Christopher Rouse’s First Symphony

composer Christopher Rouse
American composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949)

From the first, haunting strands of its spine-chilling opening, Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1 inhabits a world of darkness and terror. Its titanic forces rise out of, and then sink back into, an atmosphere of seemingly perpetual gloom. It shows us the strange beauty embodied in brooding darkness, hopelessness and despair, and concludes without delivering the kind of reassurance we would like.

Completed in the summer of 1986, the work was written for the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Zinman. Like Samuel Barber’s First Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh, Rouse’s symphony unfolds in one movement, although it’s divided into sections which resemble traditional symphonic movements. If you’re not offended by the limitations of labels, you can put Christopher Rouse, who has served on the faculties of both the Eastman and Juilliard schools, into the neo-Romantic camp. His music alternates between tonality and atonality, occasionally hinting at the rebellious sounds of rock mixed with Mahler. A year before the First Symphony, Rouse wrote Bump, a piece inspired by a dream in which the Boston Pops was playing a tour concert in Hell and demons formed a Konga line.

Symphony No. 1 is filled with ghosts from the past. As Rouse explains:

In my Symphony No. 1 I have attempted to pay conscious homage to many of those I especially admire as composers of adagios — Shostakovich, Sibelius, Hartmann, Pettersson, and Schuman, for example — but only one is recognizably quoted (the famous opening theme from the second movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, played both in the original and here by a quartet of Wagner Tubas). The work is scored for two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes (2nd doubling both oboe d’amore and English horn), two clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), four horns (all doubling Wagner Tubas), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), and strings. It is dedicated to my friend, John Harbison.

A few months ago, we listened to Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. You can hear the majestic theme of the Adagio, which Rouse quotes, here. The short quote occurs towards the end.

Here is the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert:

While Symphony No. 1 directly quotes Bruckner at 22:19 (indirect references also sneak in at moments like 2:04), the spirit of Shostakovich is never far away. Notice that the fugue beginning at 5:48 is built on the famous motive which outlines Shostakovich’s initials. There’s also the mournful flute solo at 2:54, which inverts and develops the half-step motive from the opening. Like Shostakovich, Rouse’s music seems to continually strive for an elusive goal; and, like most symphonies, it’s always looking for a way forward…a new door to open.

Notice the simple, repeated four note motive (E-G-G-E) which begins around 7:30. As this motive progresses, it morphs into three obsessively repeated notes. It feels dangerous and ominous, like a time bomb waiting to go off. The motive, which starts quietly, grows until it seems unmanageable, exploding into cacophony.

Then, in the middle of the piece, we suddenly enter a completely different world (12:22). The searching half steps of the opening are replaced with reassuring whole steps (14:27 in the bass). This music, built on triads and open fifths, seems to float, providing a dreamlike respite from earlier darkness. But it’s only temporary. Soon, the spirit of the opening angrily re-asserts itself (17:46) and we’re plunged back into darkness and confusion. At 22:31, listen to the trance-like repetition of those three notes we heard earlier, this time in the percussion. A solemn minor chord provides a backdrop throughout the symphony, and it’s present at the end, momentarily obscured by layers of passing dissonance (24:49). The hopeful E-G-G-E motive is heard as the symphony fades away into eternal gloom.

Singing Along with the Vacuum Cleaner

composer Nico Muhly
composer Nico Muhly

What inescapable sounds surround us in the twenty-first century and how do they influence music? Nico Muhly’s 2012 albumDrones, is music which seems to emerge from the hum of the refrigerator or vacuum cleaner.

Muhly (b.1981) studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at Julliard, served as Philip Glass’s copyist, and has collaborated with Björk and Usher. Like Gabriel Kahane, his style, which blends elements of rock and electronic music, is hard to pin down. Read an interview with Muhly about the music here.

Listen to Drones and Piano and consider how the music flows and develops. As I listened, I remembered that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony  emerges out of silence with a similar open fifth drone…a raw musical element which embraces all possibilities.

Here is what Nico Muhly says about the piece:

I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure. The idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places. We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them…The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant c#, with an ever-changing top note: f#, e#, or e.

The final track on the CD is called Drones in Large Cycles:

Drones in Large Cycles gradually develops, becoming increasingly complex (listen to the multiple rhythmic layers around 5:08). It’s flowing through time, but is there any musical goal? Like many pop songs, and minimalism, this music is about enjoying the moment.

Silence is wildly important. In fact, something I always remember from one of my very first music teachers is that music begins with silence…I find “observed silence” to be quite beautiful. Think about the moment on a transatlantic flight — a noisy affair — when everybody’s basically asleep? I love that sound. My parents’ house in Vermont in the winter can be as silent as the grave, punctuated by the weird sound of ice melting on the roof.  Heaven.

-Nico Muhly