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Christopher Rouse: New music for existential terror

RouseSquare2011For American composers, over-exposure is a rare and grand accomplishment, especially for someone like Christopher Rouse, whose music is neither pretty nor minimalist. So prolific was he during much of the 1990s that he suffered the typical suspicion: Can anybody write so much, so quickly and still be good?

Luckily, there’s a second act in this American life. How could there not be with a composer whose voice is so distinctive? Rouse has been Alan Gilbert’s composer in residence at the New York Philharmonic, and the conclusion of that was celebrated so fruitfully that you’d think the composer was having some landmark anniversary. His 90-minute Requiem, a work easily as ambitious as Britten’s War Requiem, was part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival May 5 and broadcast on radio (how I heard it ). The world premiere of Symphony No. 4 .ended the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial on June 7, which is when I heard it live at Avery Fisher Hall. 

Together, those works cemented his position, at least in my mind, as America’s most truthful and characteristic post-9/11 composer. Long before 9/11, Rouse was a composer who truly embodied the yin/yang extremes of modern life, often with music whose lack of dissonance might be initially reassuring in one way or another, but always implied something lurking under the surface or around the corner, something gruesome, like what lies inside the infamous Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984 where victims, lulled into a sense of well-being by rest and good meals while in confinement, suddenly face what they fear the most.

9/11 signified many things, among them, the death of certainty, that illusion that on any given day you’re not going to look up at the sky and see New York’s largest building raining down upon you. Long before that, Rouse’s music wrestled with illusion, revealing what it was and often crashing through that mental membrane with music influenced by Led Zeppelin.

Rouse didn’t reinvent music like his avant-garde predecessors, but found radically different emotional inferences for familiar kinds of gestures and harmonies. What normally sounded nice was a prelude to danger, and when danger arrived, there was always the relief that comes with knowing what it looks like. Horrifying as it sometimes is, Rouse’s music urges me, at least, to learn to live with everyday horror of most every sort.

That happens right off the bat with the Requiem, which begins with an account of a boy going to the funeral of his four-year-old brother – made all the more terrible by the fact that the coffin measures one foot for every year of the boy’s life. Even when heard without the benefit of reading the score of any pronted program, the choice of texts is so thoughtful and so right, but the glory of the piece is the ceaseless invention of the choral writing. Rouse’s idol in that respect was apparently the Berlioz Requiem, and was not to be outdone by the older work’s fantastical effects. Rouse being Rouse, he treats the “Dies Irae” like Breughel with modern colors and a level grotesqueness that’s only possible in an era of zombie movies. 

No doubt audiences felt similar terror at the hands of the Berlioz and Verdi requiems when premiered. But the noise of modern life – plus the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy – demands that the ante be upped. Having done so in this Requiem, the music heard later on in the piece plays opposite card, becoming perhaps more disturbing with ambiguous, disembodied harmonies accompanied by odd percussion that suggest a journey through the wastelands of some alien netherworld.

Not all is grim. The “Agnus Dei” feels like the best Christmas you ever had with female voices in high register accompanied by finger cymbals and serpentine bass. The message for me was the redemptive power of certainty illusions. We need them. They keep us going.

The Symphony No. 4 isn’t necessarily a lesser work, but it’s smaller scope might make it seem so. The two-movement diptych is perhaps his most frankly American work (especially if you count the Led Zeppelin influences as being British), with a first movement that’s full of Coplandesque certainty. Of course, none of Rouse’s gestures move with with the kind of refracted folk inflections of Copland. Rouse probably hasn’t a folksy bone in his body. But the first movement absolutely burbles with content. Certainly, there must be double meaning in there, some sort of dark undertow, but I didn’t hear it.

The decisive but unbroken transition into the second movement is still within Coplandesque territory, but has an increasing absence of content suggesting the Edward Hopper-esque nighttime of Quiet City – after a nuclear holocaust. In his program notes, Rouse resists revealing programmatic underpinning. But in the increasing disappearance of thematic content throughout the course of the movement, I felt the end of…well…pretty much everything. Unlike Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, this act of winding down didn’t lose tension but gained it as typical thematic content waned.

Conductors rightly fear ending programs with symphonies that end quietly. This one ends quietly indeed but in a way that feels so momentous that an anti-climactic concert wasn’t a possibility. Such masterful musical subtraction isn’t the sort of thing that makes or breaks a composer’s reputation. I think of Rouse’s 4th much like Beethoven’s 4th or 8th symphonies – works that weren’t out to challenge the world but are great to have in our midst. And wouldn’t it be nice to one day look back at this symphony as part of a full set of nine?


