The Kennedy Center

Lions - A Dream

About the Work

Ned Rorem Composer: Ned Rorem
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Rorem composed Lions at Saratoga in 1963; the first performance was given in Carnegie Hall on October 28, 1965, by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Sixten Ehrling. Robert Spano conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on November 16, 17, 18 and 21, 1995; Leonard Slatkin conducted the most recent ones, on April 22 and 23, 1996.

The score calls, dated October 17, 1963, for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bongo, snare drum, tenor drum, castanets, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, large gong, tambourine, temple blocks, triangle, tubular bells, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone, celesta, harp, strings, and a separate band comprising alto saxophone, double bass, piano, snare drum and suspended cymbal. Duration, 13 minutes.


In his 80th year, Ned Rorem is known and respected in literary circles as well as musical ones, having produced more than a dozen books. The gift for expressing himself in words might be regarded as a natural complement to his involvement with words as a composer, as he has for some time been regarded as our pre-eminent composer of songs. In addition to his hundreds of songs, in various collections and cycles, his catalogue of works includes several entries in the category of opera, the most ambitious being his full-scale treatment of Strindberg's play Miss Julie, which dates from 1965. But Rorem has also been producing instrumental music throughout his creative life: his three symphonies are being recorded this year under José Serebrier for Naxos, and in the last 20 years he has composed a very well received Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, and Symphony for Strings. One of his earlier orchestral pieces, composed for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1958 and circulated widely since then, is called Eagles. That work and Lions, composed five years later, were originally conceived as parts of an eventual zoological triptych, as Rorem himself explained in the note he provided for the present work at the time of its premiere:


Poetry and zoology have obsessed me since infancy. The first obsession has been satisfied in the writing of hundreds of songs, the second in composing three so-called tone poems in honor of my favorite animals: eagles, lions and whales. Although it is not my belief that music means anything in a literal way (tell an untutored listener that La Mer represents three scenes of city life rather than three "moods" of the ocean, and he'll believe you), I nevertheless don't practice what I preach. . . . Eagles (1958) is based literally on a Whitman poem. Whales (as yet unfinished) is prompted by the verse of D.H. Lawrence, and Lions . . . bears the following information on the title page:

"The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love . . . "

(All's Well That Ends Well)

Twenty years ago, one morning after a dream, I wrote a poem called Lions. That poem is lost, but the dream remains clear still. It opens into a room of adolescence where I discovered music, the sound of my time before that of the past. (In such a room--ignorant of Bach, Chopin, even Tchaikovsky--I used to hear recorded screams of Milhaud and Varèse, tangos of Ravel and Stravinsky, blues of Mildred Bailey and Billie Holliday.) Now that room grows vast as a cathedral, strangely cheerful, agreeably foreboding. I re-enter there, nervous, obsessed; the old blues discs are turning again. Somewhere in the night a clock strings three. Drawn toward the closet door, I open it, and behold! on the dark little floor a litter of lion cubs purrs, fur gold and rolling. Watching them, I want to plan. And do . . . But their parents must be near! Indeed I turn to see the male's head, great, the King framed by a sunburst halo, a desert, approaches, roars. Terror is joyous, the yellow light too much, I am swallowed, drowned in fire, in the mane, a peaceful martyr. In the howling elation I die, and dying am aware of purrs, of blues receding, innocence dimmed, hearing the force of an obsession like motors under water miles away.

Today I reconstruct the forgotten poem in orchestration.

Ned Rorem


There is no part in that orchestration, despite the juxtaposition of this composer's name with this particular title, for the curious instrument known as the ?lion's roar? (a sort of string drum, used by Edgard Varèse in his Ionisation more than 70 years ago, but by few others since then), but, in keeping with the descriptive aims indicated in Rorem's note, his score does call for a jazz combo in addition to the convention orchestral forces.