Christopher Rouse - Composer

Press and Program Notes


Violoncello Concerto

Program Note by the Composer

I completed my Violoncello Concerto on October 27, 1992 in Fairport, New York. The work was commissioned by Betty Freeman for Yo-Yo Ma and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

During the long gestation and composition of the concerto, the music world lost a number of significant creative figures, several of whom were personal friends. The loss of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland had been reflected in my trombone concerto, completed early in 1991. The next two years saw the passing of Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, and William Mathias, among others. Especially dear to me was the loss late in 1991 of Sir Andrzej Panufnik, whom I had come to know only in the final years of his remarkable life. Even more painful was the sudden death on my forty-third birthday of William Schuman, for almost thirty years a friend and mentor of incalculable importance in my life. As a result, my violoncello concerto became a meditation upon death -- the struggle to deny it and its ultimate inevitability.

I elected once again to use the two-movement form that I had employed in my violin concerto of 1991, although the slow-fast movement order of that earlier score was here reversed. I also chose to title the two movements after Monteverdi sources. The first movement, "Combattimento," pits the soloist against the orchestra in a battle for supremacy reminiscent of the nineteenth century manner, the orchestra goaded much of the time by the hissings and rattlings of unpitched wooden percussion instruments. Ultimately, the orchestra's ever more powerful assaults prove too much for the solo cello, and at the very end of the movement it is "bitten" or "stung" by the aforementioned wooden percussion. The ensuing cadenza leads to the second movement, "Adagiati," a movement which spends much of its duration in a state of quiet suspended animation, elegiac and contemplative. Near the end of the work come interspersed quotations from two disparate pieces -- Arnalta's lullaby from Act II of Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" ("Lie down and rest...sleep, my soul") and William Schuman's song "Orpheus with his Lute." Gradually, the voice of the solo cello is stilled, though it is the serpentine wooden percussion who have the final word.

I always find it a challenge to decide to whom to dedicate the works I have written, but in this case the decision was doubly difficult. Such a dedication could deservedly go to the Los Angeles Philharmonic itself, for whose seventy-fifth anniversary season the concerto was written; or to my old friend, the magnificent cellist Yo-Yo Ma; or to David Zinman -- who conducted the first performances and subsequently recorded the score with Mr. Ma -- a friend and colleague to whom I owe so very much; or to those who are memorialized in the music. I finally elected to dedicate the score to Betty Freeman, who lost her husband during the time the work was composed. Ms. Freeman's support of living composers and their music has been justly legendary, and I certainly would not have had the opportunity to write this concerto without her support, both financial and spiritual.

As I was nearing the end of work on the concerto, I happened to reread Edgar Allan Poe's "The Conqueror Worm" and was struck especially by that poem's final verse, which I have placed in the score as a motto:

Out — out are the lights — out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy "Man,"
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

Christopher Rouse

The New York Times

Edward Rothstein

"Near the end of Christopher Rouse's Cello Concerto...the cello sings a simple, haunting melody from William Schuman's song "Orpheus with his Lute," accompanied by sustained tremolos in the strings. A few moments later, the English horn enters with another melody, Arnalta's lullaby from Monterverdi's "Incoronazione di Poppea," which bears an uncanny resenblance to the Schuman. The lullaby is almost jarringly sweet and comforting, hovering in sonic space as the percussion creates a quivering, otherworldly haze.

"It is a remarkable moment in a strongly conceived elegy...

"It also marks an evolutionary step in Mr. Rouse's music, which has been acclaimed by both audiences and critics and is among the most intriguing orchestral music now being written.

"...many of his pieces wage battles over troubled emotional territory. The issues are unmistakable, the rhetoric unclouded, elemental, and easy to follow... The danger in his style is partly that the anger and despair can seem motivated by events outside the music more than by events within it. But when it works — as it does in his Violin Concerto and in the Cello Concerto — one is drawn into Mr. Rouse's emotional universe and is moved by its craft as well.

"There are marvelous effects, like a brief duet for cello and timpani, an extended percussion section that calls for tamtam partly submerged in a tub of water, and the Monteverdi lullaby ("Lie down and rest...sleep, my soul") whose antique consonance has a poignant impact. And though the work ends with a ratchety hiss of percussion — a cynical last word — Mr. Rouse uncharacteristically seems to be laying something to rest."

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