In my earlier years I found the task of writing a program note for a new work a comparatively easy, even pleasant, one. More than a few of my pieces had some sort of quasi-programmatic basis, and I found that I could often say much about the sources of inspiration in hopes that my observations might help the listener better understand my intent. In more recent years, however, I find that my new pieces fall into one of two categories: (a) scores that, while always placing emotional expression at the forefront of my intent, had no particular story or triggering event that led to the work's composition, or (b) works that were so deeply personal that I found myself reluctant to share intimately private sources of motivation. In both cases, though, it seemed that there wasn't much I could say.
My Sixth Symphony inhabiting the second of these two groups, I hope listeners will not be disappointed if I limit myself to more "objective" observations about the music. Commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, this twenty-five minute symphony was completed at my home in Baltimore on June 6, 2019. The first challenge I face when planning a new piece is to settle upon a beginning and an ending and to decide the number and order of movements; in this case, I (rather unusually for me) chose a more-or-less standard four-movement structure with the outer movements being slow in tempo and elegiac in mood. The two middle movements are faster and the third, in particular, is meant to be highly dramatic. As is usual in my music, each movement connects to its successor without a break. In each of my symphonies I've also chosen to use an instrument or instrumental combination that might be seen as somewhat unusual in a symphonic context. My First Symphony, for example, requires a quartet of Wagner tubas. Here I have chosen to make use of the fluegelhorn, a larger and more mellow member of the trumpet family, and it is the fluegelhorn that presents the symphony's opening melodic material; it returns later in the first movement and again near the end of the entire work as a way of bringing the music "full circle." The scoring comprises two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (second doubling of bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets (first doubling on fluegelhorn), three trombones, tuba, harp, timpani, percussion (two players), and strings. As is also my wont, the harmonic language traverses areas of substantive dissonance as well as sections much more consonant (especially near the end of the symphony).
I know the "meaning" of this work in my own mind but wish to leave it to each listener to decide for him or herself what this could be. My main hope is that it will communicate something sincere in meaning to those who hear it.
© 2019 by Christopher Rouse
These program notes can be reproduced free of charge with the following credit:
Reprinted by kind permission of Christopher Rouse
Rouse Unveils Dark, Introspective Sixth Symphony
Louis Langrée leads the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the world premiere of Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 6 on October 18-19.
Renowned as the great American symphonist of our time, Christopher Rouse has composed a rich catalog of influential orchestral works marked by extreme emotional depth and colorful orchestration, including 12 concertos for a variety of instrumental soloists and multiple towering symphonies. His sixth and latest symphony, debuting on October 18-19 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, is notable for its dark, expressive sound world. Rouse states: "There's a tragic quality to this piece, and I'm sorry to frustrate people by not saying what it is or why it is."
The 25-minute Symphony No. 6 — the composer's first-ever four-movement symphony — bears a structural resemblance to Mahler's Ninth: slow, elegiac outer movements, a moderato second movement, and a highly dramatic, fast-paced third movement.
Rouse notes: "I realized that was the architectural template of Mahler's Ninth, so how would I salute the original piece? There aren't any actual quotations from Mahler, but the stuttering, unstable gesture that he uses in his first movement, I carried that over."
As in many other of his orchestral works, Rouse chooses to feature instruments that are unusual in the symphonic context for deliberate effect. In his Sixth Symphony he spotlights the fluegelhorn, a larger and more mellow member of the trumpet family: It presents the symphony's opening melodic material and returns later in the first movement, and again near the end of the entire work as a way of bringing the music full circle.
When asked what it means to compose a symphony in the 21st century, Rouse states:
"Great forms and great concepts always have something new to offer. Even by Haydn's time, he had transformed the symphony from what Sammartini had done a few decades earlier. And then by the 19th century it had become this huge edifice. People have been saying for years that the symphony is dead, classical music is dead, opera is dead, but there's always something left. Writing a symphony to me is no joke. I didn't write my first until I was in my 30s, because I hadn't lived long enough to have anything to say.
"Now I hope to have lived a full enough life to have something to say that is worth perhaps a little of my listeners' time. To live one's life is, it sometimes seems, to spend all of one's time on a rollercoaster as we try adapting to the sudden, unexpected changes of direction our 'amusement park ride' subjects us. (Sometimes those changes aren't always very 'amusing.') Nonetheless, it is the very unpredictability of life that makes it so wonderful. While the overall tone of my Sixth Symphony may be rather dark, this is not to say that it isn't meant to have movements of charm and even levity, and I hope that listeners will be able to find meaning in the score's overall embrace of a variety of moods."