ROREM: End of Summer / Book of Hours / Bright Music
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Ned Rorem (b.1923): Book of Hours End of Summer Bright MusicThe brilliant American composer and essayist Ned Rorem was born into a Quaker family in Richmond, Indiana, in October 1923, the son of Gladys Miller, a civil rights activist and C. Rufus Rorem, a medical economist, and was brought up in Chicago. In 1944, Rorem moved to New York City, following studies first at the Music School of Northwestern University and secondly with the noted teacher Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where his fellow-students included Lukas Foss; Barber and Menotti were also pupils of Scalero. Today, he maintains an Upper West Side apartment in New York City and a bungalow on Nantucket.
The first compositions which Ned Rorem acknowledges appeared in 1943, when he was nineteen. Since then he has produced over three hundred works in almost every known genre, including in particular, in terms of number but not necessarily always in importance, individual art songs with piano accompaniment and song-cycles with orchestra. His fame as one of the most prolific and admirably sustained of contemporary song composers, all to English texts, has tended to obscure his achievements in other fields, yet the first major recording of a work of his, which brought his name before the wider musical public, was of his Second Piano Sonata, a composition in four movements from 1949. This sonata at once declared Rorem to be what might then have been superficially described as a neo-classical composer, for the movements have titles typical enough of an eighteenth-century partita, yet by the late 1940s, when the sonata was written, his formal grounding in composition was finished and he had begun to enjoy his first taste of national fame with the Music Library Association citation in 1948 that his setting of Paul Goodmans poem The Lordly Hudson was "the best published song of the year", and the award to him of the Gershwin Prize for an early (later withdrawn) orchestral work.
By then, Rorems American mentors had included Leo Sowerby in Chicago, Virgil Thomson and Bernard Wagenaar in New York (Rorem acted as copyist for Thomson in return for lessons in orchestration) and Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood. Following their examples he went to Paris in 1949, and then almost immediately to Morocco, where he stayed for two years before settling in Paris, until 1957, when he returned to the United States. Rorem was not, of course, the first American composer to live and study in the French capital, but the contact with musicians such as Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric and especially Nadia Boulanger, together with the patronage of the Vicomtesse Marie Laure de Noailles, brought him both a mastery of the French language and the important element of fastidious elegance and clarity of expression, for long a feature of Gallic art, thereby helping him to become a wholly exceptional composer in twentieth-century American music.
Rorems life, as his candid journals have revealed, has been anything but conventional, and yet his music has at times been unjustly criticized for its basic adherence to what one might term traditional values. It is essentially tonal, but Rorems individuality as a creative figure is such that he can (and has) drawn new expressive features from a musical language which is derided by those who simply do not understand it.
The three chamber works here included appeared over a twelve-year period. They form a fascinating and revealing portrait of a composer at the height of his powers who both knows what he wants to say and, more important, how to say it. Book of Hours, scored for flute and harp, was written in Yarro and Nantucket in the first half of 1975, and was first given in New Yorks Alice Tully Hall in February 1976, by Ingrid Dingfelder, flute, and the harpist Martine Geliot. For the titles of the movements, Rorem used the canonical times of the day for Christian prayer. With this in mind, the character of each of the movements becomes clearer. To open and close the day are similar moods of contemplation, before and after the sun rises and sets, and in between come the various hours set aside for devotion.
This is the basic framework of the music, which begins with an imaginative personification, almost as if awakening from sleep. Indeed, throughout this work, Rorems considerable compositional resource unites the instruments as aspects of the same character, never in opposition, but always complementing one another, the heart and mind joined in the same body. The opening Matins, for example, a mere ten bars long, is a palindrome (after half-way, the music retraces its steps), as if a memory of Gregorian chant. Every note in this piece is not a furtherance of colour, but an organic part of the creation. With this in mind, it is easier to see how Rorem uses the harp chords in Lauds (Sunrise), growing in intensity as the sun rises, but harmonically remaining the same (the process is subtly reversed in Vespers). Thus it is that this suite maintains its inherent character, at the same time as revealing new aspects of the material throughout.
There is an element of church music in the trio End of Summer, for clarinet, violin and piano, which was composed in 1985 soon after Rorems septet, Scenes from Childhood, based upon fragments of his earliest music. The later piece includes (as Rorem himself said) "
hints of Satie, Brahms, hopscotch ditties and Protestant anthems". Other than the occasional allusion, we might never have guessed; the Capriccio is a fluent succession of reflections, as it were, upon the solo violins extended opening solo, in which the interval of a falling major second is the germ: the music is remarkably varied, yet conjoined, shot through with hints of late flowering and forthcoming change, not a transition but a state in itself. The Fantasy evolves from the falling leaves material (Rorems own mood-tempo description), with which clarinet and violin begin, into a superb stretch of fall and rebirth, and the title of the finale Mazurka refers not so much to Chopinesque formalism as to the old type of Polish round-dance in 3/4 time from which it evolved. The musician may hear a hint of double-Rondo structure here, becoming more intense as the two main ideas come closer together towards the end.
Curiously, Chopin himself appears in the 1987 Bright Music, as the last movement of this suite for five players (flute, two violins, cello and piano). This movement is a fantasy on the finale of Chopins B flat minor Piano Sonata (the Funeral March Sonata), transmuting the original Presto into a blaze of colour - the key, A sharp major, is enharmonically the same, but the character is vastly different. Rorem himself was struck, when asked to provide some information on the work, how it would seem he based it upon fragments rather than themes (as a noted song-writer might have been expected to do). This gives the work an organic intensity which the apparently disparate titles of the movements might appear to deny. Indeed, the very opening Fandango music for piano comes from (was innocently suggested by?) the Chopin finale, but Rorem claims the image was of a rat inside a can, before evolving into (another) Mazurka-Rondo. Pierrot, Rorem explained, is akin to an unconscious meditation on Picassos early blue period: cool, slow, and refined, and the Dance-Song-Dance is a Scherzo based upon a major triad, although this is not quite so obvious as may be thought. This contrasts the slower Song with the hectic Dance, before the pull of the Dance becomes irresistible once more. The Chopin finale ends this suite in a mood of buoyant optimism.