Ned Rorem is one of the most widely-recorded living American composers, who Time magazine called 'the world's best composer of art songs', with over 500 songs to his name.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
As comedy this brings little more than a wry smile. But ponder on its contradictions and you end up thinking the way Ned Rorem gets you thinking. Not Ned Rorem the composer, who writes music, he says, ‘because I want to hear it’: the other Ned Rorem – the prolific essayist and diarist – who writes about why he writes music, and expounds, amid anecdotes, on his creative philosophy and aesthetic.
It is an aesthetic that for a long time went against the flow: tonal, approachable, radical only in that it must have sounded so familiar. Rorem’s music was never the dernier cri in an age, post-1945, when ‘original’ was held to be synonymous with ‘good’. So he concludes in one collection of musings that ‘imitation is the truest form of individuality’. And he quotes Raymond Radiguet saying, ‘a true artist has his own voice and cannot copy, so he has only to copy to prove his originality.’ Apply this cryptic argument to the echo joke and Ned the artist calls out to the echo, while the echo – being Ned’s creation – is a copy that proves to be original. Rorem the composer can imitate but in doing so will inevitably produce something new.
Such tangled thinking is where an overdose of re-reading Rorem’s bewildering, beguiling prose has got me. But listen to the songs on this disc and the echo allusion becomes far less bewildering: these songs beguile with their straightforwardness; they revel in their lyricism; and they are distinctively Ned Rorem while often self-consciously following an echoing road through the French, English and American song repertoires.
Of the American more later. The Anglophone echoes include ‘Hymn for evening’, from the cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen (1997), which sounds like a transplant from an Anglican church service, with its ‘organ’ preamble and quartet of voices. ‘Catullus: on the burial of his brother’ (1947) recalls the heyday of English song in its melodic sweep, and the vocal line of ‘On a singing girl’ (1946) would not be out of place in a manuscript by Gerald Finzi. These last two were written in the days when Rorem studied during the summers with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, before his 1949 pilgrimage to Paris. It was a pilgrimage that most notable American composers seem to have made; in Rorem’s case it lasted a decade and became the shaping experience of his music and his life.
You cannot help but hear Francis Poulenc, the most significant French song composer since Ravel, in the way the piano defines Rorem’s songs in mood, style, meaning – even in their echoes – with repeating gestures or patterns (‘My donnée or raw notion – the spark that’s lit in the night – usually ends up as an accompaniment,’ Rorem writes). ‘Early in the morning’ (1958), the opening song in this recital, is an obvious example: a sunny, gentle waltz and a lazy reminiscence on Paris and youth, that evokes the even gentler, even lazier atmosphere of Poulenc’s ‘Hôtel’. Or there is ‘To a young girl’ (1951): sparse, tentative, then impassioned, and reminiscent of Poulenc’s ‘Montparnasse’.
Poulenc can be found in the melodies, too. After all, Rorem’s description of Poulenc’s ‘tunes’ could apply perfectly well to his own: ‘[they] stem from speech; he never squeezed verse into pre-written musical phrases. His concern for correct stress made even his lushest songs talky.’ What could be more ‘talky’ than the W. B. Yeats setting ‘Do not love too long’, one of Rorem’s Poems of love and the rain (1963)? This melody unwinds syllable by syllable, rising and falling with natural ease and lingering for a melisma only on a word like ‘old’, where a reader, too, would linger. ‘The Serpent’ (1971-2) sets Theodore Roethke commenting in allegorical mode on would-be singers. The result is a comical song, its piano frantic while the voice leaps with deliberate but steady awkwardness. Yet once more the effect is ‘talky’, as you might pace and intone for a child.
Good song composers, you would expect, will match their music to the shapes and emphases of the text in this way, but that does not necessarily mean the melodies will retain the essence of speech. In Ned Rorem’s hands, such ‘talkiness’ is a given. What’s more, his melodies have an intimacy, most easily ascribed to their unaffected simplicity, that few in the realm of so-called ‘art song’ have achieved. It is an intimacy far more familiar in popular song, be it by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, The Beatles or, if we are sticking to the French sphere, Edith Piaf. And therein lies another layer – another set of echoes – that distinguishes Ned Rorem’s songs. They do not in any sense imitate popular styles – sometimes far from it – but in their melodic directness and ‘singability’ they can feel as easy to listen to as what is nowadays termed ‘easy listening’. This seems as true of charmers like ‘Rain in Spring’ (1949) or ‘For Susan’ (1953) as it does of the lusciously evocative ‘Orchids’ (1959) or the one song on this disc that comes closest to pastiche, the Music Hall-infused ‘Full of life now’ (1989). And it might even be borne out by Noël Coward – a man who knew something about popular song – who is reported by Rorem to have been so taken by ‘Little Elegy’ (1948) that he ‘declared … when [Rorem makes] an opera of Brief Encounter, it must sound like that song.’
