Knowing When to Stop

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

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KNOWING WHEN TO STOP traces Ned Rorem’s development from his childhood in Chicago through his musical apprenticeships at Northwestern University, the Curtis Institute of Music, as a copyist in New York for Virgil Thomson, and through his years of foreign travel. Seeking a single adjective to describe this book, the word “flabby” would inevitably come to mind. Rorem spends some six hundred pages detailing the first twenty-eight years of his life, often with unnecessary thoroughness.

This is not to say that this memoir is uninteresting: Rorem’s life was fascinating. His close and continuing association with such musical giants as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, Francis Poulenc, Nadia Boulanger, and Pierre Boulez provide him with a bedrock of intriguing material. Despite this, the first quarter of the book, covering Rorem’s life through secondary school, might have been condensed without damaging the overall impact of this memoir.

Rorem’s candor in admitting his homosexuality and in discussing it in relation to his professional development is admirable. Despite his protestations that he never felt guilt at being gay, however, a psychoanalytical reading of his text suggests otherwise. The thoroughness with which he details his growing sexual prowess suggests that he is seeking—indeed, angrily demanding—approval. One might question the appropriateness of his naming many of his sex partners along with acquaintances, not his lovers, who were gay. He seems to be attempting, subconsciously at least, to cast the net of homosexuality over a much broader population than the general public assumes.

Despite such caveats, KNOWING WHEN TO STOP is well written and unfailingly interesting. The book gains momentum in the chapter entitled “Philadelphia 1943,” which is thoroughly engrossing. This momentum is sustained through the remainder of the book.

Sources for Further Study

American Theatre. XI, December, 1994, p. 82.

Chicago Tribune. November 27, 1994, XIV, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times. September 18, 1994, p. CAL55.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 13, 1994, p. 58.

Opera News. LIX, December 24, 1994, p. 41.

Time. CXLIV, October 17, 1994, p. 81.

The Wall Street Journal. August 31, 1994, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 1.

Knowing When to Stop

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1817

Early in this sprawling autobiographical volume, Ned Rorem writes, “In autobiography, as in any crafted work, technique lies in omitting. Not omitting through tact, but through a sense of shape. Actual life repeats and repeats and repeats itself.” Elsewhere in this memoir, Rorem contends that people are who they pretend to be. He claims that people decide early in life what roles they will play and that these roles, which they play forever, become second nature to them.

These contentions reveal much about Rorem and, perhaps more significantly, about how he relates to people. There is throughout this memoir a notable lack of profound penetration of human nature. Rorem’s ego often blocks the path that might lead to the deep understandings of human nature that historically have distinguished some of the truly great biographies and autobiographies.

Rorem frequently writes about interesting surfaces. The intellectual milieu in which he was reared during his father’s tenure as professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the artistic milieu to which he was subsequently exposed in Mexico, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and Morocco provide sparkling backdrops to the story of Rorem’s development as an artist. He writes enticingly about these surfaces but seems incapable of penetrating beneath them to glean analytically the still more enticing motivations for many of the behaviors that he and the characters in his memoir display.

His facile division of the world into German and French attitudes and habits, while an interesting notion, quite often leads Rorem to simplistic conclusions that entertain rather than enlighten readers. Rorem is astute in his observation that the technique of autobiography lies in omitting. In this case, however, one might wish that Rorem had omitted more or included less. This six-hundred-page book is awash in detail, much of it extraneous, some of it inherently uninteresting. Rorem has preserved oceans of paper during his lifetime, and in Knowing When to Stop: A Memoir, he seems bent on using as much as possible of the material he has squirreled away in his voluminous files.

Although the organization of his book is essentially chronological and easy to follow, the organization within chapters is often chaotic, suggesting a lack of disciplined planning, careful editing, and thoughtful revision. The chapter about Martha Graham, for example, begins and ends with this renowned choreographer, but the heart of it—some twenty-five pages—strays far from the topic in a way that exceeds the casual and borders on the out-and-out chaotic.

One must admire the candor with which Rorem discusses his homosexuality. On the surface, he appears comfortable with his sexual orientation. One must question, however, whether, if he is really as well adjusted to being gay as he would have his readers believe, he would feel the need to re-create in detail so many of his sexual encounters as he moved through his teens and twenties. One must also question whether it is fair to identify by name many of his former lovers and gay associates. More than a few of the people he names are quite circumspect homosexuals who would, in all likelihood, prefer to avoid the sort of “outing” in which this memoir seems to delight. The sort of exhibitionism that seems necessary for Rorem suggests a troubled—or at least a conflicted—psyche.

Despite these reservations, Knowing When to Stop depicts as well as any contemporary book the artistic and intellectual tone and temper of New York City and Paris in the period immediately after World War II. The artistic ferment that bubbled up on both sides of the Atlantic and of which Rorem was fundamentally a part during the postwar years comes to life vigorously in the pages of this memoir. Rorem captures with considerable authenticity the closeness and camaraderie that characterized the artistic world of that period. One gleans fully the sense of a world-within-a-world that characterized the musical community of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Rorem gained his most important entrée into that world when he was studying counterpoint with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Scalero, old enough to have once met Johannes Brahms, was a traditional teacher under whose tutelage Rorem chafed. Nevertheless, through other associates at Curtis Institute, the callow young transplant from the Midwest came to know Leonard Bernstein, and, through him, many of the most notable musicians of his day.

