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In Life and Music, Ned Rorem Was Unwaveringly Himself


He had charmed the vicomtesse just as he had charmed everyone else — with gleeful self-awareness. Youthful and disarmingly handsome, he ingratiated himself with the leading American composers of the mid-Twentieth century, particularly the gay ones: Bernstein, Copland, Barber, Virgil Thomson. It’s this confidence that makes his diaries such a pleasure to read; first got here the Paris and Recent York volumes, which cover 1951-61, they usually continued over several more installments, as much as 2005.

These books are unusually candid, whether about his prolific sex life (later replaced by routine masturbation) and recurring anxieties. In “Lies: A Diary,” from 1986 to ’99, the AIDS crisis is peripheral then personal; the death of his partner, the organist James Holmes, from the disease is documented in almost unbearably incremental detail.

As a body of labor, the diaries are spiritual cousins of and precursors to novels by Edmund White, with their undisguised sexuality, and Andrew Holleran, with their uniquely gay wit. They got here not long after books like Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar,” Truman Capote’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms” and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” — literature catered to a straight audience, and teeming with shame.

Rorem refused to attach himself to that lineage, through the years and in conversations with me. “I’m not a propagandist,” he once said. “I just wrote about it because, so what? I didn’t understand why anybody, including my parents, was particularly impressed.” It was here, not for the primary time, that I discovered myself disagreeing with him. The diaries don’t have the political fervor to be a keystone of gay liberation, but they provided crucial support for it nevertheless.

I also often found myself furrowing my brow each time Rorem would discuss his own music. Artists, just like the clarinetist Thomas Piercy and the pianist Carolyn Enger, would stop by his apartment — with a treat, in fact — to play his works. Mostly, Rorem would encourage them to play the rating as directly as possible, to not interpret it. But that’s the core of performance, and of revelation.

Nonetheless, Rorem didn’t appear to care about having the suitable opinion, or the “right” style. His music has never been in fashion, and should never be — he was open about not aspiring to be a Beethoven — nevertheless it rewards those that seek it out. “Air Music,” for which he won the Pulitzer, is a piece of impressive craft and allure, though I’m keen on the piano pieces: the sparking Toccata from his First Sonata, and the sweet miniatures he wrote for family members, collected within the Piano Albums.

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