Ned Rorem, the major American composer and diarist, has died at the age of 99

American composer Ned Rorem has died at the age of 99. The Pulitzer Prize winner was best known for his art songs — and his controversial diaries. Rorem died at his Manhattan home on Friday morning. His publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, confirmed his death to NPR from natural causes.

Ned Rorem was quietly defiant, in more ways than one. The first was through the music he chose to write. Though he has composed symphonies, concertos, and operas—the sort of pieces that will earn you a Pulitzer Prize—his reputation rests on his vast collection of more than 500 art songs.

The song “The Lordly Hudson” earned Ned Rorem his first prize. The composer started early with a scholarship to study at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at just 19 years old. Then came a Fulbright, then a Guggenheim, and in 1976 the Pulitzer for his orchestral work Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra.

air music was an exception when it came to the composer’s musical language – something that marked another piece of defiance from Rorem’s side. In general, he adhered to a conservative approach when the dominant style was an academic and atonal “serial music” in which practitioners abolished traditional tonality and favored rows of notes intended to appear unfamiliar.

And as Rorem told NPR in 2003, with his trademark quip, his defiance meant no one paid him any attention.

“When the serial killers came along, a lot of very tonal composers went over to the other camp and wrote what was written then,” he said. “Some still do. But some defected and came back. I felt like the prodigal son’s older brother – I was always a good boy.”

A lot of people saw it very differently when it came to non-musical things. In fact, Rorem was “unbridled” and “highly indiscreet,” to use the words of The New Yorker Author Janet Flanner. She was talking about his prose, and she meant it as a compliment. Over the years, Rorem has become known for his diaries – maybe even more than his music. It all started with him in 1966 Paris diarywhich contained an explicit chronicle of gay life long before it became routine.

Tim Page, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, is a fan of Rorem’s prose. “Although I greatly admire his compositions,” says Page, “I would say that in some ways it’s the journals and the criticism that mean the most to me. He makes you think – and I think that’s a mark of a true master critic.”

Born on October 23, 1923 in Richmond, Indiana, Rorem shared different parts of himself depending on the medium in which he worked. The written word is where he shared the details of his personal life. Not so much in his music.

“Ned almost prided himself on a certain emotional detachment, a certain kind of craftsmanship. His journals were where he kept his journal—his music was something else,” says Page.

That’s what Rorem himself said in one of his books Lie:

“I don’t think composers write down their moods, they don’t tell the music where to go. She leads them… Why do I write music? Because I want to hear her. It’s as simple as that. Others may have done it, more talent, more sense of duty. But I only compose out of necessity, and no one else does what I need to.”

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