Rorem began to spend as much time as he could in New York City, sleeping on Bernstein’s living-room floor. At the end of his first year at the Curtis Institute, he left Philadelphia to take a poorly remunerated job in New York as Virgil Thomson’s copyist. Although he did not respect Thomson’s artistry, Rorem liked Thomson and through him gained access to the scintillating musical world around whose fringes he had been hovering.

Rorem’s upbringing prepared him well for the musical world in which he was to live his life. His parents were gifted intellectuals, unfailingly liberal in their outlook. They mingled socially and publicly with blacks, although, in the 1930’s, this was not commonly done even in enlightened Hyde Park. Rorem’s father specialized in the economics of health care. The original Blue Cross was organized based on his scholarly work. Clarence Rufus Rorem was, throughout much of his life, a well-respected economist who served in important consultative capacities well into old age.

Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana, early in his father’s career as a beginning faculty member at Earlham College, a Quaker institution. The Rorems belonged to the Society of Friends, and although Ned became outspokenly atheistic, many of the moral tenets of Quakerism have remained with him through the years. He certainly has always held to the fundamental Quaker belief in pacifism. Although the Rorems discovered early that their son was homosexual, they made no commotion about this revelation. They accepted Rorem for what he was and allowed him the friends that he preferred, often becoming quite close themselves to their son’s friends and associates.

As responsible parents concerned about their son’s future, the Rorems encouraged Ned to attend college, although his grades at the renowned University High School were so marginal that he was denied acceptance by Oberlin College. His father finally arranged for him to be admitted to a baccalaureate program in music at Northwestern University, where he studied for two years in a program that was far too traditional for his tastes. Rorem wanted to study his own times and the music of these times rather than history and classical music.

Finally, on a business trip to Philadelphia, Rorem’s father left one of the young man’s musical compositions with administrators at the Curtis Institute. In 1943, Rorem was offered a scholarship, and Rosario Scalero agreed to work with him. Thus Rorem was given the opportunity to take the initial step out of the Midwest into the more highly charged musical atmosphere of the Northeast.

It is interesting and revealing that part 1 of Knowing When to Stop ends not with the chapter in which Rorem begins university studies or with his completing two years at Northwestern University, which marked the end of his life in the Midwest, but with the chapter he entitles “Philadelphia 1943.” Clearly, the great turning point in his life came early in 1944, when he met Leonard Bernstein and through him gained access to the musical world of New York City.

At this point, Rorem had to reach a decision that was more difficult for his father than it was for him. He had to decide whether to leave school, which was impeding his career, and to sign on as Virgil Thomson’s copyist. He was sure that although this course correction would not lead to the academic degree his father wanted him to earn, it would become a fundamental building block in the career he wished to establish for himself.

Had Rorem not made the difficult career decision he did, he might never have emerged as the celebrated musician he became. He opted for education by means of apprenticeship rather than by means of formal instruction, although, in time, he resumed his baccalaureate studies at the Juilliard School of Music and also studied in the summer programs at Tanglewood.

In the United States of the first half of the twentieth century, New York City was the sort of magnet for artists of all kinds that Paris long had been in Europe. Rorem did not begin to come into his own until he became attuned to the musical world of New York City. Having imbibed the most that he could from New York, he ventured abroad in 1949, and Paris became his artistic base. He remained there for the better part of the next eight years, living during several of these years in the mansion of Marie-Laure de Noailles, perhaps the most artistically acute woman in Europe. It is upon this part of his career that part 3 of Knowing When to Stop focuses.

In his mid-twenties when he went to Paris, Rorem was instantly transfixed by the electricity of the city’s substantial international artistic community. In Paris, as in New York, Rorem found the world-within-worlds that artists, gathered in a hub, tend to inhabit. He soon was part of the select circle that revolved around Nadia Boulanger and Pierre Boulez. Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau became his friends.

Rorem began to make trips to Morocco, where he became the lover of a French physician living in Fez. Guy Ferrand loved Rorem more than Rorem loved him, but in his extended stays in Morocco, Rorem was able to work effectively. He also fell into the society of Paul Bowles and, through Bowles, met Truman Capote. Perhaps the Moroccan adventures, more than any other element in his life, helped Rorem to be the writer that he eventually became. Bowles had been a musician, but after the publication of The Sheltering Sky (1949), he gained more celebrity as an author than music had ever brought him. Today he is more remembered as a writer than as a musician.

Knowing When to Stop presents in its three parts contrasting vignettes of what it is to be an artist in the Midwest, in the Northeast, in Paris, and in Morocco. The geography is important. Artists tend to cluster in places in which they feel at home and in which they find kindred spirits. Rorem’s memoir extends beyond its author’s individual development as an artist and, with considerable deftness and verisimilitude, presents valuable generalizations about the artist’s place in society.

Sources for Further Study

American Theatre. XI, December, 1994, p. 82.

Chicago Tribune. November 27, 1994, XIV, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times. September 18, 1994, p. CAL55.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 13, 1994, p. 58.

Opera News. LIX, December 24, 1994, p. 41.

Time. CXLIV, October 17, 1994, p. 81.

The Wall Street Journal. August 31, 1994, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 1.