Ned Rorem’s Winter Pages/Bright Music

First, the confession: I have avoided Rorem’s music for years because I have an inexplicably deep-seated resistance to the art song in any form (whether this is because I was once a folk-singer or in spite of that fact, I’m not sure; the fact remains, the only “art songs” that have ever penetrated this reserve are Mahler’s great cycles, which are actually more symphonic than anything else). I then ran across selections from Rorem’s Nantucket Songs, performed by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson accompanied by Rorem himself (part of the CRI disc Gay American Composers), and decided to think about it again.

It is entirely typical of Rorem that, while describing the origins of Winter Pages in the liner notes, he recalls the menu of the lunch he shared with Charles Wadsworth in October, 1980, as they discussed the commission for the piece (eggs Benedict, chocolate truffles, espresso). In a variation on my usual practice, I jotted notes as I was listening and then went back to compare them to Rorem’s comments on the piece; here are the results.

There is an overarching unity to Winter Pages, although in some instances that takes reflection to pin down. Rorem calls it a “diary of the season,” which makes sense – there is a winter feel to this music, as long as we remember that winter, like any other season, has many moods (and that Rorem is quite arguably the pre-eminent diarist of the twentieth century). The sprightly opening, “Mirror,” while brief (0.40), is more complex than expected: it “rewinds itself” and backtracks to the beginning. “The sun that brief December day,” from Whittier’s Snowbound, brings in a moody, almost melancholy feel. All in all, my notes easily translate to Rorem’s comments, and vice-versa, meaning that either through a week of immersing myself in his published diaries I’ve come to understand his music without listening to it, or it is more accessible than contemporary “serious” music is generally given credit for. There are several sections, for example, where I commented “Mussorgsky,” thinking specifically of the section “The Dance of the Chicks In Their Shells” from “Pictures,” because of the nervous, skittery quality, including “Mirrors,” “Hesitations,” “Moments fly by like a snowstorm.” These alternate with quiet, moody, sometimes melancholy movements “The sun . . .,” “Rue des Saintes-Pères,” “Stone Snowballs”) and movements that are engagingly lyrical (“Dorchester Avenue,” “Urged by earnest violins,” the “Valse Oubliée” with its rapidly shifting moods, and the final “Still Life”). “Still Life,” is a good capsule for the entire work: as Rorem often maintains, rhythm is indisputably part of music, at least in his hands, and percussion is mere decoration; it is a terrifically sensual section, rhythmic, melodic, almost sweet, arising from the solo cello of “Stone Snowballs” as the rest of the ensemble enters to make “a quiet, formal ending.”

It is worth noting in ths context that that, even when not writing songs, Rorem finds much of his inspiration in poetry. He has the gift, moreover, of translating the idea of poetry into music without requiring the literalness of words to make the connection.

Bright Music was commissioned six years later by Marya Martin of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival. Rorem claims that the piece, in spite of his reputation for spacious, non-repetitive music, is composed of motives and fragments. That is more true than not, although by that notion I have to conclude that some sections are indeed, typically Rorem. The opening “Fandango” is overtly theatrical; in spite of Rorem’s claims that music cannot be intrinsically witty, it is that, too. (Rorem’s image: a rat in a trashcan.) There are lean, nervous sections that contrast with flowing, almost orchestral interludes – can there indeed be only five players? “Pierrot,” which follows, establishes within the first few bars the picture of Picasso’s sad, Blue Period clown (a linkage established, according to Rorem, ex post facto; I think it’s in the music). Rorem gives a very formal, structural discussion of “Dance-Song-Dance;” my notes say “more nervous: Twyla Tharp on speed.” The “song” Rorem calls a “lament;” I would characterize it as a slow, almost languid break, recalling in mood some parts of Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending.” The final “dance” is much more Martha Graham than Twyla Tharp – it has that kind of grandeur. “Another Dream” is indeed, dreamlike, a pared-down revery of flute and violin seeping through the lengthy ostinato of the piano. “Chopin,” claims Rorem, is “ the wisp of an echo” of Chopin’s B-flat minor Piano Sonata. It is also a wry (and thunderous!) comment on standard concert-hall fare.

Winter Pages was recorded in 1991 by an ensemble led by Charles Wadsworth on piano, including Todd Palmer, clarinet; Frank Morelli, bassoon; Ida Kavafian, violin; and Fred Sherry, cello. Bright Music was recorded in 1989 by Marya Martin, flute; Ani Kavafian and Ida Kavafian, violins; Frank Sherry, cello, and André-Michel Schub, piano. They have an obvious sympathy for the music and, in the case of Bright Music, are actually the players it was composed for.

Rorem classifies everything as either “French” or “German.” (Blue is French; red is German. Cats are French; dogs are German. Schubert is French; Berlioz is German. Generalities are French; specifics are German.) Rorem is indubitably French; I am a reformed German who was probably always French anyway. At any rate, according to Rorem, French is superficial in the best way; so is this music. Maybe that’s why I like it.

(New World Records, 1992)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.