Christopher Rouse is one of the most prominent examples of the renascent American symphonist, following in the tradition of the composers of the 1930s and 1940s (such as Schuman, on whom Rouse has written a short bio-bibliography, Bernstein, Harris, and Copland).
Like John Corigliano and Michael Daugherty, though, Rouse's work is less abstract than that of his predecessors: it contains references to actual events (often a death) and to other music, especially rock (on which he has published and taught). Rouse's music is essentially tonal, and generally either violent or tragic in mood, though the lyrical sections of his pieces (as in the third movement of the Flute Concerto from 1993, written in memory of murder victim James Bulger) can be extremely moving. Rouse sees the role of artists as being "to provide spiritual nourishment and healing ...to actually function within our society as healers and enlighteners ... savers of souls," and has attempted to fulfill that role by writing some of the most overtly emotional and passionate music of any modern American composer.
Growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, Rouse was inspired equally by early rock (Elvis Presley, Little Richard) and classical music (Beethoven's Fifth Symphony made a lasting impression). He studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory (graduating in 1971) and Cornell University (obtaining a doctorate in 1977), with, among others, Karel Husa and George Crumb. He then taught at Michigan from 1978-1981, and since 1981 has been on the composition faculty at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. Since 1998 he has also been teaching at the Juilliard School in New York City.
Odoun Badagris (1981) is a typical example of Rouse's early music, which was mostly written for percussion ensembles (quartets and quintets), and tended to be extremely fast. As the composer has stated, "almost all of my music from the first half of the 1980s constituted an attempt to help bring about a resurgence of the allegro ... so most of my music was very fast and somewhat aggressive in tone ..." Rouse has continued writing in the percussion ensemble genre, most famously with Bonham (1988) for eight percussionists, a tribute to the deceased Led Zeppelin drummer. The aggressive tendency in his earlier music has sometimes appeared as actual violence, as in Phantasmata (1985).
By the time Rouse became the composer-in-residence, under the auspices of the "Meet the Composer" program, with the Baltimore symphony in 1986, he had decided that the allegro had been explored enough, and started with the opposite extreme: large, slow orchestral pieces, often with rather morbid inspirations. The first major result was the Symphony No.1 (1986), which grew out of a long, slow string passage originally written in 1976, when Rouse was still a student. It is in one movement, and writing it the composer "had the image of a different sort of hero, who is also attacked and besieged and who is utterly destroyed, but whose destruction brings no ... ennoblement to mankind. Death without transfiguration, if you will." Rouse's music often contains references to the work of the great late Romantic symphonists (Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich) as well as other composers.
Rouse won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1993 for his Trombone Concerto (played by Joseph Alessi, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein), and has since written many major works in the concerto form, for violoncello (for Yo-Yo Ma), flute (Carol Wincenc), percussion (Evelyn Glennie), singer (Kabir Padavali, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra written for Dawn Upshaw), piano (Seeing, for Emanuel Ax), guitar (Sharon Isbin), and clarinet. The percussion concerto, premiered in 1998, is entitled Der gerettete Alberich ("saved Alberich"), and is a fantasy on some of Wagner's leitmotifs, telling the story of what Rouse imagines might have happened after the end of the Ring Cycle. ~ David Nelson McCarthy, Rovi