Christopher Rouse - Composer

Press and Program Notes


Symphony No. 2

Program Note by the Composer

I conceived both my first and second symphonies almost simultaneously in the summer of 1984. I completed physical work on my Symphony No. 1 two years later, and it was premiered in January 1988 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for whom it was written, under the direction of David Zinman. However, it was not until some time later that the Houston Symphony Orchestra commissioned its successor, which was finally set down in full on paper by July 15, 1994. The work is dedicated to the Houston Symphony Orchestra's music director, Christoph Eschenbach.

Although the passage of ten years between conception and execution of my second symphony undoubtedly effected alteration in a number of details as originally conceived, the fundamental concept of the work remained unchanged. There are three connected movements — allegro, adagio, allegro — and the first and third movements (each set at precisely the same unchanging tempo) share the same motivic material; in a sense, the third movement constitutes a further structural "development" of the first, even though both movements are cast in a tripartite (A-B-A) form in which the B section introduces new material as well as elaborating and developing music already stated. The central adagio functions as a kind of prism through which the music of the first movement is "refracted," in the process altering its mood and affect. This adagio, composed in memory of my friend and colleague Stephen Albert, might be said to act as a tunnel through which the somewhat mercurially-mooded first allegro passes; on the other end of the tunnel, this allegro music emerges recognizably both the same and different, with the lighter temperament of the originally heard music now darker and more threatening in tone. As a result , the arch-like form of the symphony brings the work to a close at virtually the same structural point at which it began, but the conclusion's emotional world is light years away from that at the beginning.

The piece is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, harp, timpani (two players), percussion (three players), and strings. Its duration is approximately twenty-one minutes.

Christopher Rouse

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Donald Rosenberg

"Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 2, in its Cleveland premiere, received the kind of hero's welcome usually reserved for pieces by composers from the last century or two...

"Another series of hurrahs were reserved for Rouse, whose Symphony No. 2 abounds in lively incident, penetrating emotion, scintillating orchestral devices and clamor the likes of which you haven't heard in a long while. The piece, in three connected movements, begins with a sardonic opening movement of crisp rhythmic personality and chattering instrumental effects that grip the ears. The slow movement pays homage to the late American composer Stephen Albert in music of moving isolation, despair and anger. It is a catharsis of heartfelt vibrancy.

"Rouse has a slew of surprises up his compositional sleeve in the finale, an aggressive and manic mechanism — somewhat in the mold of his famous piece, The Infernal Machine — in which the orchestra pounds out stabbing rhythms and cataclysmic sonorities. The sheer audacity of the writing thrusts you on an exhilarating ride...

"Rouse...came onstage to cheers from an audience that seemed swept away by the brilliant and touching activity."

The Houston Post

Carl Cunningham

HSO brings stunning new Rouse symphony to life

"A throbbing new symphony by American composer Christopher Rouse fully lived up to expectations at its world premiere...

"A relentless motoric thrust that has powered five Rouse works heard on Houston Symphony programs over the past dozen years was again the driving force behind this compact, well-knit half-hour symphony.

"Equally relentless was the fearless way Rouse stacked up layer after layer of dissonance and percussive effects, until the third movement, rather than ending, seemed to burst apart in a paroxysm of African drumming.

"But more important aspects of the composer's new symphony involve the fine sense of logic and organic growth heard in the thematic motive that is the germ of its opening movement.

"On the subject of dissonance, the first movement also showed Rouse's uncanny ability to make his sharp tonal clashes diamond-bright and colorful. Such feats of orchestration provided a sense of clarity that enabled the listener to bear down inside the harmonic texture of the music.

"And the insistent pulse of the outer movements was relieved by a mournful, ultimately agony-ridden slow movement composed in memory of Rouse's fellow composer, Stephen Albert, whose fine career was cut short by a car accident at the end of 1992...

"Rouse's symphony is being taped for CBS's Sunday Morning."

Houston Chronicle

Charles Ward

"When Christoph Eschenback and the Houston Symphony finished their performance of Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 2 on Monday, a large neon sign lighted up — figuratively — over the Jones Hall stage. It flashed European Tour.

"The propulsive, virtuosic interpretation suggested that the orchestra should showcase this work on its European tour in February...

"The orchestra commissioned the piece and premiered it in 1995. It is dynamic contemporary American music at its best...

"Much of the character of this piece lies in its propulsive rhythm: coiled, light but a bit cagey in the first movement, more obvious and sometimes ominous in the last. Rouse brings the piece to an electrifying conclusion with a percussion-dominated outburst that has all the visceral, kinetic energy of the drum-dominated peak of a rock concert.

"In no way is the music rock, but its energy comes from popular culture. Rouse has transformed that into the language of art music in an irresistible manner.

"In between the two movements comes an elegy, a tribute to the late American composer Stephen Albert. Here, too, Rouse's music is utterly compelling. It may not be always pleasant, but it is always provocative.

"And with the sense of a superb musical dramatist, he introduces the central movement with a sudden outburst of percussion that, in Eschenbach's hands, would have rattled any listener's comfort and complacency."


Stephen Ellis

"The Second Symphony's opening movement is lively and active but without the agitation and threatening mood that so often accompany Rouse's Allegros. The middle Adagio movement, occasioned by the death of his good friend and fellow composer Stephen Albert, features somber passages by solo oboe, flute, and horn, and a brief but powerful section of timpani and other percussion instruments. The third movement shares material heard in the first movement, but now that material, having passed through the prism of the grieving Adagio movement, emerges darker, with a more aggressive temperament. "The piece ends in a kind of old-fashioned 'fangs-bared' style," Rouse has said...indeed, pounding drums vie with brasses for supremacy in the last minute of the Second Symphony. (Conductor David Zinman has said that Rouse is "the best writer for percussion" that he has ever encountered.)

"...A grabber disc? You betcha."

The Gramophone Collection

"Looking for American symphonies of recent years with real staying power, I nominate those of Christopher Rouse (No. 1, 1986, a tribute to the great adagios of symphonic history, and No. 2 of 1994)..."

American Record Guide

Mark L. Lehman

"[Christopher Rouse's] music is big, splashy, violent, and often tragic; in the apt words of Donald Elfman's notes, it embraces "the great symphonic tradition of composers he reveres: Beethoven and Berlioz, Bruckner and Mahler, Shostakovich, Schumann, Hartmann, and Pettersson among them." Rouse's recent music (if not his earlier works) contrasts both atonal chromaticism and tonal harmonies in single pieces, with the turmoil and angst conveyed by angry discordances calmed and consoled by triadic consonances.

"...Everything he writes is brilliantly scored, exciting, large-scale; when it's loud it's really, really loud, and when it's tragic it's grandly much torment can be a little hard for some listeners to take...Others will find the terrors unleashed in his Second Symphony's last two movements — a response to the accidental death of Rouse's friend, the composer Stephen Albert — entirely satisfying.

"Rouse does have a lighter side, apparent in the perky (if faintly sinister) first movement of the symphony...

"...This is a world-class release, sure to bring yet more favorable attention to a very gifted and already much-lauded composer. But it is not for the faint of heart."

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