Iscariot was completed in Fairport, New York on July 18, 1989. The work was commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in association with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the New Jersey Symphony and its composition was funded by a grant from the Meet the Composer Consortium Commissioning Program. It is scored for an orchestra consisting of 1 flute (doubling piccolo), 1 oboe, 1 English horn, 1 clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 trumpet, 3 horns, celesta, percussion (2 players), and strings.
The title is of course derived from the name of Judas Iscariot, the famous betrayer of Jesus in the New Testament, although beyond this there is no biblical program to the work. Iscariot is at once both my most autobiographical score to date as well as my most ritualized. Though the music is continuous, the piece is nonetheless highly sectionalized into a pattern of alternating strophes and antistrophes in the ancient Greek dramatic tradition, the five strophes featuring the strings while the four antistrophes utilize the celesta in combination with various wind or (in the final antistrophe) percussion instruments. In essence there is no overall development of musical materials in any traditional fashion but rather a series of related but dissimilar commentaries derived from numerological symbols, though in no sense does this work employ the twelve-tone system or any other technique reminiscent of it. Somewhat hidden in the antistrophes are references to the chorale "Es ist genug" used so powerfully by Bach in his cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort but the famous opening chords of the chorale emerge clearly at the conclusion of the fifth strophe. The tempo of Iscariot is slow throughout its eleven and a half minute duration and the general tone of the music is intense but dolorous the heading "con passione" at the beginning of the score might well be a watchword for the piece as a whole.
Iscariot is dedicated "in friendship and with admiration" to John Adams.
© 1989 by Christopher Rouse
These program notes can be reproduced free of charge with the following credit:
Reprinted by kind permission of Christopher Rouse
"About half of the repertoire the [Cleveland] Chamber Symphony performed....was meaningful, even touching. The pieces in this category were Christopher Rouse's Iscariot, in its Cleveland premiere, and John Musto's Encounters...
"Rouse has impressed in numerous scores as a composer who can take a multitude of materials and fashion them into vibrant tonal landscapes. Iscariot begins with a sonic bam and becomes a narrative that blends transcendent string chorales with prismatic commentary by celesta in combination with winds, brasses and percussion.
"The moods in Iscariot reflect the anguish and tenderness in the tale of Jesus' betrayer, but not with literal slavishness. Rouse maintains an expressive sense of line amid richly evolving textures. The work's beauty emanates in part from the constant shifting of consonance and dissonance."
The intense string chords that open Iscariot remind me of those in Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. This dark, brooding work, written in 1989 for John Adams and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, was intended by Rouse to "purge certain emotional memories." It is very eerie, and there are a number of remarkable moments. The ending, which quotes Bach's chorale "Es ist genug," quickly transforms resplendent beauty into shrieking pain. This is a remarkable recording..."
It is high time we had a disc devoted to the music of Christopher Rouse (b.1949), one of the more genuinely individual composers working in America today. His Cello Concerto has enjoyed a high profile courtesy of Yo-Yo Ma, but the three pieces recorded here are even more striking...
"Iscariot is a complete contrast, slow moving and lightly scored (which is not to say quiet), dedicated to and first conducted by John Adams (although that has not been allowed to influence its idiom). There is consoling balm but scepticism too in those post-Ivesian string sonorities, attacked with relish by the Colorado players. Considerable depth of feeling is conveyed the composer has spoken of the piece as a purging of emotional memories.
"...As you will have gathered, this is an invigorating and accessible programme and I do urge you to sample it."