  1. Mark Babbitt says:

    Great review of Rouse’s music. Few seem to understand his incredibly perceptive music on our times. Thank you.

    • I’ve been living with his music for almost as long as he has been writing…and I keep going back to him.

      • Hi David.

        I very much enjoy and appreciate Christopher Rouse’s music and take interest in others’ perspectives on it.

        Thankfully, much of his music is available on recordings, especially now that the New York Philharmonic is releasing many of their concert performances.

        I am sure that there are others out there who would very much like to hear the 4th symphony. (The requiem is available through WQXR archives for a year following the performance). Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the 4th will be on NYP for the foreseeable future. It would be great if those of us who could not attend the June 5th or 7th concerts could hear the piece somehow online. After all, composers do want to have their pieces heard and Mr. Rouse himself has challenged us to identify for ourselves the meaning of the piece in question.

        • Ironic. After writing all that, as of today, the June 5th NYP concert is now available to stream on I’m glad that I now have heard Rouse’s 4th symphony and admire the real embodiment of the full orchestra he employs.

  2. Dear David,
    I am greatly fond of you but I am sure this cannot be for real. I am highly disturbed that Rouse should have chosen the Heaney poem, the youthful one that accidentally assured the poet’s legend, while committing great sins against love in the process (is it good taste to write poems on the death of one’s brother, and in such circumstances? I even took a Public Enquiry assessor past the spot where Christopher Heaney died,and opined that it was as much SH’s ambivalent feelings about his youthful literary coup, as perceived political undercurrents, which kept Seamus from many or frequent returns to his native County Derry…) But to appropriate further this text is monstrous, it compounds the error. And to blow it up into a Requiem and universalize it is obscene. Tippett had it right in ‘A Child of Our Time’ because the Jewish boy victim was an emblem of the times, and his death a political act. No greatness of soul and thus art can follow from the shallowness we see in people like Ades (Eliot, Shakespeare) , my friend Robert Saxton (Hesse) where a text is just appropriated for personal career gain. We need to be humble as artists. ARE we on the level of Berlioz? No. Look at Carter’s humility. That’s better. Is Rouse a new Barber? No.Not least because he doesn’t even seem to have a lineage in Europe. And why all this worry about 9/11? That is long gone. It is a new century now, a new millennium. We spent the last half of the last century recovering from the worst of WWII. 9/11 was traumatic for you sure, I sympathize, but it was not on that scale, surely? And Haydn’s Farewell Symphony is just fine, btw. Forgive me David. I have just received a similar radical rocket myself by the way about something else, isn’t that ironic…? I may of course be wrong. Miserecordia mei. But maybe I have a point or two…? PS Hopper, like our local Pirosmani, is much overrated, too. Hardly Monet or Cezanne. Just a Milhaud.

    • Well, for starters, I don’t hear any of Barber in Rouse. I wish I had the perspective to write about my deceased brother. And I don’t think Hopper needs to be in the top calibre to define his time.

