Ned Rorem, the Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer and author, died at the age of 99 on November 18. Rorem earned worldwide fame as a prolific composer, but he also secured an enduring legacy within the LGBTQ+ community for his candid diaries, chronicling gay life before Stonewall.
Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana in 1923 to a family of what he has described as bohemian Quakers. He would later describe himself as a “Quaker atheist,” according to The Washington Post.
A piano teacher first sparked his love of music, introducing him to classic masters like Debussy. By 19, his talent had blossomed and he earned a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There he studied under Gian Carlo Menotti, a famous opera composer of the time, and he met Leonard Bernstein, in whom he would find a lifelong friend and champion.
After a year, Rorem left Curtis and attended the Julliard School of Music, receiving his MA in 1948. By the 1950s, he had moved to Paris, the setting of his first incendiary prose work, The Paris Diary. Published in 1966, the diary described the inner circles of artistic and queer society with a frankness that shocked the public. Not only was Rorem gay, he had several partners, and he was unapologetic in both of these respects.
Rorem would go on to pen more diaries throughout his life, detailing affairs with other queer artists—including Leonard Bernstein, John Cheever, Noël Coward and Tennessee Williams. After the 60s, he found a life partner in organist James Roland Holmes, who died in 1999.
Rorem was well known for his propensity for art songs—one voice poetry performances accompanied by piano compositions. He would produce over 500 across his lifetime, in addition to orchestras, operas and choral arrangements. In 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra, but he considered the 1997 cycle Evidence for Things Not Seen to be his magnum opus.
His later life he spent mentoring the next generation of composers. One of his students, Jennifer Higdon, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize herself. In a tribute shared with Slipped Disc, she wrote, “Ned Rorem…what an incredible person, with truly the most amazing life adventures and stories I’ve ever encountered! Here was a gentleman who crossed paths with so many important artistic-history-making people (over his 99 years). The added bonus is that he was a wonderful teacher as well.”
Although ambitious from an early age, Rorem was perpetually surprised by his own success, particularly his Pulitzer. But he once noted in 1993, “My name is now always preceded by ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. … So if I die in a whorehouse, at least the obit will say, ‘Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Ned Rorem Dies in Whorehouse.’”
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