CINCINNATI – Christopher Rouse did not wish to reveal the personal motivation behind his Symphony No. 6, which was commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for its 125th anniversary season this year. But when he realized that his impending death would prevent him from attending its world premiere performances on Oct. 18 and 19 in Cincinnati’s Music Hall, he wrote a devastating message that was inserted in the program: “One final time my subject is death, though in this event it is my own of which I write.”
Rouse, who was perhaps the greatest symphonist of our time, died of complications from renal cancer on Sept. 21 in his hometown of Baltimore at age 70. But the legacy of his emotional Sixth Symphony, performed with gripping power by the Cincinnati Symphony in its posthumous premiere conducted by Louis Langrée, promises to live on.
In the wake of the composer’s untimely death, music directors are programming commemorative performances of other works: On Oct. 24, Marin Alsop, who has performed many works by Rouse during her tenure at the Baltimore Symphony and elsewhere, will open the debut concert of her first season as chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra with Rapture. On Nov. 28-30, David Robertson will lead Rouse’s Bassoon Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia. On Jan. 23, Jaap van Zweden gives the Asian premiere of the Fifth Symphony with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Additional works are scheduled for performances worldwide through April, with more sure to follow.
The Rouse canon is a continuum of works that can be enormously complex and often juxtapose terrifying rage with intimacy. A prolific composer of many genres, he is revered not only for his mastery of the symphony, but also for his many concertos, such as his Trombone Concerto, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.
But in the Sixth symphony, complexities have been transformed to a work of economy and transcendent beauty. It is a stunning summation – and one of the finest new works heard in Music Hall in decades. Sophisticated yet instantly accessible, it is sure to maintain an important place among symphonic masterpieces of the 21st century.
Like his other symphonies, Rouse’s final score is meticulously crafted. Earlier symphonies, such as his Second and Third, display intense rhythmic difficulties and writing that is often driven, brilliant, and raucously loud. Rouse was masterful at tempering those elements with moments of exquisite beauty, as in his Fifth Symphony, an exuberant work that premiered at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra just two years ago. But unlike its predecessors, the Sixth has a gravity of mood that is not unlike that of Mahler, permeated with the premonition of death. Its most lighthearted movement, the second, has a poignant quality that is quite touching.
“The piece is monumental,” said Cincinnati Symphony principal harpist Gillian Benet Sella during a rehearsal break. “The harp part is not crazy and difficult as in some of his works, like Compline (1996), yet it is so effective and appropriate. I feel as if he stripped the orchestra down to the bare essentials to express his last work on earth.”
Rouse, whose music embraces symphonic composers he admired such as Beethoven, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mahler, and William Schuman, noted in his final statement that the inspiration for his last symphony was Mahler’s Ninth. He cast it in four unbroken movements over a span of 25 minutes, bookending his piece with two outer slow movements – also the structure used by Mahler in his final completed symphony. Although it does not quote Mahler directly, Rouse’s music exists in the Austrian composer’s sound world. Dark, despairing writing grows over time to shattering, brass-filled climaxes.
Yet – again like Mahler – Rouse’s love of life shines through the music. When the darkness returns in the finale, it is not all gloom. It gives way to a shining tonality, as if the sun were coming from behind a cloud. In the final moments, a singular drone on low E in the double basses intones serenely until it is stopped by the stroke of a soft, resonant gong. The drone, he wrote in his final note, is the lifeline.
“Suddenly you have this feeling that, I’m ready to go,” said Langrée, on the morning after the premiere. “This is a magical moment, where you have a feeling of not touching the ground anymore, where you’re floating.”
The distinctive feature of the first movement, marked Desolato, was a flugelhorn, performed by CSO principal trumpet Robert Sullivan, which had a winding, unsettled theme that returned at the end, bringing the work full circle. Rouse chose its unique timbre, he wrote, to reflect the movement’s elegiac quality as well as the “feeling of yearning as it strives to find an anchor in a sea of doubt.” Also present was a halting motive in the strings evoking the opening of Mahler’s Ninth. The movement rose to two inexorable climaxes, the second one a heaven-rending cry.
In contrast, the second movement, “Piacevole,” was joyful in a bittersweet kind of way. It was light and brightly orchestrated, with touches for harp and glockenspiel, quick-changing dynamics, and virtuosic writing for woodwinds. Powerful timpani strokes introduced the third, entitled “Furioso,” a rhythmically complex and energized scherzo. This movement was both manic and driving, with cascades in the strings, a shrieking climax for full orchestra (marked “ffffff” in the score) and explosive writing for the percussion.
