The news was confirmed by a publicist 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 produced a catalog of a thousand works, ranging from symphonies and operas to instrumental solo, chamber and vocal music, in addition to 16 books. He also contributed to the score for the movie “Panic in Needle Park” starring Al Pacino.
Time magazine once called Rorem “the best composer of art songs in the world”, and he was notable for his hundreds of compositions for the solo human voice. The poet and librettist JD McClatchy, writing in The Paris Review, described him as “an untortured artist and impetuous narcissist.”
His music was mostly tonal, though very modern, and Rorem did not hesitate to direct his printed words at other prominent contemporaries who espoused the discordant 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, make sure the voice line as seen on paper has the curved flow that singers like to interpret.”
Rorem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra. The 1989 Grammy for Outstanding Orchestral Recording went to The Atlanta Symphony for Rorem’s “String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles.”
His 1962 “Poems of Love and the Rain” is a 17-song cycle set to lyrics by American poets; the same text is set twice, in a contrasting way.
Born in Richmond, Indiana, Rorem was the son of C. Rufus Rorem, whose ideas formed the basis of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance plans in the 1930s and who turned to Quaker philosophy and raised his son as pacifist.
The younger Rorem attended day school at the elite University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. By the time he was 10, his piano teacher introduced him to Debussy and Ravel, who “changed my life forever,” said the composer whose music was laced 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 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 it “worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet.” Rorem himself said his lyrics were “filled with drunkenness, sex and the talk of my superiors.”
His literary self-portrait continued until 1985, appearing in ‘The New York Diary’, ‘The Later Diaries’ and ‘The Nantucket Diary’.
“His essays are composed like scores,” McClatchy once wrote of him. “The same features we listen to in Rorem’s music will be a source in his essays: indirectness, instinctive grace, intellectual confidence, a lyrical line.”
Some were shocked by Rorem’s infamous account of his relationships with four big names in music: Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson. He also brought out a few others.
But most of his private life revolved around James Holmes, an organist and choir director with whom he lived for three decades in New York City. Holmes died in 1999. A statement from Boosey & Hawkes said Rorem died surrounded by friends and family and is survived by six cousins and eleven great-nieces and great-nephews.
Building on his upbringing, Rorem based his “Quaker Reader” – a collection of pieces for organ – on Quaker texts.
Of his non-musical writings, he said: “My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it represents the moment, the current mood of the writer which, if written down an hour later, could arise quite differently.
Rorem’s essays on music appear in anthologies titled “Setting the Tone,” “Music from the Inside Out,” and “Music and People.”
“Why am I writing music?” he once asked. “Because I want to hear it – simple as that.”