Though long an admirer of Richard Strauss' music, I have always been more attracted to the twenty-five-year-old composer's program for Death and Transfiguration than to his actual musical realization of it. In the five years preceding the composition of Envoi, I lost a number of dear friends Stephen Albert, William Schuman, Andrzej Panufnik, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, for example and they were memorialized in a variety of scores I composed between 1990 and 1995. A blow of a different sort occurred with the death of my mother in the summer of 1993, and to remember her I found myself returning to Strauss' program from a century before.
The French word "envoi" is somewhat difficult to translate into English. Obviously, our word "envoy" is related to it, but it also implies concepts ranging from the conclusion of a book or other work of art (or perhaps a life) to the "sending out" of something, much as a space probe is sent out to explore the cosmos. In conceiving this twenty minute work, I decided to dispense with one important aspect of Strauss' program; in Death and Transfiguration, the hero on his deathbed struggles violently against his fate before his spiritual transfiguration at the moment of death. In planning Envoi, I recalled that those whose deaths I have witnessed (including my mother) did not struggle but rather, in effect, seemed to slowly recede from life, much as a ship sails ever more far away until it disappears over the horizon. I thus elected to avoid the use of any sort of "struggle music" and in the process found myself eschewing the presence of fast-tempo material; resultantly, Envoi, like my Symphony No. 1 and Iscariot, is a single-movement adagio.
This work, it seems to me, almost cries out not to be subjected to musical analysis. If the listener finds hearing it a rewarding experience, I believe it will be for reasons other than the techincal. I would only say that Envoi is not a piece "about" my mother's death, nor is it intended as a pictorial narrative of any specific death. Instead, I think of it more as an examination of what death is or at least might be and in this sense it is closely related in spirit to my violoncello concerto of 1992, although the final pages of Envoi bespeak a very different expressive goal than those of the concerto. I also believe that this work will set the seal, for a time at least, on my scores which have been composed as a response to death I hope so, at any rate.
Dedicated to the memory of my mother, Envoi was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Yoel Levi, Music Director, through a generous grant from Thurmond Smithgall. It was completed on July 4, 1995 in Fairport, New York. It is scored for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, four trombones, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion (three players), and strings. The percussion requirements consist of two bass drums, two tam-tams, two suspended cymbals, Chinese cymbal, and vibraphone.
© 1995 by Christopher Rouse
These program notes can be reproduced free of charge with the following credit:
Reprinted by kind permission of Christopher Rouse
"Envoi offers heavenly hope... Full of distinctive sounds."
"When Rouse hits his stride, he presents a glimpse at one of the best contemporary American composers. Case in point: the conclusion of the 1995 Envoi, a Death and Configuration work written when his mother passed away. Rouse first portrays the stopping of the heart in his own way (not as an imitation of the Mahler Ninth) and then follows up with a superb extended passage that grabs the listener and stays with him long after the concert... Instead of transcendence, Envoi presents a resigned, accepting lament, a gentle meandering night music. The power and beauty of this work would have been the perfect finale to the evening..."