June 2005  | This Issue




omposer Ned Rorem, whose music has been characterized as romantic in approach, tonal and often lyrical, is predominately known as a master of the art song. To stop at this label is to miss the scope of this artist's talents. Rorem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his orchestral suite Air Music. His symphonies, piano concertos, ballets , operas and an array of other orchestral and choral works have been conducted by such prominent talents as Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masure, Zubin Mahta, Eugene Ormandy, André Previn, Leonard Slatkin and Leopold Stokowski. Nevertheless, when asked by what work he wants the public to remember him, he said, Evidence of Things Not Seen. This evening-length song cycle for four voices and piano is what he calls his magnum opus.


Rorem is also a prolific author of books and essays, wielding the word with poetic flair. In his essay on the Beatles he said, "Poetry may be the egg from which the nightingale is hatched." However, Rorem, a Quaker by upbringing does not wear rose-colored glasses, "I do not believe in God. I believe in poetry, which isn't the same thing although people compare them." (from his essay, "Sacred Music")


June 15 through 18, 2005, Rorem's 35-minute opera Three Sisters Who Were Not Sisters based on a text by Gertrude Stein will be performed with Virgil Thomson's ten-minute vocal work Capital Capitals and with the world premiere of the 90-minute opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On by poet Karren LaLonde Alenier and composer William C. Banfield. The all Gertrude Stein evening entitled A Gertrude Stein Musical Trilogy is being produced at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre in New York City by Encompass New Opera Theatre directed by Nancy Rhodes and conducted by John Yaffé. Encompass specializes in opera and voice compositions written by contemporaries of Virgil Thomson who was on Encompass' founding board of directors.

Virgil Thomson, who collaborated on two operas with Gertrude Stein (Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All ), taught Ned Rorem orchestration. When asked if Thomson influenced Rorem's selection of the Three Sisters text by Stein, Rorem said, "Who knows about these things? I think Gertrude Stein's texts are very musical. I never knew her but I knew Alice a bit. I had to get the rights from Alice to publish my song ["I am a Rose"] based on a poem by Gertrude."


In the 1960s, Rorem was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera Studio to write a children's opera. His first attempt to satisfy his commissioners was Bertha based on a play by Kenneth Koch. The Met rejected this work, which later premiered at Alice Tully Hall, New York, November 26, 1973. Rorem's second attempt to complete his Met commission was Three Sisters Who Were Not Sisters. The Met rejected this work also and the work later premiere on July 24, 1971 at TempleUniversity in Philadelphia.  

Rorem says children understand Stein's texts. "Children are quick to grasp." He also believes strongly that children should be taught to read music along with reading, writing and arithmetic. On numerous occasions, Rorem has said, " the minute [artists] stop being children, they stop being artists."  


How does a composer go about choosing a text? Rorem says he chooses texts that speak to his "conditions." He has set poems by such poets as Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, and Theodore Roethke. But Rorem stated, "A poet like Robert Lowell doesn't mean anything to me."

Every decade or so, Rorem has seriously considered setting In a Summer House, a play by Jane Bowles.  "I was very attracted to it [In a Summer House]. Every time I read it, I liked it but it never quite works. I select text the way everyone does. Does it speak to me and can I add a dimension to it?"


As a boy of sixteen, Rorem met Jane and Paul Bowles in Taxco, Mexico, where Rorem was traveling with his father. Paul Bowles was a noted composer and one who was friends with Gertrude Stein.  Despite Rorem's Quaker background and his close family ties, he led a fast life in his youth, drinking heavily, experimenting with drugs and sex while hanging out with ground-breaking artists such as Jean Cocteau, John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, and Marc Blitzstein.  At the same, he was learning formally and informally from the masters: Nadia Boulanger, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Arthur Honeggar. Rorem's published diaries read like a who's who of significant Twentieth Century artists of all disciplines. According to his autobiography Knowing When to Stop, Rorem was compared to Jane Bowles for such personality traits as contrariness and the ability to deliver verbal and corporal non sequiturs.


When asked if Rorem had any words of wisdom about collaborating, he answered, "I don't like to collaborate." However, he has been working recently with his long-time friend poet J.D. (Sandy) McClatchy on an opera drawn from Thornton Wilder's play Our Town. McClatchy wrote three drafts of the libretto as Rorem guided the process. The opera is nearing completion as Rorem finishes the orchestration. In an Albany Times Union article written by Joseph Dalton that appeared in August 2003, Rorem is quoted saying that people have been trying to get the rights to Our Town for fifty years. As executor of the Wilder estate, McClatchy helped get that elusive permission. Indiana University leads a group of universities as the commissioners of Our Town, Rorem's opera.

Except for a little bit of work with poets years ago, Rorem said he never collaborated from scratch with anybody. Rorem maintains that Maurice Grosser, Virgil Thomson's long-time partner, and Alice Toklas, Gertrude Stein's lifelong partner, were the unsung collaborators respectively with Thomson and Stein. Grosser, Rorem says reiterating what he has published in his autobiography Knowing When to Stop, was the "brains" behind Four Saints in Three Acts, that it was Grosser's conceptualization that made Stein's libretto workable. Likewise, Rorem said that Alice Toklas wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, not Stein who is credited with this outlandish tall-tale novel. In this interview, Rorem said that Maurice Grosser told him that it was Alice who wrote the work that made Stein a household personality in the United States in the mid 1930s.

In writing a negative review of Lord Byron, Virgil Thomson's opera with Jack Larson that was not well received by the critics, Rorem said the following about Four Saints In Three Acts, Thomson's first opera with Gertrude Stein: "Like all art it is rather mad and so beyond definition, yet like all madness it has a canny logic all its own." He continued by saying that the music was not particularly remarkable except that it was tonal in a time of atonal music. About Stein's libretto, he said that it was not "especially gripping when taken alone. Worse, it is poetry, a dangerous ingredient in theater." Rorem finished his discussion of Four Saints by saying that individually neither Thomson nor Stein had "fashioned a work of comparable strength." And Rorem's main thesis about why Lord Byron fails falls into the category of been-there-done -that – that Larson's libretto is too much like Stein and Thomson's music persists in a manner that had been heard before.


Although Rorem does not like to single out young composers for fear of leaving out anyone worthy, he pointed to Paul Moravek, who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for music. This is not to mention that Rorem, who is over 80, has always questioned how to define who is a young composer, saying that some composers in their 50s are still young composers based on their accomplishments or lack there of. When asked if he saw composer Jonathan Sheffer's Blood on the Dining Room Floor, an opera based on multiple Gertrude Stein texts, Rorem said yes and added that he believed that "Jonathan Sheffer had done some good with his now defunct EOS orchestra."

Rorem raises the bar for himself based on Thomson's model but yet persisted in working with the late Kenneth Koch, a poet Thomson dropped after Alice Toklas advised Thomson that Koch's libretto was not strong enough. Today, Rorem's work features the celebrated play Our Town that scholars say bears the strong influence of Gertrude Stein who became close friends with Thornton Wilder when Stein came to Wilder's hometown of Chicago during her 1934-35 lecture tour. What is clear is that Rorem, unlike the undisciplined wild child Jane Bowles, persists willfully and eternally youthfully from a center that includes Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein.

Photos by Christian Steiner

©2005 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Karren Alenier and Gertrude SteinEvery month, Karren LaLonde Alenier adds a report to Scene4 from her "travelogue" of the
work-in-progress opera
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.
You can read this month's installment here.

For other articles by Karren Alenier, check the Archives.

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