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Christopher Rouse is the most in-demand American orchestral composer of his generation. His works are frequently performed by major orchestras worldwide and he has held many posts as the composer-in-residence with the some of the greatest orchestras.
Rouse’s interest in both classical and popular music was developed at a young age. He started to compose at the age of 7 and later studied percussion. He completed his Bachelor of Music in 1971 from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition with Richard Hoffman and Randolph Coleman. After two years of private study withGeorge Crumb, Rouse began his graduate studies at Cornell University with Karel Husa and Palmer. By 1977 he had received both his master’s and doctoral degrees.
In 1976 Rouse was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. For several years he taught composition at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor as a fellow. During his time at the University of Michigan he was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation grant and another National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
Rouse joined the faculty at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester in 1981, the same year he received prizes for his compositionThe Infernal Machine (1981). He is perhaps the first to have given a course in the history of rock at a major music school. Rouse has been on the faculty of the Julliard School in New York since 1997. In addition, he has been the composer-in-residence for many major orchestras including the Baltimore Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and also many significant festivals such as the Santa Cecilia and Schleswig-Holstein festivals (1989), the Aspen Music Festival (1990), the Tanglewood Music Center (1997), Helsinki Biennale (1997) and Pacific Music Festival (1998). Rouse has also been the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award, in addition to his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Rouse’s output includes a handful of chamber and ensemble pieces but his reputation rests mainly on his orchestral works, which display his mastery of orchestration and instrumentation. Major orchestras worldwide perform the music of Rouse, including nearly every orchestra in the U.S. along with the Berlin Philharmonic, Sydney, Melbourne and London symphonies, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Stockholm Philharmonic, and many others.
Influences on Rouse’s style include 1960s and 70s rock, especially the group Led Zeppelin. His music in the early 1980s is characterized by fast tempos, explosiveness and energy. In addition to the popular influences, the works of Berlioz and Bruckner are of great influence on Rouse, especially the adagios of Bruckner.
A change in style occurred in the mid-1980s, characterized by the fusion of clear diatonicism and chromatic atonality. This style is present in his award winning Trombone Concerto (1991), the Cello Concerto (1992) and the Flute Concerto (1993).
A trademark of his works from all periods is his use of quotation. He often quotes other composers or works, sometimes without even being aware of it. Themes present in Rouse’s works include much about darkness, such as death and the void death leaves. His faster movements have been described as nightmarish and hallucinatory. In addition, he uses an interesting method of composition in which he does not draft a score, but instead waits until the entire work has taken shape in his mind and then he writes it out in full.
Rouse’s first major success was his Symphony No 1 (1986), commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The work won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award and was heavily praised by critics. The Boston Globe claimed that this symphony is ‘probably the most completely successful symphonic composition yet written by an American composer of his rising generation.’ Throughout the symphony quotations from Bruckner andShostakovich can be heard.
This accomplishment led to a commission for Symphony No. 2 (1994) by conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony. Equally successful, this work has also been performed worldwide. This symphony is quite different than the first, and represents a new style of writing, which is more soulful and introspective. The motoric and energetic outer movements frame an elegy which was written in memory of composer Stephen Albert.
In addition to his symphonies, Rouse has composed a number of brilliant concertos including the Violin Concerto (1991) commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival for virtuoso Cho-Liang Lin, the Cello Concerto (1992) which was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Flute Concerto (1993) commissioned by Carol Wincenc and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Clarinet Concerto (2001) for Larry Combs and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a piano concerto entitledSeeing (1999) composed for Emanuel Ax and the New York Philharmonic.Seeing was inspired by the tragic life stories of composer Robert Schumann and guitarist/songwriter Skip Spence of the Moby Grape who suffered from schizophrenia. His guitar concerto,Concert de Gaudí (1999), for Sharon Isbin won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 2002.
Rouse also completed the fantasy for percussion and orchestra on themes of Wagner,Der gerettete Alberich (1997), for Evelyn Glennie and four orchestras: The Cleveland Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The work was premiered in 1998 by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra. The work was praised by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as ‘a fresh burst of creative imagination’ and a ‘brilliant melding of romantic and contemporary idioms’.
Of his concertos, the Celtic-inspired Flute Concerto is the most frequently performed. The Cello Concerto was deemed a ‘strongly conceived elegy’ by the New York Times. The Chicago Tribune described the Clarinet Concerto in a manner that applies to much of Rouses music; ‘Just as this music tests the virtuosity of the soloist…so does it dare the audience to hang on tight as it takes them on the high-energy roller-coaster ride of their lives.’ The concerto has been recorded by soloist Martin Fröst with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Among his newer orchestral works is Rapture (2000), which was commissioned and premiered by Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It has been recorded on a collection of Rouse’s works by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
It will be interesting to see where Rouse will take us with his music in the coming years. It is quite certain though that as the Baltimore Sun wrote, ‘when the music history of the late 20th century is written… the explosive and passionate music of Rouse will loom large.’
Images courtesy of Christopher Rouse, Oberlin Conservatory and public domain