October 23, 1923– Ned Rorem:
“Anyone can be gay, it’s no accomplishment – but only I can be me.”
I am really not much of a fan of symphonic or “serious” music, & although I appreciate the craft of his work, it is his literary accomplishments that have had me in his orbit for 45+ years. The American composer Ned Rorem has achieved literary prominence by publishing a series of diaries that include candid descriptions of same sex love affairs & relationships. He is also unnaturally Dorian Gray handsome.
“The frustration of being nonexistent keeps us awake.”
Words & music are intricately linked for Rorem. Time Magazine named him “the world’s best composer of art songs,” yet his musical & literary ventures extend far beyond this very specialized field. Rorem has composed symphonies, piano concertos, & other orchestral works, Chamber works, 11 operas, choral works of every description, ballets & other music for the theater, & literally hundreds of songs.
Among his most important works is his opera Our Town, an adaptation of the much loved play by gay writer Thornton Wilder.
Rorem has won the Pulitzer Prize for music. He is the author of 19 books, including 6 volumes of diaries, plus collections of lectures, & criticism.
In 1969, at 14 years old, I came across Rorem’s Paris Diary which I devoured. His diaries brought him some degree of notoriety, because he was absolutely candid about his sexuality & the sex lives of his friends, describing his own liaisons with Noel Coward, & fellow composers Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Samuel Barber & Virgil Thomson, along with outing at least a dozen other famous people.
You might have considered that the insulated world of classical music, noted for stereotypes like “The Opera Queen”, would have plenty of open closet doors, but Rorem was one of the first to dare. Rorem was openly gay during an era when even writers like Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal & Truman Capote were treating their gayness as a literary device disconnected from their personal lives.
Over the years Rorem has published very readable memoirs, diaries & collections of letters from a life well led over a span of 8 decades, including a volume of his correspondence with gay writer/composer Paul Bowles. His diaries include remembrances of the times he shared with a sublime mix of people including opera legend Leontyne Price, Angela Lansbury, & Judy Collins. In Wings Of Friendship, Rorem’s letters to these friends are assembled in chronological order & they reveal the range of his interests & the depth of his passions.
Rorem on getting older:
“In a way, I’ve said everything I had to say, in both music & prose. Also, I don’t get commissions anymore. But then, nobody I know does. At my age, it’s nice to be encouraged with money. But I think that if I died now, as I said before, I’m not ashamed of what I would leave.”
In 1999, Rorem’s partner of 32 years, James Holmes, died after a long battle with HIV-related illnesses. Rorem chronicled Holmes’ long decline & his own mortality, as well as his everyday ups & downs, in Lies: A Diary 1986-1999. It is his most poignant book.
“I’m many things: I’m gay, I’m a pacifist, I am a recovered alcoholic, I’m an atheist, & I’m a composer. Of those five, being a composer is the most problematic. As a gay person, I never suffered like some. A good friend would say to me: ‘You shouldn’t go around saying that to people.’ But my mother & father called the shots very early, & they were intelligent about it. So I never tried to hide it. But as I said in The Paris Diaries, I referred to an Italian lover of mine, Pinot, with just the letter P & arranged every sentence as ‘P came to see me.’ I didn’t write ‘P came to see me & he said…’ So the pronoun was never used. But people knew what I was doing.”
On our own modern gay times:
“I don’t approve of gays in the military. I’m a pacifist & a Quaker. To spend all of that time to get into the military so you can kill people, rather than spending the time to get rid of the military, is not what gay men, or all men, should be doing. I don’t approve of gay marriage only. Well, I don’t approve of any marriage, except if it can help legally with adoptions, to legally inherit & that sort of thing. But to fight to be legally married, I don’t think it’s very important.”
Rorem is currently single & lives in Manhattan & Nantucket.