OF NED ROREM, 1973-1985

By Ned Rorem

North Point. 634 pp. $30

EVEN IF composer Ned Rorem were to write a thousand songs, each more beautiful than the last, posterity -- a creature as fickle as fame -- might still insist on remembering him for his diaries. Some 20 years ago, The Paris Diary scandalized readers with a pants-down picture of the '50s cultural scene in France. In its pages young Ned, obviously "kept" by a middle-aged French aristocrat named Marie Laure de Noailles, preened and pranced before Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric, and other artistic celebrities. Later, The New York Diary and The Last Diary only made matters worse, reinforcing this image of the composer as a prima donna, alcoholic and social-climber who liked to kiss and tell.

No doubt Rorem has been -- how to say it? -- a little self-centered. ("All true artists," he asserts, "are modest but try not to show it.") Virtually everyone who writes a journal or diary -- from romantic Rousseau to reclusive Arthur Inman -- hopes to tell the truth about himself and nearly always ends up looking like a monster of egotism. But with The Nantucket Diary Rorem's view of himself darkens considerably. "The mood," he writes, "is quieter. After a certain age, certain subjects become embarrassingly dull and nobody's business. One of these is sexual intercourse, the other is the injustice of personal sorrow." His obsessions -- they have been with him from the start -- come into sharper focus, that old romantic tangle of music, love and, now more than ever, death.

But before turning to those solemnities, faithful fans should know that the latest diaries are just as plump with aphorism, puns, scandalous anecdote, cocktail parties and professional journeyings as the earlier volumes. Comparing himself to the wholesome Russell Baker, Rorem observes that he is "everything a mother would not want her son to grow up to be." Of his own youthful self, he notes that he "was once extremely pretty if you like the type, which I detest." When he recalls Georges Auric's music for Cocteau's Orphe'e, he comments succinctly: "Alas, poor Auric."

It is hard to stop quoting. One evening at the movies "a couple in my overcrowded loge were necking with a sound like the squashing of hot peanut butter in armpits." He notes with a blend of irony and outrage that his parents "waited five hours in Emergency before father was examined -- father who co-founded Blue Cross." In an oddly touching entry he remarks "Finished, after five weeks' labor, the review of Misia, and it's no better than the better critics could do in a day." He also includes the bon mots of others, as when Virgil Thomson compares Elliott Carter to Aaron Copland in the role of Great Man: " 'When Aaron reached the top, at least he sent the elevator back down.' "

The notable and notorious appear regularly. Rorem runs into old acquaintance Claus von Bu low and remembers the afternoon Claus proudly showed off his collection of whips. John Cheever drops by the Nantucket house, and the diarist makes more explicit an earlier, discreet account of their love affair. (The rather pathetic Cheever is this time quite taken with Rorem's long-term companion, organist James Holmes.) Harold Brodkey, Francine du Plessix Gray, Judy Collins, John Simon, Eugene and Marta Istomin, Myrna Loy, Susan Sontag make guest appearances, and about all of them Rorem has shrewd things to say.

Along with comments on his music (and its performance) Rorem likes to drop in those incidental bits that lovers of biography savor. He mentions that his favorite movies are The Letter and Sunset Boulevard. After reading Darlinghissima, he acclaims journalist Janet Flanner "the greatest author of her time." (That must be among American authors, since George Simenon gets the nod elsewhere.) In fact, Rorem reads constantly, and well, from the gay to the grave: Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, Henry James' The Tragic Muse, Arnold Bennett's Hilda Lessways, James Salter's Light Years. He is often in search of poems to set -- his songs number over 200 -- and turns regularly to Whitman, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery for texts. During these years he wins -- to his tickled astonishment -- the Pulitzer Prize and is elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters. He observes that, of the institution's 26 male members, he has slept with four; the whole group comes across as a snakepit of envy, snobbery and malice.

Throughout this decade, Rorem never rests from composing, conducting, teaching. He takes a part-time job at Curtis Institute of Music, but turns down lucrative offers with heavy responsibilties in Boston and Atlanta because they would cut into his composing time. Sunday Morning premiers in Philadelphia, his Double Concerto in Cincinnati, the Nantucket Songs in Washington; concerts and summer music institutes take him to Akron, Atlanta, Santa Fe, Oberlin, Boston. Vanity Fair sends him back to Paris, where he reflects on his past while staying in the rooms of the novelist Edmund White. At a soire'e he compliments Jacques Barzun on his magisterial studies of Bizet -- and then realizes that he should have said Berlioz. But he does conscientiously strive to set the record straight about French composer Poulenc's sexual tastes: He "never chased. . . pretty boys . . . Poulenc's taste ran to overweight gendarmes with handlebar mustaches and to middle-aged businessmen. Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Poulenc once told me, was his ideal."

All this is lovely to know, a delight to read. But also through these pages, like a bourdon, sounds the death of friend after friend. At first they die of simple old age. But certain figures appear touched with a kind of tragic fatality. The brilliant conductor Thomas Schippers looks "drawn and frail"; it feels queer to realize, as the man chats happily about a piece for the Cincinnati Symphony, that he will be dead within a year. Sometime later pianist Paul Jacobs is diagnosed with a mysterious ailment -- and the reader shudders knowing what Rorem does not, that Jacobs will die horribly of AIDS. In a single year Rorem himself "paid 24 visits to 11 different doctors," suffering from a cyst under the eyelid, insomnia, prostate trouble, and other maladies. In 1977 James Holmes collapses with a nervous breakdown and nearly takes his own life. By 1984 Rorem can even write with apparent equanimity: "If told I could never have sex again, but would remain healthy and productive, it wouldn't make much difference." A day finally comes when the once-golden boy of contemporary music, possessed of a Dorian Gray-like youthfulness, goes out and buys himself a cemetery plot.

IN THESE later diaries Ned Rorem deservedly joins the great band of American introspectives, those obsessed observers of the soul, like Emerson and Thoreau, or the Scott Fitzgerald of The Crack-Up and the Paul Goodman of Five Years. The reflections at times grow abstract and philosophical, but one expects wisdom from the old. For Ned Rorem is, mirabile dictu, in his sixties. "I go to bed most nights with a weary heart, am eased by an hour or two of reading, fret with insomnia till sunrise, then praise the stars I'm still alive for another dawn. I approach that day as though treading a spider web: What shocks, deaths, disappointments will arrive before dark?. . . . Still . . . sometimes, for a brief span -- while sweeping the basement, watching crows on the snow, playing backgammon with JH -- I'll experience a surge of absolute happiness."

Yes, against the great world which he has so happily adorned, Rorem now paints most feelingly a picture of domestic contentment in his Nantucket house, working, reading, visiting friends. This, it would seem, remains his final refuge. That and his music. And this diary.

Michael Dirda is an assistant editor of Book World.