  3. I withdraw what much of what I wrote, and apologize for any seeming criticism of anyone there mentioned: it was not at all intended: in many ways I admire all of them on many levels and for many things. The Ades opera was very, very accomplished. It just did not set the text. And Saxton’s palette is up there with Ravel…..Amazing and cool! Just: does he really have a new message, philosophically I mean?He might well himself answer this question in the negative, he is a humble man. Heaney seems to falter on this score; and quite often, too. In spite of his obvious greatness. And I am very ready to admire Mr Rouse, of course…! .All are sincere and trying to express what their vision is. I was merely speculating on the morality of *great* art. (For lesser art, chacun a son gout…for sure…) And puzzling how really great art is achieved – and if it can be achieved in our *new* era (especially can it be with reference to people like Led Zeppelin, who is not within the tradition of western classical music, is he…? and who does not really stand for anything philosophically, does he? Or harmonically, David, is he that special? As subtle as Ravel, Debussy, Wagner, Messiaen, Holst? Tri-tonal, like Holst in The Planets, or having his own unique and mould-breaking system as all these preceding composers have? Not really. To me there would be a distinction between a work based on say Dante and one influenced by rock music, which is non-rigorous and commercially driven). So, “how can anything good come out of Sparta”? Thanks, David for a stimulating article. I will listen to some of this music if I can find it on YouTube. But you did say, ‘Speak your mind!’ There is much truth in what you say in your response too.. But if our are REALLY kind of saying that this music by Rouse is great and up there with (even exceeding) Haydn (and Beethoven) you are maybe also being just the tiniest bit provocative, no…? Although I am not entirely sure if you are really making such claims for it. I mean, Robert Simpson wrote nine excellent symphonies and Arthur Butterworth has done seven, the sixth of which is a marvel, but no-one would place them in the first league with Sibelius and Nielson, because music and especially symphonies have become exponentially harder to write as history as progressed because the ideal of synthesis which a symphony represents is increasingly remote from the ontolgical reality of the 20-21st century period of human history. Messiaen’s Saint Francis, maybe… but without an overarching vision, a tradition rooted in the forges of Europe, and a personal, driving need to write a Requiem – as Mozart had, as Tippett had, as Herbert Howells had, as Barber with his Adagio had, as Poulenc with his Organ Concerto had ….CAN there be brought into being the sincerest truth of poetry, the very real stuff of a universal religious emotion which a Requiem has to be? Barber’s Adagio was played in the aftermath of 9/11 and it was just like the Eroica slow movement being played after the Olympic bombings about three decades back; or the Bach Passacaglia in an American arrangement (Leopold Stokowski) played in impromptu fashion on British classical radio following the live transmission of the funeral of Pope Paul VI in 1978: a universal moment of collective regret, remorse and sorrow. Emotion has to inform art. Or else it’s mere show. That’s what I think: sorry. Or, why must I say sorry? I’ve felt these things all my adult life and searched endlessly for the real pure artistic truth, very very rarely indeed finding anything like it at all.

    • “But if our are REALLY kind of saying that this music by Rouse is great and up there with (even exceeding) Haydn (and Beethoven) you are maybe also being just the tiniest bit provocative, no…? Although I am not entirely sure if you are really making such claims for it.”

      No, David is making no such claims for it.

      David compared the ending of a single Haydn symphony movement with the ending of one single movement of Rouse’s symphony. And he compared Rouse’s symphony to two of Beethoven’s symphonies solely in terms of their artistic goals.

      David made no claims for anyone’s relative greatness – and frankly, God strike me dead for saying it, I can’t understand how any reader who was paying attention could conclude that he did.

      • P.S. – I think originality is overrated. Not every piece of concert music has to break new ground to be good (or even great), and the persistent idea that it does is one of the most unhelpful lessons people have drawn from Beethoven and Wagner.


    Now I understand what kind of work this was and the occasion. Must have been splendid and I am sure I would have loved it. Did Mr Rouse make any statement about why he wrote the Requiem and why these texts? Again, we do not learn much about the musical language he employs or how the piece actually went from this review. I do however remain troubled by the use of the Heaney text and I think another reason is that it is all too fresh and recent: Heaney only died last year…Michelangelo – well, that’s different. The war poets? Looks a bit of a cliche but if the text was amazing and the setting innovative and uplifting one could maybe surmount that huge artistic problem. I am merely looking for a true perspective. Alas, there was no audio that I could find online of this composer: but I am very ready to listen and admire. So please do not misunderstand what I am saying. The references to Zeppelin maybe lead me astray… I do not see how any classical musician can like that, so ugly and vulgar and loud, the antithesis of emotion recollected in tranquility, surely? Or else black becomes white. No master falls down from heaven, as they say, but for all I know Mr Rouse is up there in the pantheon with Carter and Ives and Barber and the others. But neither review has quite convinced me of where the truth lies. I remain ready to learn and change my mind at all times. All I have said is highly provisional and just a few off the cuff remarks, as one might make over a glass of wine at the interval, that is all. Have a nice day.

  5. I haven’t heard the work. I’m sure its very good.

    I wonder if there’s an ironic disproportion between the suffering Americans express over 9/11 and the vastly worse suffering our country has created in the world since then? War related deaths in Iraq are estimated to range from a hundred thousand to over a million. And about 3 million people have become refugees with all of the suffering, malnutrition, disease, and death that brings. Put that in American per capita numbers and the results are frightening.

    I think that rather than be termed post 9/11, and as perpetuating a narcissistic sense or our own relatively small misfortunes, meaningful art might also help us look closer at the far greater harm we ourselves have have brought to the world.

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