Pulitzer-Winning Composer Ned Rorem has Died, Aged 99
Also a noted diarist, Rorem took composition lessons with composers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland during the 1950s
Born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1923, Ned Rorem was an award-winning composer and the author of several published diaries known for their candid accounts of his life in elite LGBTQ+ and artistic circles from the 1960s onward. Rorem passed away in his Manhattan home.
Growing up in Chicago, he began piano lessons at a young age and later attended Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Gian Carlo Menotti, one of America’s most popular opera composers at the time.
Rorem also attended the Juilliard School, where upon graduation in 1948, served as an assistant and copyist for the composer and critic Virgil Thomson to support himself in New York. Thomson paid Rorem $20 a week and gave him orchestration lessons.
According to the New York Times, Rorem was only 18 when he met Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland, all in a single weekend. Rorem later studied with Copland at what is now the Tanglewood Music Center.
“As a teenager at Philadelphia’s very proper Curtis Institute I would occasionally head for New York to get into mischief,” Rorem recalled in the NY Times on the occasion of Copland’s 85th birthday.
“One weekend, before boarding the train (I was off to see Virgil Thomson, whom I’d never met, about becoming his copyist), a schoolmate, Shirley Gabis, said, ‘Why not drop in on my old friend Lenny while you’re up there.’ I did. Accordingly Bernstein put me on to Copland — ‘Aaron likes knowing what young composers are up to’ — and I spent an afternoon bleating my tunes for the famous musician,” Rorem continued. “Well, I took the job with Virgil, became an instant fan of Aaron and Lenny, and for the next 42 years with many an up and down I’ve remained staunch friends with all three men.”
Rorem composed many symphonies, concertos, and operas, but the majority of his compositional output is in over 500 art songs — for which he became known in his 20s. Over the decades, he became a highly prolific composer and in 1976, won the Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral suite, “Air Music.”
Rorem’s diaries and memoir also achieved public recognition. He had strong opinions on composers including Beethoven, Berlioz, Pierre Boulez, and Philip Glass, and wrote openly about his sexuality and personal relationships throughout his life. He also published books of criticism and a general collection of his letters and correspondence.
Between 2000 and 2003, Rorem served as the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2005, a documentary was released about him, titled “Ned Rorem: Word & Music.” As a teacher, he gave national masterclasses and taught at the Curtis Institute for many years, where his students included Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon and opera composer Daron Hagen.
“As we remember Ned Rorem today, listen to our playlist filled with selections from his vast catalog — from chamber works, symphonies, and operas to his famous songs,” Rorem’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes wrote on Facebook. “Each work is a testament to Rorem’s trademark wit and charm, as well as his masterful craftsmanship.
Our condolences to Mr. Rorem’s family, friends, students, and colleagues.
NED ROREM | AIR MUSIC | I. ALL PLAYERS | PETER LEONARD | LOUISVILLE ORCHESTRA