The news was confirmed by a reporter from his longtime music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, who said he died of natural causes at his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The handsome, energetic artist has produced a catalog of a thousand works ranging from symphonies and operas to solo instrumental, chamber and vocal music, in addition to 16 books. He also contributed the score to Al Pacino’s film “Panic in Needle Park”.
Time magazine once called Rorem “the best art songwriter in the world”, and he was noted for his hundreds of compositions for solo human voice. Poet and librettist JD McClatchy, writing in The Paris Review, described him as “a torture-free artist and a dashing narcissist”.
His music was mostly tonal, though very modern, and Rorem was quick to direct his printed words to other prominent contemporaries who espoused the dissonant avant-garde, such as Pierre Boulez.
“If Russia had Stalin and Germany had Hitler, France still has Pierre Boulez,” Rorem once wrote.
He had a basic songwriting motto: “Write gracefully for the voice – that is, the voice line as seen on paper has the arching flow that singers love to perform. .”
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 Orchestra for Rorem’s “String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles”.
His 1962 “Poems of Love and the Rain” is a 17-song cycle to texts by American poets; the same text is put twice, in a contrasting way.
Born in Richmond, Indiana, Rorem was the son of C. Rufus Rorem, whose ideas in the 1930s formed the basis of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance plans and who turned to the Quaker philosophy, raising her son as a pacifist.
Young Rorem went to day school at the University of Chicago’s elite lab schools. When she was 10, her piano teacher introduced her to Debussy and Ravel, who “changed my life forever,” said the composer whose music was tinged with French lyricism.
He then studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Hammond, Indiana, and at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, then at 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, mainly in Paris but with two years in Morocco.
“The Paris Diary” covers his time there and is filled with famous names of people he met – Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, Balthus, Salvador Dali, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Man Ray and James Baldwin. The late writer Janet Flanner called her “worldly, intelligent, licentious, very indiscreet”. Rorem himself said his text was “full of drunkenness, sex and talk from my superiors”.
His literary self-portraiture continued until 1985, contained in “The New York Diary”, “The Later Diaries” and “The Nantucket Diary”.
“His essays are composed like sheet music,” McClatchy once wrote of him. “The same characteristics we hear in Rorem’s music will be found in his essays: an indirection, an instinctive grace, an intellectual aplomb, a lyrical line.”
Some were appalled by Rorem’s notorious account of his relationships with four music greats: Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson. He also revealed a few others.
But most of his private life centered on James Holmes, organist and choirmaster with whom he lived for three decades in New York. Holmes died in 1999. A statement from Boosey & Hawkes said Rorem died surrounded by friends and family and was survived by six nieces and nephews and eleven great-nieces and great-nephews.
Drawing on his education, Rorem based his “Quaker Reader” – a collection of organ pieces – on Quaker texts.
As for his non-musical writings, he said: “My music is a journal no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the present state of mind of the writer which, if it were recorded an hour later, could emerge quite differently.
Rorem’s essays on music appear in anthologies titled “Setting the Tone”, “Music from the Inside Out”, and “Music and People”.
“Why do I write music?” he asked once. “Because I want to hear it – it’s as simple as that.”