Ned Rorem, the prolific Pulitzer Prize and Grammy winner known for his vast output of compositions as well as his barbed and sometimes scandalous prose, died Friday at the age of 99.
A publicist for his longtime music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, confirmed the news, saying he died of natural causes at his Upper West Side home.
The handsome, energetic composer created a thousand-work catalog that included everything from symphonies and operas to solo instrumental, chamber, and vocal music, as well as 16 books. He also worked on the score for the Al Pacino film “Panic in Needle Park.”
Time magazine once called Rorem “the world’s best composer of art songs,” and he was notable for his hundreds of compositions for the solo human voice. The poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy, writing in The Paris Review, described him as “an untortured artist and dashing narcissist.”
His music was mostly tonal, though very much modern, and Rorem didn’t hesitate to aim his printed words at other prominent contemporaries who espoused the dissonant avant-garde, like Pierre Boulez.
“If Russia had Stalin and Germany had Hitler, France still has Pierre Boulez,” Rorem once wrote.
He had a basic motto for songwriting: “Write gracefully for the voice — that is, make the voice line as seen on paper have the arched flow which singers like to interpret.”
Rorem won the 1976 Pulitzer for his “Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra.” The 1989 Grammy for outstanding orchestral recording went to The Atlanta Symphony for Rorem’s “String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles.”
His 1962 “Poems of Love and the Rain” is a 17-song cycle set to texts by American poets; the same text is set twice, in a contrasting way.
Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, the son of C. Rufus Rorem, whose ideas in the 1930s formed the foundation of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance plans and who later turned to Quaker philosophy, raising his son as a pacifist.
The younger Rorem attended the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. By the age of ten, his piano teacher had introduced him to Debussy and Ravel, who “changed my life forever,” according to the composer, whose music was tinged with French lyricism.
He continued his education at the American Conservatory of Music in Hammond, Indiana, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, before moving on to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York.
As a young composer in the 1950s, he lived abroad for eight years, mostly in Paris but with two years in Morocco.