Contemporary composer: Christopher Rouse

Richard Whitehouse
Monday, September 23, 2019

Richard Whitehouse provides rich insight into the work of the prolific US composer

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Gramophone and we republish it as a tribute to Christopher Rouse, who died on September 21.

Surprising as it seems, Christopher Rouse (b1949) has made little headway in the UK – with only the occasional performance (usually from an American artist) to remind us that in the US his music is second only to that of his contemporary John Adams in frequency of hearings. Is his an output that simply does not travel well, conveying qualities such as are innately American? Or is this more to do with an aesthetic that attracts critical opprobrium in advance of the popular acclaim that would surely be accorded his music were it more often played on this side of the Atlantic?

After private consultation with George Crumb, Rouse pursued graduate studies with composers Karel Husa and Robert Moffat Palmer. Palmer is now a largely forgotten yet once significant figure (a disc of piano pieces on New World Records is required listening) whose technically intricate while vividly communicative music certainly provided a blueprint for Rouse’s own evolution. That evolution took time in coming to fruition: active as a composer from his earliest years, Rouse now acknowledges little from before his thirties. Yet two pieces for percussion group of the later 1970s have a rhythmic virtuosity and uninhibited expression key to the Dionysian impression of such works as the luridly evocative Gorgon (1984) or the triptych Phantasmata (1981-85) with their visceral yet always sophisticated and imaginative handling of the orchestra.

Such pieces as these two from the 1980s were often appraised in terms more associated with the rock music that was current in Western music during the previous decade. Indeed, Rouse led a course on the history of rock while teaching at the Eastman School of Music. The influence of rock is at its most overt in such pieces as the percussion octet Bonham (1988, a tribute to the legendary Led Zeppelin drummer), but this influence can also be seen as more subtle and incremental in other works.

A change in aesthetic came during the mid-1980s, when Rouse’s music took on deeper and more ambiguous emotional shadings. Many of his works over the next decade were conceived as memorials (not necessarily for family or friends) and convey an elegiac or fatalistic air more affecting for those plangent and often violent episodes that the music in question has to pass through so as to arrive at a more considered acceptance.

Rouse’s Third Quartet is a combative riposte to those who equate his postmodernism with facile accessibility

Not that his output from this time is always inward-looking, as the suite of Christmas carols Karolju (1990) – settings in several ‘freely reimagined’ languages with affectionate allusions to other composers – confirms. Rouse’s only other major choral work, the Requiem (2002), composed to commemorate the bicentenary of Berlioz’s birth while following Britten by incorporating secular texts within a Latin framework, is by far his most ambitious work and that which its composer considers his finest. More’s the pity that a recording has yet to emerge.

In an output dominated by orchestral music, chamber works are relatively few, but the three string quartets are all high points. The First String Quartet (1982) is a tribute to Bartók on the centenary of his birth, and typifies the visceral impact of earlier Rouse; the Second (1988) frames its aggressive scherzo with slow movements whose stark intensity makes explicit a homage to Shostakovich; and the Third (2009), written for the Los Angeles-based Calder Quartet (who have recorded its predecessors), is a combative riposte to those who equate Rouse’s postmodernism with facile accessibility.

Conversely, concertante works are prominent – among the standard instruments, only horn, tuba, viola, double bass and harp are unaccounted for. Add to these the sombre Concerto per corde (1990), the chamber concerto Rotae Passionis (1982) with its heady central evocation of the 14 Stations of the Cross, and the cumulative abandon of the Concerto for Orchestra (2008), and the totality becomes even more extensive. Written for Joseph Alessi, the Trombone Concerto (1991) reaffirmed Rouse as a composer uncompromising in his urge to communicate – its funereal finale an apt tribute to the recently departed Leonard Bernstein – and was duly awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music. Soon followed an incisive Violin Concerto (1991), requiring dexterity from its dedicatee Cho-Liang Lin; a Cello Concerto (1992) for Yo-Yo Ma with its death-haunted references to Monteverdi and William Schuman; then a Flute Concerto (1993) for Carol Wincenc. The last was composed as a direct response to the killing of the British toddler James Bulger on Merseyside: the work’s ethereal and incisive Celtic-infused outer movements surround an elegy in which the knowledge of a young life cruelly taken is rendered without undue emoting.