The finale, a passacaglia, returned to somber depths, colored by basses and bass clarinet. As intensity ebbed away to lightness, the flugelhorn theme reappeared. In the score, the final measures are again marked Desolato. As if to indicate the finality of his work, Rouse’s instruction for the gong is “funesto” (fatal) while its sound lingers and dies. The completion date on the page bears the word “Finis,” an inscription that, according to his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, he only used occasionally.
Langrée previously knew Rouse’s work only through the oft-performed Flute Concerto and his Infernal Machine, a work of stunning orchestral color that was first heard in Music Hall in 1985 led by David Zinman, a staunch champion of Rouse’s music, and by Langrée in 2015. In fact, Langrée, CSO music director since 2013, had not known that the composer was ill until shortly before his death. Rouse not only met his deadline but had submitted his score to the orchestra early after completing it on June 6. Langrée then compiled a detailed list of questions that he never got to ask.
“With the composer, we have a collaboration. The composer comes to the rehearsals,” the French conductor said, describing how their collaboration would have taken place. “But here I was, alone. There were so many passages where, oh my God, I would have loved to ask him. I just had to do it with integrity, imagining what would be his [answers].”
According to Alsop, who enjoyed a long friendship with Rouse, the composer’s scores often held hidden messages – humorous anagrams of people’s names as a source of pitches. Or he would limit himself to using only a tritone for an entire movement. Because she knew this about him, Alsop found herself always looking for that compositional restriction or hidden meaning. And she said that there were new challenges in each piece, restrictions that he set for himself.
Rouse’s diverse interests, which included a love for the heavy metal music of Led Zeppelin and the child-like joy of Disneyland, also infuse his music. Often, his work was a memorial to a departed friend or colleague, as was the Adagio of his Second Symphony (1994), dedicated to the composer Stephen Albert, killed in an auto accident in 1992. Works of the mid-90s, including his concerti for trombone, cello, and flute, have been described as his “death cycle” for those who have passed away. The Trombone Concerto is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990, and Rouse quotes in it from Bernstein’s Third Symphony, Kaddish.
The emotional range, extreme contrasts, and vitality of his writing somehow make his music appealing to audiences and musicians alike. The conductor David Robertson, who led the world premiere of Rouse’s Symphony No. 3 with the St. Louis Symphony in 2011, said it all made sense if you knew the composer. “Things which often seemed to be confusing to people in a modern music context – at one point so incredibly simple and straightforward, and at another point, to have this crazy complexity of sound or conception – once you got to know him, it made perfect sense. He believed that Disneyland was the happiest place on earth,” he said.
“You got to see the inner, child-like delight,” Robertson added, “and yet here was an adult who would embrace the darker side of what makes up the human condition. It’s that aspect which I find so moving about the pieces. When he goes in a piece from darkness to light, or he moves to the valley of the shadow to come out the other side, it doesn’t feel put on. It feels like a real understanding of what the things are.”
Above all, he believed in form. Rouse was “so pleased” when he modeled his Third Symphony after both Prokofiev’s Second and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 111 (second movement), Robertson said. “There’s this feeling that he had, of here are people who have done this before, and I need to be able to continue this tradition.”
Colleagues and friends such as the composer George Tsontakis admired that ability to hew to the past while reinterpreting it into his own idiom. Rouse’s Fifth Symphony evokes, of course, Beethoven’s Fifth. Rouse described that work as having a language that ranged freely between dissonance and consonance. But his goal, he said, was to “transport the listener through a series of emotional states, from turbulence to serenity.”
“When you hear Chris’ music, Tsontakis said, “you’re really hearing past sentiments through a scrim, and he renewed them in a way. His music goes from very introverted to knocking your socks off. He was unabashedly bold, and a great example of American composers. He was also bold enough to call his pieces symphonies. He was a big fan of William Schuman. He loved those big, bold American symphonies. He really outdid Schuman in just the size and scope of his work.”
Initially, when he unwrapped the new symphony, Langrée was surprised that the 125th anniversary commission was not a celebratory piece: “When I got the score, I thought, what does it mean? Now we know what it means. It was a very personal piece. It was all about saying goodbye. It was the most beautiful gift a composer can give to musicians.”
Janelle Gelfand was classical music critic and arts writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer for 26 years. She now reviews for Cincinnati Business Courier and other publications.