On this day in 1962 a young Christopher Rouse attended the opening concert of Lincoln Center. Aaron Copland’s serial work "Connotations" was on the program, and Rouse wrote a letter to Copland, saying that he found the piece interesting and that he, “unlike the rest of my family, enjoyed it.”
Copland would become a mentor to the young composer. Rouse followed in Copland’s footsteps to become a giant in the American symphonic canon.
Christopher Rouse died last weekend, at the age of 70, from complications of renal cancer. The composer was still active, with the premiere of his sixth symphony approaching in October at the Cincinnati Symphony.
The Nashville Symphony recently recorded Rouse’s Fifth Symphony and Concerto for Orchestra for an upcoming release. Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero called him one of the great giants of American music, saying Rouse was “a kind and generous man who I was proud to call my friend and colleague. The Nashville Symphony was so fortunate to able to showcase his music and host him in our great city.” He added, “Christopher will be greatly missed but he will live on through the enduring power of his music.”
When talking to 91Classical's podcast Classically Speaking in 2017, Rouse reflected on his decorated career. In his earlier work, which boasts a Grammy award as well as the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in music, Rouse described one of his goals as curing music of what he called “the slows.” After the musical expanse of late Romanticism, Rouse enjoyed “bringing back the allegro” in the tradition of earlier symphonies such as Beethoven’s. With it, Rouse brought a broad and general loudness, in scores that included fortissimo — indicated with six “f”s instead of the usual two. In his words, he was returning to “a visceral excitement that comes from loud, fast music.”
Rouse enjoyed recounting his start in composition at the age of 6, saying that while he chose his future career, he didn’t then write any music or learn to play an instrument. It wasn’t until he applied to college that he wrote a choral piece and a short symphony, which he then labeled his second, now admitting, “I thought it was more impressive to imply that I had written one before that.” His list of proclaimed influences included both the early American symphonists like William Schuman and Walter Piston, as well as imaginative popular front-men Roger McGuinn and Paul Simon.
Rouse’s music frequently paid homage to other predecessors. His trombone concerto, dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein, quotes Bernstein’s "Kaddish" symphony. And Rouse's Fifth Symphony begins in tribute to Beethoven’s, with the “short-short-short-long” rhythmic fate motive. He referred to this as a musical “tip of the cap.”
“One of the real pleasures in life for me is to thank people who have created things that have made such a difference in my life. And sometimes you’re lucky enough, if it’s someone who’s alive, to be able to thank them personally. And if not, you can give a little homage in something you create.”
When asked how young composers should begin their careers, he laughingly advised against starting as lackadaisically as he did, and also warned against composing as a search for fame and stardom.
“You do it because you have to,” he said. “Composing is incredibly challenging, sometimes agonizing, very, very difficult, usually not very renumerative.” Rouse claimed, “I hate composing. I despise it. I’m absolutely miserable when I’m composing and I will come up with any rationale that I can to avoid it.” But of course, “The only thing worse than composing is not composing. We are impelled. We realize that that is why we are here on this planet – is to create music.”
This conversation with Christopher Rouse was recorded for an interview for 91Classical's podcast, Classically Speaking. Some of the quotes above were not included in the episode, which was released in October 2018.