Completed in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 22, 1986, Phaethon is one of several of my scores -- including Gorgon, Alloeidea, Morpheus, and the Aphrodite Cantos -- which takes its inspiration from ancient Greek mythology. The legend tells of Phaethon, son of the sun god, Helios. The boy, after doubts had been aroused concerning his parentage, secured from his mighty father a promise that he would be allowed to demonstrate irrevocably his divine origins. Helios swore to permit such a demonstration, but he was horrified when Phaethon demanded to be allowed to guide the chariot of the sun across the sky for one day; as Helios had made his oath in the name of the river Styx, Olympian law required that he guarantee his promise.
Once off, Phaethon realized quickly that he lacked the ability to control his father's horses, which dashed madly across the sky. They hurtled too close to the earth, set its land aflame, and dried up its rivers. They raced through the universe and finally threatened even Olympus itself, forcing Zeus to destroy Phaethon by hurling at him a thunderbolt which knocked him from the chariot to his death.
Perhaps the best known musical precursor to Phaethon is the tone poem of the same name by Charles Camille Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns' work attempts to relate the entire story, while mine concerns itself with Phaethon's ride only. There is also a darker, more threatening hue to my score as well as a more frenzied ride.
Phaethon was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with the generous assistance of Johnson and Higgins, in celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution. Its scoring consists of three flutes (all doubling piccolos), three oboes (3rd doubling English horn), three clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba, harp, timpani, two bongos, two timbales, snare drum, tenor drum, four tom-toms, bass drum, three metal plates, tam-tam, Chinese cymbal, suspended cymbal, flexatone, a pair of cymbals, metal vibraslap, thunder sheet, rute, maracas, claves, wood block, piccolo wood block, guiro, slapstick, sandpaper blocks, xylophone, tambourine, giant ratchet, hammer (like that called for in Mahler's Symphony No. 6), and strings.
In a disturbingly ironic twist, I found myself on the morning of January 28, 1986 at bar 443 of the work, the measure in which Zeus' thunderbolt knocks Phaethon from the sky, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. Phaethon is dedicated to the memory of Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Michael Smith, Francis Scobee, and Christa McAuliffe -- the seven astronauts who lost their lives that morning when they, too, were knocked from the sky.
© 1986 by Christopher Rouse
These program notes can be reproduced free of charge with the following credit:
Reprinted by kind permission of Christopher Rouse
"...Then this CD...closes with a bang: Phaethon (1986), a score from Rouse's 1980s period of strictly loud, virtuoso works. Unlike Saint-Saëns, who in his 1873 tone poem Phaethon chronicles the whole story of Phaethon's attempt to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky for one day, Rouse cuts to the chase, as it were, to depict only Phaethon's out-of-control chariot ride itself and Zeus's knockout thunderbolt, for one good measure of percussion alone. Referring to Phaethon, conductor Eschenbach has expressed a fascination of "how a composer can write a seven-minute crescendo so meticulously and still have another surprise in the final twenty seconds."
"A grabber disc? You betcha."
"This is the second disc of Christopher Rouse's music to have come my way this month and it confirms him as an individual and forceful presence.
"Newcomers should perhaps begin with Phaethon, a brilliantly successful orchestral showpiece from Rouse's ceaselessly energetic, rock-influenced period. On one level this is Bolero revisited, a seven-minute crescendo that goes on getting louder even when you think there's nowhere left to go, with a surprise in the last 20 seconds. As usual with Rouse, there is some extraordinary plundering -- even Till Eulenspiegel is pressed into service -- plus an anguished twist in the tail in that his work on the composition coincided with the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. According to the booklet-notes, the explosion came just as he had reached the point at which Zeus's thunderbolt knocks Phaethon from the skies: hence the work is dedicated to those "who lost their lives that morning when they, too, were knocked from the sky."