American composer, author, and distinguished Bienen School of Music alumnus Ned Rorem ’44, ’77 H died November 18 at age 99.

Born in Richmond, Indiana and raised in Chicago, Rorem took piano lessons with Northwestern alumna Margaret Bonds ’33, ’34 MMus before enrolling at the Northwestern University School of Music. He would go on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, Juilliard School, and Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood.

One of America's most honored composers, Rorem was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship (1951), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968). He received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award in 1971 for his book Critical Affairs, A Composer's Journal; in 1975 for The Final Diary; and in 1992 for an article on American opera in Opera News. His suite Air Music won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in music. He received numerous honorary degrees, including from Northwestern University in 1977.

"I do very much want to be remembered. I think part of what any artist does is to remain on the earth for one, 10, maybe 100 years after he dies. It’s about his posterity." 

— Ned Rorem, in a Northwestern interview

In January 1977, Rorem visited Northwestern to speak with music students in conjunction with a visit to Chicago to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Air Music. Later that year, he returned to Northwestern to receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts and deliver the School of Music’s convocation address. He made several other visits to Northwestern over the years, including for a performance by the CSO of An American Oratorio in 1986, as special guest of the School’s weekly convocation programming in 1994, and for the School of Music’s centennial celebration in 1995-1996.

Rorem served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 2000-2003. In 2001 he was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres by France for his contribution to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance. In 2003 he was awarded the Gold Medal in Music, for an entire body of work, by the Academy of Arts and Letters; and also received ASCAP’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

In October 2013, the Bienen School’s Institute for New Music celebrated the 90th birthday of Rorem with a two-day festival, Ned@90. The event included an opening concert featuring the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble and several Bienen faculty performances; a composer roundtable, “Reflections on the Artist, Responses to the Teacher,” with Bienen faculty and guest composers; and a closing concert with brass members of the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, faculty performances, and the Civitas Ensemble.

“Ned Rorem’s hundreds of art songs form a discerning compendium of mostly twentieth-century American poems set to lyrical music with lightly dissonant harmonies. No less important are his diaries and writings that provocatively discuss gay life in the USA and France from the 1940s through to the present day, especially within the music profession,” said Drew Edward Davies, associate professor of musicology and chair of the Department of Music Studies. Davies taught a Northwestern course in American Art Song last spring that focused on the music of Rorem, among other American composers.

Karen Brussen, professor of voice and co-chair of the Department of Music Performance, said art songs by Ned Rorem have been favorites in the voice studio for decades. “Students enjoy the fresh spirit evident in such songs as Early in the Morning; The Silver Swan; Go, Lovely Rose; The Lordly Hudson; Psalm 150; and The Serpent, to name a few.”

"I do very much want to be remembered,” Rorem said in a 2001 Northwestern interview. “I think part of what any artist does is to remain on the earth for one, 10, maybe 100 years after he dies. It’s about his posterity."

Ned and Northwestern

Before enrolling at Northwestern, Rorem took piano lessons in Chicago with composer, pianist, and Bienen alumna Margaret Bonds ’33, ’34 MMus.

In 1940, Rorem began his studies at the Northwestern School of Music. He attended the inauguration of Lutkin Hall in 1941.

Rorem spoke with music students about his composition and literary pursuits during a January 1977 visit to the School. He would return that year to serve as graduation speaker.

During a 1994 visit as special guest to the School, Rorem spoke with former concert manager and associate professor Thomas Willis ’49, ’66 PhD in Pick-Staiger Concer Hall.

Faculty members John Thorne and James Giles performed Rorem's “Four Prayers" during the Ned@90 festival at Northwestern in 2013.

Mallory Thompson ’79, ’80 MMus conducted a brass ensemble in Rorem's "Solemn Prelude" as part of the 2013 Ned@90 festival at Northwestern.

Special thanks to Northwestern University Archives for their assistance with historical images.

  • Institute For New Music
  • Drew Davies
  • Karen Brunssen