Perhaps there is no more to the magic than, as Rorem claims, that ‘I set words to music as I talk them: which is what makes my songs personal – if indeed they are’. Perhaps it is that Rorem composes for singing which is, as he calls it, ‘non-operatic’ and so, by definition, more intimate. Or perhaps it is the affinity for language of Rorem the writer that helps his musical setting of other people’s texts flow with such immediacy and ease. It seems the man himself is not sure either. In a 1964 diary entry, he wrote:
I feel guilty about what I do best – setting words to music. Because it comes easily (meaning naturally), I feel I’m cheating. Still, it isn’t my hand that has wings but another Ned Rorem’s; I sit back impotent watching his hand err and triumph.
The hand works to fill a void. Whether the work is good doesn’t matter.
I know music – I don’t know about music. Yes, I write songs. This does not mean I know how to write songs. I can show you how to make a perfect one, but not a good one. (Oh, I do ‘know how’ to compose, but that’s all. If I’ve anything to ‘impart,’ I’m unaware of it.)
Yet I was once arbitrarily named the best songwriter in the world …
That epithet had appeared in Time Magazine. It was quite a claim. In America the crown might more probably have gone to Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber; in Britain, Benjamin Britten could have expected the title. For while in the 1950s Rorem was still living out the youthful escapades he later immortalised in the Paris Diaries, and was a newcomer as an artsong composer, Copland, Barber and Britten were creating songs that have since reached the status of masterworks. The echoes of some of these songs find their way into Rorem’s music even decades later: the influence of Britten’s Canticles ‘My beloved is mine’ and ‘Abraham and Isaac’ is, for instance, unmistakable in ‘On an echoing road’ from Evidence of things not seen (1997). Rorem’s debt to Copland is implicit when he calls him ‘the father of American music’. The competition from Barber is acknowledged when Rorem writes: ‘We moved in different circles. Also, being almost the only ones whose catalogues were colored by Song, that fact in turn was colored – at least for me – by a certain rivalry.’
Debatable as the Time Magazine quote was when it was published, it has stuck. Today almost every article on Ned Rorem – this one now included – mentions it. Why? Because we all like decisive categorizations like ‘the best’, for sure. But also because more than sixty years after Rorem wrote the earliest of the songs recorded in this set, he can sit at home in New York (his base since moving back from Paris half a century ago) knowing that songs like ‘Look down, fair moon’ (1957), ‘That shadow, my likeness’ (1963) or his arrangement of ‘Jeanie with the light brown hair’ (1982) are echoing in recital halls around the world. He can listen (though he claims not to) to an ever-expanding collection of Rorem song recordings by performers several generations his junior, like members of The Prince Consort. And he continues to add to that ‘catalogue colored by Song’ – a new work written for The Prince Consort will be premiered in 2010. So audiences and performers have long treasured Ned Rorem’s songs, and the choice of treasures is vast: there are over 600 of them. Maybe – prophetically – Time was right.
The splash made by the publication of Rorem’s uncompromising Paris Diaries in 1966 changed his music and his writing. He explains:
[In my] music, which had hitherto been (so I imagine) elegant, pristine, well-chiseled, I consciously tried for more … well, for more ugliness, more space and more madness. And so, the Good Ned of Notes entered a destabilizing mirror while the Naughty Ned of Verbs exited. The two changed places permanently and, with benign schizophrenia, have run on parallel tracks ever since. They seldom meet.
‘Benign schizophrenia’ and ‘destabilizing mirror’ lead us back to ‘Hello Echo’ – ‘Hello Ned’. Rorem has two voices, he claims: musical and literary. His listeners, he says, know only his music: his readers know only his prose. But it is worth knowing both. The parallel tracks belong together. Good Ned and Naughty Ned shed light on each other because, as in the joke, the call and the altered echo are from the same source. Rorem’s ‘parallel tracks’ turn into an echoing road where, to quote Colette as Rorem sets her, ‘trotting in unison, now out of step, now as one again, are two horses saddled together, guided by a single hand … O my slow steeds, pull now together: from here I can see the end of the road.’
Armin Zanner © 2009