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Ned Rorem’s Organ Music

September 21, 2010

Ned Rorem, as far as I understand it, hates the pipe organ, and sometimes I think it shows in his music, at least in some unsatisfactory little details.  Rorem seems to hold many of the stereotypical beliefs about organ music, that it is essentially that distant mooing sound that one hears in middle American funeral parlors.  Nevertheless, his own organ works are often quite beautiful and benefit from his overall musical genius.  Rorem’s melodies are plaintive and disjunct but singable, and his compositions are distinctly American.  I’ve heard music professors say that America doesn’t have its own serious musical style, but Rorem is one example that proves this sentiment to be untrue.

This past Sunday I played a selection from Rorem’s Organbook II, the Stabat Mater.  It’s a simple little piece, probably not more than two minutes long, and playable entirely on the manuals of the organ.  Rorem, like many composers of this era, writes in a style that is unmistakably modern and yet recognizably musical.  There is obvious logic rather than apparent chaos in his work, much like James MacMillan or Dan Locklair.  These composers have probably benefitted from a backlash against atonal music, and yet music that is recognizably music was always written, even in the dark days when tone rows reigned supreme.  Why the tone rows got so much attention is beyond me, except that there is this human tendency to think that the incomprehensible is somehow more artistic than the more accessible, and this isn’t always true.

There will be more Rorem at some point this year.  In this same volume he has a Magnificat which lilts much like the azure waves which he doubtlessly watches from his home on Nantucket.  This piece embodies both grandeur and innocence with its agile, soaring melody.  I can’t wait to get started on it.

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