Ned Rorem (1923–2022). Third Symphony (1958)Listen on SoundCloud Listen on Spotify
His accomplishment in art song has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing his orchestral music, especially so his symphonies.
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.
In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.
Sometimes in preparing these podcasts I look for ideas around anniversaries, and one of the best places to look for those is at onthisday.com. So, looking back 100 years, say, from October 2023, brings up some interesting tidbits of musical history. How about the birth of Bert Kaempfert? You know him, if not him as the German orchestra leader, then you certainly know his work as the songwriter of “Strangers in the Night,” made famous by Frank Sinatra, and of “Danke Schoen,” Wayne Newton’s theme song.
Then there’s a favorite of mine, the birth of Barney Kessel a hundred years ago, whose life you might see as a reflection of the American music business landscape. He was a phenomenal jazz guitarist but most will have heard his work as part of that group of L.A. studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew: he’s credited, for instance, on that Pet Sounds album of the Beach Boys from 1966.
More to the classical side are the births, 100 years ago, of the conductor and composer Stanisław Skrowaczewski and also the conductor Robert Craft, most famous for his collaborations with Igor Stravinsky.
And then there’s the name that is the reason for this episode of Fleisher Discoveries, Ned Rorem, born 100 years ago, October 23rd, 1923. In the five years we’ve done the podcast, and in the previous 16 years of the radio show, this will be the first time we’ve heard any music by Ned Rorem. Since the Fleisher Collection is a library of orchestral music, and therefore orchestral music is what we hear on Fleisher Discoveries, some people may be surprised by Rorem’s inclusion, since he is so well known as a composer of song. But Fleisher has seven orchestral works of Ned Rorem’s, and he wrote more than that, including Air Music, which received the 1976 Pulitzer Prize. Four of his works are symphonies—one, the String Symphony, is unnumbered—and it’s his Third Symphony that we’ll hear today on Fleisher Discoveries.
I met Ned Rorem once, and it was because of composer Daron Hagen, who was a student of his at the Curtis Institute. I was already a copyist at the Fleisher Collection, and Daron came aboard at Fleisher to be a copyist, too. We became friends and still are, and by the way, do check out daronhagen.com. He’s an absolutely wonderful composer with now 14 operas, a ton of art songs, orchestral and chamber music of all types, and two opera films that are winning awards all around the world.
From Philadelphia at Curtis to New York at Juilliard, Daron crafted a new-music concert series and kindly asked me for a work to program on one of them. I now forget what piece it was, and probably there’s a good reason I’ve forgotten it, but after the concert in New York, who was sitting there but Ned Rorem in the audience. I was introduced to him, and he said to me, and I remember the words exactly, “I enjoyed your piece and I hope to hear more of your music in the future.” I thanked him energetically, and stepped to the side, elated. Another composer was then introduced to him, and I heard Ned Rorem say to the next young composer, and I remember his words exactly, “I enjoyed your piece and I hope to hear more of your music in the future.”
It occurred to me that he could’ve repeated his word-for-word repeat quieter, as I was not farther than two feet away from him. But I slunk away, quickly deflated after my quick elation. However, I later had cause not to be too depressed. Another student of Rorem’s, and another friend of mine, later told me that Ned liked “about half” of my piece. I said, with a stony face, “Oh.” But the friend quickly assured me, “No! That’s a compliment! He’s never liked more than a quarter of any piece of mine!”
Ned Rorem’s place in American music is perhaps difficult to assess because, in spite of his large instrumental works, the Pulitzer, and other awards, he is undoubtedly known for, and justifiably lionized for his art songs. He wrote more than 500, which is getting near to Franz Schubert numbers. They are unfailingly lyrical, usually deeply emotional, often haunting, always subtle. The piano writing is more than accompaniment but a generous partner to the voice—indeed, it is another voice—which makes sense since Rorem was an accomplished pianist. His sense of prosody—the rhythmic and harmonious fitting of the music to the beat and the flow of the words—puts him among the best of song composers. And the test of that is that singers love to sing the songs of Ned Rorem.
This accomplishment of his in the area of song has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing his orchestral music, especially so with his symphonies. So we’ll undo that a little on today’s show by airing his Third Symphony. After studying at Northwestern University, Curtis, and Juilliard, Rorem moved to France and Morocco, continuing his studies and composing. He began this symphony while in Europe and finished it upon his return to the U.S., completing it in 1958. He showed it to the newly appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, who agreed to give its premiere in 1959.
It’s in five movements, none of them very long, the entire symphony lasting just shy of 25 minutes. The first is a Passacaglia, using a repeating bass line to tie the elements together. The second movement, Allegro molto vivace, began life eight years earlier as a jazzy piece for two pianos. The following Largo, Rorem said, has to do with sleepwalking. The fourth movement, Andante, is the composer’s “farewell to France,” and he wrote the finale, the Allegro molto, as a kind of concerto for orchestra. Each of the movements is a colorful character, and the symphony as a unit is appealing and imaginative.
On Fleisher Discoveries, the Third Symphony by Ned Rorem. In this recording José Serebrier conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
[Ned Rorem (1923–2022). Third Symphony (1958)]
The music of Ned Rorem, his Third Symphony. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was conducted by José Serebrier. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.
Leonard Bernstein, as I mentioned, gave the premiere of this with the New York Philharmonic in 1959. Rorem already knew Bernstein before Rorem left for his eight-year stay in France and Morocco. To earn a living as a struggling young composer, Rorem had taken up a job copying music for Virgil Thomson, and Thomson had introduced him to Bernstein. So, upon returning to America, it was natural for the composer to look up the conductor and to show him his new symphony. He was delighted with the response—who wouldn’t be?—but especially so since he had composed it just for the love of it; there was no commission.
But Rorem relates that when Bernstein agreed to conduct it, Bernstein said, “OK, I’ll do it, but I wish you would re-orchestrate the slow movement entirely for strings.” Rorem said, “Sure,” but he never did a thing with it, because, he said, “Bernstein was always saying things like that and then would forget all about it.”
I’m glad we could bring you this celebration of Ned Rorem on the 100th Anniversary of his birth in October of 1923. He passed away only last year, at the age of 99.
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And thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.