Composer Ned Rorem Gives Brooklyn College a Piece of His Mind
March 21, 2002 Ned Rorem, acclaimed composer, critic, and diarist, visited the State Lounge in the Brooklyn College Student Center on April 3 to talk about the history of the American art song in the twentieth century and the future of the world, which he estimated will last another ten years. "If we don't blow up," he remarked, "The world will become so mediocre that it won't be worth living." The current president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Rorem is a significant force in modern classical music and has composed three symphonies, four piano concertos, six operas, choral works of every description, ballets and other music for the theater, and hundreds of songs and cycles. He is the author of fifteen books, including five volumes of diaries and collections of letters, lectures, and criticism. A dapper 68-years old, Rorem took to the podium in front of the standing-room-only crowd wearing a pink long-sleeved polo shirt, brown corduroy pants and a pair of scuffed New Balance tennis shoes.
"I hate improvisation, I am morally against it," Rorem explained after being introduced by Ellie Hisama, director of the Institute for the Study of American Music. "So instead, I will talk about myself, a subject I purport to know something about. The world is divided into two aesthetic styles: French and German. The color red is German. The color blue is French. Men are German, women are French. Japan is French, and China is German. German art is known for being profoundly superficial, and French art, for being superficially profound," Rorem continued. "I am French. If you disagree with my analysis, then you are German."
Rorem was born in Richmond, Ind., 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 that "changed my life forever," according to the composer. At seventeen he entered the Music School of Northwestern University, and received a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia two years later. He studied composition under Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, earning his B.A. in 1946 and his M.A. (along with the $1,000 George Gershwin Memorial Prize in composition) in 1948. "I didn't learn anything a Juilliard," Norem said, and then corrected himself. "Well, that's not entirely true. We had to take a physical education and hygene course, where I learned that apricots are just as good a source of nutrients as milk." Rorem received his most practical education in New York when he worked as Virgil Thomson's copyist in return for $20 a week and orchestration lessons. He later studied on fellowship at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood in the summers of 1946 and 1947. In 1948 the Music Library Association voted his song "The Lordly Hudson" as the best published song of the year.
For someone who identifies himself as "French", it was natural that 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. 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). 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.
Evidence of Things Not Seen, his thirty-six-song cycle based on the work of twenty-four poets, completed in 1998, was called by a New York magazine critic "one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer." Time was also unstinting in its praise, dubbing the composer "the world's greatest living composer of song." The afternoon began with a short concert of songs from Evidence of Things Not Seen, sung by Alexis Martin and Ian Derrer from the Conservatory of Music.