Christopher Rouse - Composer

Press and Program Notes


Rotae Passionis

Program Note by the Composer

Rotae Passionis ("Passion Wheels") was commissioned by the Boston Musica Viva and was completed in Baltimore, Maryland on January 1, 1983. It received its first performance by the Boston Musica Viva under Richard Pittman's direction on April 8, 1983.

I have always been fascinated by the artwork of Northern Renaissance painters, particularly when dealing with the Crucifixion. Artists such as Bosch and Grunewald took a much more human (sometimes even horrific) approach to the subject than did the great Italian Renaissance painters, who on some occasions made the Crucifixion seem almost more of a joyous event than a cause for grief and anguish. It was this human view of the Passion story as detailed by German and Flemish artists -- the Via Dolorosa and Crucifixion of Christ the man rather than Christ the Son of God -- which I hoped to elaborate upon in my piece.

The word "rotae" is used because the materials are stated and developed (as well as repeated) in a circular fashion. Rotae Passionis divides itself into three large sections. The first, "Circular Lament -- The Agony in the Garden," is scored for clarinet (a sort of "vox Christi") and percussion and details the final moments of freedom for Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene in an Expressionistic manner. It is followed by Part II -- the actual "passion wheels" themselves -- in an almost cinematic interpretation built around the Fourteen Stations of the Cross: Jesus is condemned to death; Jesus receives the Cross; He falls; He meets His mother; Saint Simon of Syrene carries the Cross; Saint Veronica wipes His face; He falls again; the women of Jerusalem weep for Him; He falls a third time; He is stripped of His clothes; He is nailed to the Cross; He dies; His body is taken down from the Cross; His body is laid in the tomb. The effect for which I was striving was of the listener being strapped to a pew in a church and being forced to watch a slide presentation of each Station flashing by, with each change of slide symbolized by an immense wooden hammer blow. The final part, "Parallel Wheel -- Christ Asleep," has almost the character of a lullaby, and it ends the work in a contemplative, quiet tone. Thus, the score may be said to represent a three-day period (Thursday night, Friday morning and afternoon, and Saturday), without a Resurrection.

The composer requests that all main parts, as well as a complete listing of the Stations under Part II, be listed in Latin as they appear in the score. Parenthetical English or other translations may then be listed if desired.

Rotae Passionis is dedicated to the memory of Carl Orff, who died as the early mental sketches for the music were being made. The "wheel" concept was borrowed from the "Wheel of Fate" imagery which begins and concludes Carmina Burana; my work's opening bass drum motive is a paraphrase of the O-Daiko motive which is heard at the beginning of Orff's Prometheus.

Christopher Rouse

Baltimore Sun

Stephen Wigler

"...the more complex Rouse composition, which was written in 1983, made a similarly strong impression. Rotae Passionis translates as "Passion Wheels" and it takes its inspiration and its narrative structure from Christ's passion and the 14 stations of the cross. Like several other Rouse works, it is resolutely uncompromising in the way it forces the listener to come to terms with its raucous sonorities. Like them, it is also extraordinarily dramatic and consistently lyrical.

"The first section depicts Christ on the Thursday evening before his passion and the final one depicts him on Saturday as he awaits his resurrection. The first of these is filled with action; the second is filled with a remarkably sustained atmosphere that something extraordinary is about to happen. Sandwiched between this introduction and conclusion are 14 scurrying 20-second episodes in which 10 wind and string players are called upon to produce prodigies of blowing and scraping. Rouse's work is occasionally criticized by musicians because of its difficulty. In pieces like this, one realizes that Rouse's demands upon an ensemble's virtuosity have an expressive purpose. The very difficulty experienced by the players translates intself into a dramatic experience that is filled with energy and tension."

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