Born Christopher Chapman Rouse on February 15, 1949, in Baltimore, MD; married to Ann. Education: Graduated from Oberlin Conservatory, 1971; earned doctorate from Cornell, 1977; studied with Karel Husa, George Crumb. Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Letters. Addresses: Music publishers--Boosey and Hawkes Inc., 35 East 21st St., New York, NY 10010.

Among the finest classical composers of the twentieth century, Christopher Rouse is recognized in the tradition of the great symphonic masters. The excessive pathos of his work inspires critics to praise. "Everything he writes is ... large scale; ... when it's tragic, it's grandly tragic," wrote Mark L. Lehman in American Record Guide. Unlike many fellow classical composers, Rouse, who is equally distinguished as an educator, subscribes to the influence of rock 'n' roll in his own compositions. In tandem with his impeccable reputation as a composer of symphonies, he has earned respect for such works as a drum concerto written in tribute to Led Zeppelin's drummer.

Born on February 15, 1949, in Baltimore, Maryland, Rouse's musical tastes developed initially in keeping with the times. A child of the early rock era of the 1950s, he idolized Elvis Presley and Little Richard, among others. With this contemporary influence at heart, Rouse entered adolescence during the outrageous 1960s, when norms and taboos went by the wayside, most conspicuously in popular music.

Rouse was no less impressed by the works of the great romantic composers and was inspired most notably by the dramatic decibels of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. By his own admission he is a classical composer--not a writer of rock music. He writes, nonetheless "with rock in his head," in what Billboard's Bradley Bambarger jokingly called, "Really Classic Rock."

After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory in 1971, Rouse completed a doctoral program at Cornell in 1977. Quick to return to academia as a teacher, he taught initially at the University of Michigan, from 1978 to 1981. During the course of his education he studied with Karel Husa, Robert Palmer, George Rochberg, and George Crumb.

Beginning early in his professional life, Rouse retained outlets for himself on both the classical and rock and roll vistas--not only as a teacher, but also in his musical compositions and writings. His classical education notwithstanding, he admitted that, "A lot of '60s California groups--the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane--meant a lot to me as a listener," according to Bambarger. When Rouse first joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music in 1981, he taught a course in rock and roll. In contrast, in 1980 he authored a book on composer William Schuman.

Powerful Compositions

From his earliest works Rouse invested heavily in percussion. The extreme angst and intense emotional outpouring apparent in his work lends itself well to this use of the drums and is in keeping with the strong influence of rock music on his style.

Ogoun Badagris, written in 1981 and recorded in 1986, upholds this notion. Typical also of his work during this period are many quick-tempo compositions. Ku-Ka-Ilimoku--a Hawaiian war dance adapted by Rouse in the 1970s--typifies his personal revival of the classical allegros, or rapid movements. Both of these pieces by Rouse are included on a sampler released in 2000. Turn up the volume, suggested Allen Gimbel in an American Record Guide review: "Both are best savored at the loudest possible volume setting." The music is exhaustively loud, which--according to Rouse--provides a healing influence when applied properly.

Among the most popular of Rouse's percussion works is a seven-minute theme called Bonham. The piece, written in 1988, is a tribute to the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. It received its premiere at Boston's Tanglewood Festival, where Rouse is a frequent guest. In other renditions, David Zinman led the Baltimore Symphony in a performance of Bonham, which is included on the symphony's Dance Mix album, released on Polygram in 1995.

Exorcistic Rage and Ensuing Calm

A theme of violence invaded Rouse's work during the 1980s, and--according to the composer--it typified his own rage. In Gorgon, written in 1984, as well as in Phantasmata, from 1985, this theme is prominent.

Beginning in 1986, when he sat as the composer of note with the Baltimore Symphony's Meet the Composer program, a calming effect invaded Rouse's music and ushered him into a period that involved many slower, moody passages. Somber and often described as gloomy or morbid, these works depict death without redemption. "If you find enriching catharsis in ... Hartmann and Pettersson and Henze, you'll want to hear Rouse," noted Lehman.

