I just wrote a tribute to Ned Rorem on his 99th birthday. And just a few weeks later, he died.
I feel like this is my fault, somehow.
Of course, it’s not, but it’s kind of like saying “Beetlejuice/Betelgeuse” 3x in reverse. Instead of him appearing, he… left. I have written a lot about Stephen Sondheim, god knows, and almost a year ago, he died, just a few months short of his 92nd birthday.
And both composers meant a lot to me as an artist. I’m not quite as emotionally devastated by Rorem’s passing as Sondheim’s, but I still reacted with, “well, shit,” when I saw the first “RIP, Ned Rorem” pop up on the socials. (Which is the same way I found out about Stephen.)
As I was thinking about writing an obituary for Ned Rorem, I wondered … did they ever meet?
In 2000, Ned Rorem interviewed Stephen Sondheim at the 92nd Street Y. Early on, Rorem asks:
“You and I both write songs. On the face of it, those songs are in the same language – tonal,melodic, prosodically comprehensible. But there is a crucial difference – you’re a Broadway Baby, and I am an effete snob. ”
Sondheim goes on to disprove some of the disparaging and outdated ideas that Rorem had about musical theater – for example, the idea that all songs fall into a structure of a 32-bar melody, which Sondheim told him went out “about the time you [Rorem] went to Paris.”
They also talk about their shared compositional influences, Ravel and Copland. (Not in this interview, but in separate sources, both speak of the tremendous influence Leonard Bernstein had on them.) Rorem seemed to admire Sondheim as a lyricist as well, even asking him if he’d write lyrics for him. (He wouldn’t.)
Another interesting question Rorem asked:
“I wonder if you would agree with this. All music writing [instrumental or vocal] …. is essentially a song expression. It is the singer within us that is trying to get out, with or without. That is how I choose these words and set them in as comprehensible a way as possible. I want to heighten the poetry; I don’t want to broaden it.”
Sondheim’s response was to ask him whether he’d ever set poems he didn’t understand, and did they work? Rorem said that they worked because he set them. (He had a very high opinion of his skills – rightfully so.)
Sondheim asked Rorem if he’d write another opera. Rorem’s response was that he didn’t really consider himself an opera composer; an opera is not a bunch of songs, and a song recital is not a miniature opera. But he said he would consider writing another opera, “(A), if you wrote the libretto.” Sondheim laughed (and again, he didn’t).
Toward the end of the video (and I suspect there’s more, because it ends rather abruptly), Rorem asks:
“You [Sondheim] have become a part of the collective unconscious, which means, at their best, your songs are memorable because the words and music are inextricable.”
Although Rorem didn’t seem to know that much about musical theater (by choice), Sondheim knew quite a bit about classical composers and their oeuvre.
I’m glad I found this interview because it really defines why I was sad about Rorem’s passing – but devastated by Sondheim’s. Both men are clever, intelligent, and articulate. Both could be critical of their peers (see Finishing the Hat). But Rorem’s wit was acerbic; Sondheim’s was self-deprecating. I don’t think anyone would say Sondheim was “an effete snob,” let alone himself. That definition was part of Rorem’s self-identification – it wasn’t self-deprecating. It just was.
Rorem says that he has a “neat mind and can’t improvise.” Sondheim’s writing was dictated by the principles that:
- Less is more
- God is in the details
- Content dictates form
All in the service of clarity. I think that they definitely have that in common.
(The video that came up right afterwards was an episode of Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland interviewing Stephen Sondheim in 1994 – at which point I found out that Sondheim attended a Quaker private school; and Ned Rorem was raised Quaker…. more words colliding!)
This was supposed to be a short obituary, but, as usual, I went somewhere else – because I was curious about whether or not Sondheim and Rorem met. And now here we are.
Watch both the videos, if you can. They’re fascinating.