Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: Ned Rorem

Ned Rorem is one of our most distinguished composers. In his long life of ninety-three years he has won most of the awards to be won, including a Pulitzer Prize.
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Ned Rorem is one of our most distinguished composers. In his long life of ninety-three years he has won most of the awards to be won, including a Pulitzer Prize. He has written many songs and states that everything he writes is, at its essence, vocal. His life has been in the public eye with his tell-all diaries, and in the music battles of long ago he came out against the 'complexity boys', as Virgil Thompson designated the American followers of Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositional style. His approach has always been as a Francophile: an interest in suaveness and directness, a lightheartedness and even casual- but never dumb- air. His music does not partake of the heightened seriousness and self-possession of the German tradition.

Rorem's music is not academic and is tonal. It is evocative and straightforward, clear in structure, and tantalizing in its colors. Its craft is never in doubt. Sometimes the music may be a little dry or brittle, perhaps a bit on the surface, but it is always direct and immediate. Whereas Messiaen aims for a direct encounter with the Ineffable, and to revel in the presentness of the mystical encounter with God, Rorem is about finding beauty and meaning in the ordinary rhythm of our lives. One might consider much of his music as musical diary entries, a glimpse of the moment and passing sensation raised to a sacred Now.

Primarily a song composer, it is natural that Rorem should excel in short forms. His Piano Album I, written over the years 1978 to 2001, is comprised of twenty-seven pieces, only one of which is longer than two minutes. They were mostly written as gifts to friends, the majority having been written for his long-term partner Jim.

Most of these works come off as well-thought out studies, and often employ lean two-point counterpoint or simple left hand accompaniment to a tune in the right hand, and are spare or lean. They are gentle in spirit and thus rarely exceed a very moderate loudness, and are frequently in a waltz meter (or ¾), and given their brevity, stick mostly to one idea. Their traversal through musical space and time is just right. Nothing is ever forced, and as Alice might say, all is as it should be, with just the right number of notes and not a note out of place. Sometimes the counterpoint seems to be a textbook display of Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum- 1st, 2nd or 3rd species- but with an American twist, as the rhythms have an easy lopping quality. A hint of early jazz is found in the harmonic language, with sevenths and ninths abundant, and endings have an easy settling quality. Unlike the music of the complexity boys he loathes, every movement has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Each is a little jewel held up for close inspection.

One might consider these wordless love songs, a genre that seems to have been taken over by the pop world. I can't think of many examples in the classical world over the last couple of generations. Perhaps in our world of swagger, overthinking, politics, academicism, and the highfalutin', the immediacy of the love song has been lost to serious music. Rorem recovers it in, of all places, these piano pieces.

Piano Album I may be found on the Naxo label performed by pianist Carolyn Enger. She displays lovely control of these delicate sonorities, with careful attention to balance and registration. Her touch is gentle but penetrating, reaching down into the sound, and her rhythmic sense is spot on for this delicate music, as she is often behind the beat- a little lazy and droll, with rubato just right. This music doesn't tell how virtuosic she is-as it rarely requires that kind of kinetic demonstration-but it does show that she has a huge heart and exquisite taste.

All of the short gem-like movements are separated by a lengthy setting of silence, so that each is allowed its own space and time, to breathe, and to refine the listening experience.

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