Also in 1986 Rouse completed his first full-blown symphony. Symphony No. 1 picks up on an earlier series of passages written by the composer ten years prior. The symphony received its premiere under the baton of Zinman with the Boston Orchestra in 1987. For Rouse it clinched his reputation as a serious classical composer. In recognition of the work he was honored with the Friedheim Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Celebrated World Premieres

In the early 1990s, under commission from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Rouse composed his Trumpet Concerto. The premiere of this work was to have been conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Philharmonic. Sadly, Bernstein died prior to the completion of the work, and the concerto was instead dedicated to his memory. The premiere by the New York Philharmonic featured principal trombonist Joseph Alessi on solos. In 1993 Rouse was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for this work. Trombone Concerto is the central composition on the album American Trombone Concertos--Volume 2 by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Rouse followed with a number of concertos, including works for violoncello, clarinet, and percussion. Evelyn Glennie performed the premiere of the percussion concerto, and Sharon Isbin was heard on Rouse's guitar concerto.

Rouse's Violoncello Concerto was commissioned expressly for Yo-Yo Ma in celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. This work received its premiere on January 26, 1994. Ma later performed the concerto as one of three with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This 1996 performance, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, was conducted by David Zinman. The three concertos--including works by Richard Danielpour and Leon Kirchner--were subsequently recorded and released by Sony. The album, Premieres, won three Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Album of 1997.

October of 1994 saw the world premiere of Rouse's Flute Concerto, commissioned and performed by Carol Wincenc with guest conductor Hans Wonk and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Rouse's Symphony No. 2 was heard first on March 4, 1995, performed by the Houston Symphony, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach. A violent work, the symphony is described by the composer as a tribute to the daily horrors of life. A recording of this work by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, along with the Wincenc flute concert and the mythology-inspired Phaethon, was released by Telarc in 1997.

A piano concerto, Seeing, written by Rouse for Emanuel Ax, received its premiere with Leonard Slatkin and the New York Philharmonic on May 6, 1999. That same year Zinman led the Philadelphia Orchestra in the New York premiere of Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich. Rouse, who borrows freely from the imagery of earlier composers, provides allusion to a Wagnerian tale in this piece. Also in 1999, Kabir Padavali received its world premiere with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Minnesota Orchestra. A song/poem in the Hindu tradition, Kabir Padavali served as a rare vocal excursion for Rouse.

The underlying influence of rock 'n' roll on Rouse's music re-emerged with the world premiere of his Clarinet Concerto on May 17, 2001. The performance, by Christoph Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, featured the symphony's own principal clarinetist, Larry Combs, as soloist. The work, which was commissioned by the Eastman School's Hanson Institute, is intensely rhythmic. John Von Rhein in American Record Guide praised the performance and hailed Rouse for the originality, unpredictability, and tonal passages of the piece. Von Rhein described Rouse as: "An amiable, rumpled bear of a man [who] writes anything but amiable music." Rhein went on to say that the clashing fury of the various instruments combine into a composition that is "enormously, exhaustingly effective."

Other Popular Works

Rouse's most recognizable piece is sometimes cited as the The Infernal Machine. Written in 1981, the piece fails to achieve the full height of sound and ambition that came to characterize his style near the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Around that same time, he composed a tonal work, Jagannath, which was first performed by the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1990.

In 1997 Rouse was named composer-in-residence at Tanglewood. He joined New York's Juilliard School faculty in 1998. Rouse has confided to David Raymond in American Record Guide that he finds it humbling to ponder the collection of great musicians who have performed his work.

by Gloria Cooksey

Christopher Rouse's Career

Worked as an instructor at University of Michigan, 1978-81; instructor at Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, 1981-; composed first complete symphonic piece, Symphony No. 1, 1986; Violoncello Concerto, commissioned for Yo-Yo Ma, premiered with Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, 1994; Symphony No. 2 premiered with Houston Symphony, 1995; instructor at Juilliard School, New York City, 1998-.

Christopher Rouse's Awards

Friedheim Award, a Kennedy Center Honor, 1988; Pulitzer Prize in Music for Trombone Concerto, 1993; Diapason D'Or Award, 1997; Alfred I. duPont Award, Delaware Symphony Orchestra, 2001; Grammy Award, Best Classical Contemporary Composition for Concert de Gaudi, 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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