Mention could also be made of the percussion concerto Der gerettete Alberich (1997) for Evelyn Glennie, where said anti-hero procures himself an eventful post-Ring existence; the guitar concerto Concert de Gaudí (1999) written for Sharon Isbin with its off-the-wall take on Spanish surrealism; or the decidedly edgy and sardonic Clarinet Concerto (2000) for Larry Combs. Then there is Seeing (1998) – a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax in which aspects of Schumann and the eponymous song by troubled singer-songwriter Skip Spence merge into a ‘meditation on madness’ that feels the more powerful in its fluid continuity. A song-cycle for Dawn Upshaw, Kabir padavali (1998), meanwhile, might be considered a concerto for soprano in that its six settings of the 15th-century Indian poet constitute an interplay between soloist and orchestra by turns capricious and sensuous.

Central to Rouse’s output are the six symphonies which have emerged over the past three decades. Written for David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Symphony No 1 (1986) takes up the notion from the Romantic era of the ‘fallen hero’ over a single movement whose sustained intensity reaches a violent climax before it subsides towards a resigned close. The Second Symphony (1994) was written for Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony, its initial movement animated whereas its finale is more aggressive, the central Adagio an elegiac tribute to fellow composer Stephen Albert – and one of Rouse’s signal achievements. These first two symphonies have been recorded by their respective conductors, as well as by Alan Gilbert, who has also recorded Rouse’s next two symphonies.

Written for David Robertson and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Third Symphony (2011) takes its cue from Prokofiev’s Symphony No 2 – its seismic initial Allegro being followed by a theme with five variations which culminates in an implacable apotheosis. If this is Rouse’s most overtly virtuosic symphony, the Fourth (2013) is his most intrinsically personal. Written for Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, its two movements unfold from blithe contentment to what could be termed ‘inward self-communing’; its enveloping blankness is left unexplained by the composer, who chose not to reveal what might lie behind this enigmatic and troubling piece.

It is to be hoped that Gilbert records Rouse’s next two symphonies. The Fifth (2016), for Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, freely plays with those formal and expressive facets of Beethoven’s own Fifth; the Sixth (2019), to be premiered by Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this month, is cast in four movements for the first time, with notable use of the flugelhorn in a work whose meaning Rouse has once again chosen not to disclose.

Clearly Rouse’s creativity is showing no signs of slackening. Those who are yet to encounter his music might start with one of his shorter orchestral pieces – maybe the explosive Phaethon (1986), the questioning Iscariot (1989), or Rapture (2000) – a work that saw in the millennium with ecstatic affirmation. It’s hardly Rouse’s fault if such a mood proved impossible to sustain, but the strength of his endeavour cannot be denied, and will no doubt continue in the decades ahead.

Recommended Recordings

Der gerettete Alberich. Rapture. Violin Concerto 

Cho-Liang Lin vn Evelyn Glennie perc Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam

Ondine (6/04)

Rouse’s most quixotic concerto (for violin) coupled with his most straightforward (for percussion), along with the most accessible among his orchestral pieces, in what is an excellent introduction to this composer.

Read the review


Kabir padavali. Seeing

Talise Trevigne sop Orion Weiss pf Albany Symphony / David Alan Miller


Schumann and Skip Spence are disparate yet potent influences on Rouse’s piano concerto Seeing, here coupled with a song-cycle that represents his music at its most sensuous and inviting.


Odna Zhizn. Prospero’s Rooms. Symphonies Nos 3 and 4

New York Philharmonic / Alan Gilbert

Dacapo (8/16)

Two markedly contrasting symphonies juxtaposed with two equally characterful orchestral pieces testify to the success of Rouse’s tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Read the review

Rouse Facts

  • 1949

    Born in Baltimore, Maryland on February 15

  • 1967-71

    Studies at Oberlin Conservatory with Richard Hofmann

  • 1971-73

    Private studies in composition with George Crumb

  • 1973-77

    Graduate studies at Cornell University with Karel Husa and Robert Moffat Palmer

  • 1978-81

    Teaches composition at the University of Michigan

  • 1981-2002

    Teaches in the composition department at Eastman School of Music

  • 1986

    Becomes first Composer-in-Residence with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

  • 1993

    Awarded Pulitzer Prize for music for his Trombone Concerto

  • 1997

    Joins the composition faculty of the Juilliard School

  • 2000

    Receives honorary doctorate from State University of New York at Genesco

  • 2002

    Elected to membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters

  • 2012-15

    Composer-in-Residence with New York Philharmonic

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