Ned Rorem: String Quartet No. 4

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, performance by the Escher Quartet, July 14, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Ned Rorem is most widely known as an American composer of art songs, and is also a literary figure, having published volumes of diaries documenting his professional musical life, his youthful involvement in midcentury gay culture, and, more recently, his experiences as an aging artist. He is a keen observer of human behavior, a keen analyzer of creative efforts, and his work—both musical and literary—often grows from the intersection of these traits.

Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, in 1923 and grew up in Chicago. In the mid-1940s, he studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, enrolled at the Juilliard School, and traveled to Paris in 1949, where he lived intermittently through 1958. In 1976 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music (“if I die in a whorehouse, [my obituary] will still say, Pulitzer Prize winner, Ned Rorem,” he once told a journalist.) Today, at age 94, he lives on Nantucket.

The Emerson String Quartet premiered Rorem’s String Quartet No. 4 in 1995 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Its ten movements were based on ten paintings by Pablo Picasso, but only “sort of,” Rorem cautioned in a published 1998 letter to a friend. He explains the “sort of” in his own program note:

The ten sections were (I persuaded myself) inspired by ten pictures of a certain powerful painter, each section titled after a specific canvas … Now I find the device irrelevant, in that no music irrefutably depicts other than itself. Henceforth listeners must make way for their own images.

The paintings may have served as prompts for Rorem, but he wasn’t trying to make aural translations of the images—rather, he was using music as another way to get at the ideas behind the paintings. In the end, the music comes untethered from its original grounding, but still carries some inarticulable imprint of it. Rorem doesn’t want his audience to be guided by the paintings, or to try to reconstruct correspondences between music and image. While the original program (and CD booklet) for the quartet name of the paintings, Rorem later retitled the movements with only the abstract descriptions used in this program.

In keeping with the composer’s wishes, we will say no more here about the paintings. As for the music, listen for the ways Rorem contrasts activity with stasis: especially in the movements “Absolutely strict,” with its binding motif that circles without end, and “Cold and Hot,” with its impassioned cello solo met by sterile, bleached chords. From beginning to end, there is great variety in this quartet: beautiful melodies, nervous energy, and a palette of harmonies ranging from lush to astringent.