribed an hour later, could emerge quite otherwise. 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 æ 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."