Like Schumann and Berlioz and Debussy before him, Ned Rorem is a writer-composer. His Paris Diary, an uninhibited account of his promiscuous, narcissistic exploits in the French art world, was published in 1966 and earned him instant notoriety. 'I was young, green, brash, pretty and drunk,' recalls Rorem. And already an important exponent of the original 'American' idiom in music, as laid down by his mentors Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. Rorem, who worked as Thomson's copyist for dollars 20 a week and lessons in orchestration, describes them as 'the mother and father of American music'.
He is devoted to their cause. 'I have never tried to be original. Every artist steals. He doesn't borrow, he steals unashamedly. A minor artist doesn't realise he's stealing, therefore he doesn't bother to cover his tracks and produces post-card music or what have you. A real artist knows he's stealing and he says, 'Oh, my God, I'm going to get caught in my traces.' The act of covering tracks is the creative act.' His own music is lean, elegant, melodic and unmistakably modern. 'By the time I was 16, I knew all of Stravinsky and Ravel backwards.' He had never heard Tchaikovsky, and was 'astonished that other students were immersed in Beethoven'. His faith never wavered. 'I think that my inadvertent education was right and everyone else's wrong. I think it's normal to respond to the music of one's own time.'
Like any composer in an age when serious music doesn't sell, he resents the wealth and celebrity of performers who 'don't have the remotest conception of what American music is, nor have the manners to say they would at least like to learn'. He lays the blame at the feet of Manhattan's 57th Street impresarios. 'Americans think they're better than everybody else at building atom bombs, or they used to think so. But when it comes to the arts we're still hiring Old World European conductors with their tired symphonic warhorses.'
Momentarily, he seems grief-stricken by this Europhilia. 'The cultured layman who knows literature knows all about Dante's contemporary version: Kafka or Philip Roth or John Cheever. In music, he knows all about Vivaldi, but the contemporary version is rock music. It's not me or Boulez or Peter Maxwell Davies.' Citing Boulez is generous in a man who has propagandised tirelessly against 'the curse' of serial music and atonalism still lingering over our century. 'The great composers of the past do not include Schoenberg.'
Boulez had 'yet to rear his ugly head' when Rorem played the young dandy in post-War Paris. His era came later, when 'all of his thousands of slaves across the world wrote music that was so complicated it was hard to tell the good from the bad. The backlash is music so simple, like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, that anyone could write it.' He still teaches at the Curtis Institute in Chicago, and believes there are more excellently trained and 'pretty good' young composers now than ever before. 'Music,' he has written, 'is the only art that venerates the past to the exclusion of the present.' None the less, Rorem has survived for almost half a century on his commissions, a rare feat in this profession.
The critic Patrick O'Connor believes that Rorem 'is one of the few contemporary American composers whose music will survive. Singers love to sing his music. It was never something designed to catch the wave of fashion.' Ironically, for a man whose cause celebre is the almost forgotten art of song, Rorem is 'not particularly interested' in the voice. The Pulitzer in 1976 was for Air Music, an orchestral work. Yet songs are the staple of his art. He began setting his favourite e e cummings poems to music at the age of 11. 'The musical ideas came from my love of poetry. I don't think so much about singers as about the very nature of music, which is all - so far as I'm concerned - inherently song.' To date, including complete song-cycles of Auden and Whitman, he has arranged the work of 147 different poets, 'Almost as many people as I've slept with. It's like love, sometimes you repeat a person, sometimes I repeat a poet.'
His aesthetic is strictly conservative. 'I set words to music more or less at the speed of speech and I never repeat a word that the poet hasn't repeated. I'm French in my orientation, not German. There are only two aesthetics in the whole universe, French and German. You can hear the German language in a Beethoven symphony, full of 'Achs' and 'Eins'. Schubert at his best is really a French composer because he's so lean and brief. The French language is the only language that has no tonic accent. That is to say, with a word like 'telephone' all the syllables are equal. Te-le-phone. De-bu-ssy. Impressionism emerged from France as a sort of undifferentiated blur. Only a Frenchman could have written Bolero, the most rhythmic piece ever written, because only a Frenchman would need to prove he got rhythm. I think that we are what we speak, therefore I write what I speak and I think that it's American.'
Rorem used to think that his writing was bloody, opinionated and self-indulgent in contrast to the well-tailored orderliness of his music. 'Music is not necessarily about sex and death and love and misery and joy, or if it is, nobody can prove it. You can get arrested for what you write in words.' He does not arrange his own words to music because 'if I felt they were good enough to set to music I wouldn't have to write them. My expression as a musician and as a prose writer are very different'. Yet complementary: as his writing has grown disciplined and sober, he suspects his music has become 'a little bit messy, a little bit more adventurous'.
Although his creative appetite shows no sign of abating, the brazen playboy of the past is dead. He has survived Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and John Cheevers - the four Time magazine covers he bedded as a young man. In the Nantucket Diary of 1987, he wrote: 'After a certain age, certain subjects become embarrassingly dull. One of these is sexual intercourse, the other is the injustice of personal sorrow.' If told today that he could never have sex again, 'it wouldn't make much difference.' He lives between the 'healthy corruption' of Manhattan, and the solitude of Nantucket island with his companion of 20 years, the organist James Holmes.
He is disarmingly frank, and thinks that appreciation, not sex, is the only true requirement for human survival. 'Even now, if a week in my life goes away that I don't have a tangible proof of this appreciation, I want to throw in the sponge.' Surrounded by his Cocteau drawings, he talks of the past without nostalgia. 'As a terribly receptive pre-teenager, I became sick with a dimension of life I never knew existed - namely art. It is a healthy virus from which I never recovered.'
Then he tells a story about playing his music to Poulenc in Paris 40 years ago. 'I was a little embarrassed that it sounded so much like Poulenc, and astonished when he said, 'Ned, you poor thing. Why can't you be freer? Why must you be so repressed, so Quaker, so Protestant? Can't you be more French, like us?' ' Which is about as close as I can get to the real significance of the man. As Nadia Boulanger said, 'There's everybody else, and then there's Ned Rorem.'
Beaux Arts Trio's recording of Rorem's 'Spring Music' is released next month on Philips Classics
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