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.

Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.