Christopher Rouse: Expressionistic composer preoccupied with death and volume

A Pulitzer Prize-winner, he was a highly individual presence in contemporary classical music

Harrison Smith
Wednesday 09 October 2019 12:53
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Loud hailer: his music drew from Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin
Loud hailer: his music drew from Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin

Christopher Rouse was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer known for unpredictable, expressionistic works that immersed listeners in a world of anguish, terror and sensuous beauty.

Rouse, who has died of renal cancer aged 70, was rare among modern composers for achieving both critical acclaim and popular success. He wrote chamber and vocal works that were performed around the world, and he taught for more than two decades at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. But he was best known for his symphonies and concertos, which featured a sound that cellist Yo-Yo Ma once described as “spiritual without being sentimental, deeply felt without sentimentality”.

Trained in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of heady experimentation in classical music, Rouse drew on the 12-tone serialism taught by his professor, Richard Hoffmann, the neoclassical principles of pianist Robert Palmer, the rigorous formalism of composer Karel Husa and the avant-garde instrumentation of his private instructor, George Crumb.

But he broke with many of his mentors and peers in his love for the Romantic tradition of composers such as Johannes Brahms and Dmitri Shostakovich, and for his use of electric guitars and rock motifs. He quoted the rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape and made headlines for his eight-person percussion piece Bonham (1988), written as an ode to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.

In hard rock fashion, some of his scores were so loud that fortissimo was said to be marked with six Fs, instead of the usual two. That boisterousness contributed to a 1985 incident in which a member of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where Rouse was a composer in residence, filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, saying his music was too loud.

“To me, loud dynamics have to do with expressive urgency,” Rouse once said. “What’s important is what music conveys and how it’s meaningful to the human spirit. If one has something urgent to say, intense emotions are usually lined up with loud dynamics. Part of being a human being is a need to beat one’s breast – to shout or scream.”

In 1993 Rouse won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Trombone Concerto, which he described as one of his “softer” pieces. When it premiered at the New York Philharmonic the previous year, some of the string musicians were seen putting their fingers in their ears onstage.

Trombone Concerto was dedicated to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (who had died in 1990) and was the first of several major works by Rouse concerned with death. The theme had interested him since at least the age of eight, when his best friend hanged himself. For a Cub Scout project that year, Rouse reportedly wrote that he would grow up to “be famous for a darkness of sickness” and “be a great American composer”.

By all accounts Rouse was far from dour (“Man does not live by dread alone,” he quipped) and said he kept writing about death simply because friends and family kept dying. In 1992, he completed his Violoncello Concerto, a memorial to the late composers William Schuman and Andrzej Panufnik.

“The second movement is about the last nanosecond of life, the moment when you are no longer alive but not quite dead,” he told a newspaper at the time. “It is not a consoling piece.”

Rouse went on to write Flute Concerto (1993) dedicated to murdered toddler James Bulger; Symphony No 2 (1994), which featured an adagio in memory of composer Stephen Albert, who died in a car crash; and Envoi (1995), an orchestral work dedicated to his late mother. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he completed an apocalyptic, 90-minute Requiem (2002).

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Rouse moved towards lighter material such as Concert de Gaudi, inspired by the phantasmagoric work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Rouse won a Grammy Award after it was recorded by Sharon Isbin.

He also continued to focus on his teaching, offering one of the first music-school courses on rock history and advising young composers such as Kamran Ince and Nico Muhly to “just listen to everything”, whether contemporary or canonical.

Christopher Chapman Rouse III was born in Baltimore in 1949. His father worked in sales at Pitney Bowes, a mailing company. His mother was a secretary who introduced Rouse to classical music, playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the record player.

He soon decided to become a composer but never mastered an instrument, lasting six months on percussion. He also never wrote things down: for his application to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, he composed a piece he misleadingly titled Symphony No 2, “so that it would look like I’d been busy”.

His notable early compositions included Bump (1985), an orchestral work that Rouse described as “my vision of a Boston Pops [orchestra] tour performance in hell”. For years, Rouse wrote primarily during the summer, when he wasn’t teaching, seated at a card table in his Baltimore living room with little more than a pencil and stack of music paper. As he had in his youth, he composed largely inside his own head, marshalling instruments he never learned to play.

“I do not write music just for myself, to provide a personal catharsis,” he said in 1997. “Music is not about self-fulfilment. Instead, it is a communicative art … Art has to be truthful, not just inspiring. It should always make you sit on the edge of your seat, make you want to live a little more vibrantly.”

He is survived by his second wife Natasha Miller, two children and three stepchildren.

Christopher Rouse, composer, born 15 February 1949, died 21 September 2019

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