A Composer's Notes on Living

By Carolyn See,
who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, December 22, 2006


A Diary (1999-2005) and Musical Writings

By Ned Rorem

Shoemaker & Hoard. 242 pp. $25

Ned Rorem is known as one of the 20th century's finest classical composers and one of our country's foremost diarists. Or, on the other hand, he may hardly be known by anyone at all. There's a strange tipping point about fame -- that tricky edge where, if you don't know who someone is, you're an unlettered churl, or, if you don't know who someone is, he plainly isn't famous enough. Of course, Rorem has won a Pulitzer Prize for his music and has been president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But after reading about his five self-described "identities" -- "Atheist, Pacifist, Alcoholic (recovered), Homosexual, Composer" -- with Composer coming in fifth and Diarist not even listed, I conducted a telephone poll of six PhDs -- none of them an idiot -- and only one correctly identified him. Others got part of his description right.

"Isn't he gay?"

"Friend of Gore Vidal?"

"Musician, isn't he?"

"Doesn't he live in the East?"

Which suggests several things: Contemporary classical music is seriously undervalued in this country. Or the East Coast, quite as much as the West, is provincial, parochial, self-rewarding and self-regarding. Or there is a wider division between straight and gay culture than is generally perceived.

At any rate, here is an unusual and thought-provoking compilation from one of our country's preeminent diarists, a "last" diary, perhaps, together with a series of short musical essays -- introductions, liner notes, tributes to deceased composers and an indignant letter to this newspaper explaining why he cannot review a biography of Glenn Gould. ("This letter," he writes grumpily, "was never acknowledged.")

Rorem's longtime lover and companion, Jim Holmes, died in 1999. He was 59, 15 years younger than Rorem, and they had been together for 32 years. Rorem suffered the tortures of profound grief. "Now nothing mattered anymore." Fortunately or unfortunately, life may cease to have meaning, but it doesn't stop until it's good and ready. From that point on, Rorem's life seems to have split dramatically in two. His physical, personal life remained a shambles.

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