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, and although I appreciate the craft of his music, 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 and his relationships with men. He is also unnaturally Dorian Gray handsome.
“The frustration of being nonexistent keeps us awake.”
Words and music are intricately linked for Rorem. Time Magazine named him: “The world’s best composer of art songs”, yet his musical and literary ventures extend far beyond this very specialized field. Rorem has composed symphonies, piano concertos and other orchestral works, Chamber pieces, 11 operas, choral works of every description, ballets and other music for the theater, plus 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 six volumes of diaries, along with collections of lectures and 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 and the sex lives of his friends, describing his own liaisons with Noël Coward and fellow gay composers Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson, and along the way, 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 and 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 and collections of letters from a life well-led from over a span of eight decades, including a volume devoted to 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, actor Angela Lansbury and singer/songwriter Judy Collins. In Wings Of Friendship, Rorem’s letters to these friends are assembled in chronological order and they reveal the range of his interests and the depth of his passions.
Rorem has lived an extraordinary life by any standards. As a beautiful and talented young flaneur he found himself moving in the social spheres of gay artists Paul Bowles, Jean Cocteau and John Cage. His diaries don’t hold back in name dropping, gossip, scandal and recalling bawdy exploits. But they also offer a remarkably frank insight into the creative process of a fledgling artist.
Rorem has set to music, the words of many different poets, from Shakespeare, Tennyson and Yeats, to Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein; he almost never uses his own words, but Walt Whitman stands out as: “very singable, wonderfully singable. His language is special, very open somehow”.
Rorem on getting older:
“In a way, I’ve said everything I had to say, in both music and 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 and his own mortality, as well as his everyday ups and 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, and 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 and father called the shots very early, and 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 and arranged every sentence as P came to see me’. I didn’t write ‘P came to see me and 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 and 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 and that sort of thing. But to fight to be legally married, I don’t think it’s very important.”
Rorem celebrates his 94th birthday today. He is currently single and lives in Manhattan and Nantucket.