Born: February 15, 1949, Baltimore, Maryland
Died: September 21, 2019, Towson, Maryland

Symphony No. 6

Composed: 2019, on commission from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with support from Dianne and J. David Rosenberg in celebration of the Orchestra’s 125th Anniversary

Premiere: October 18, 2019, Cincinnati; Louis Langrée conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and recorded live on September 30 and October 2, 2022 at Cincinnati’s Music Hall.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets (incl. fluegelhorn), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, gong, rute, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, xylophone, harp, strings

Christopher Rouse, a native of Baltimore, was largely self-taught in music before entering the Oberlin Conservatory in 1967 to study composition with Richard Hoffmann and Randolph Coleman; he received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin in 1971. Following two years of private study with George Crumb in Philadelphia, he enrolled at Cornell University, where his teachers included Karel Husa and Robert Palmer; he graduated from Cornell in 1977 with both master’s and doctoral degrees, and a year later joined the faculty of the School of Music of the University of Michigan. Rouse taught at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester from 1981 to 2002 and was on the composition faculty of the Juilliard School from 1997 until his death. From 1986 to 1989, he served as Composer-in-Residence with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; at the invitation of Leonard Bernstein, he was Composer-in-Residence at the 1989 Santa Cecilia and Schleswig-Holstein festivals. He also held residencies at the Tanglewood Music Festival (1996), Helsinki Biennale (1997), Pacific Music Festival (1998), Aspen Music Festival (annually from 1999), Pittsburgh Symphony (2004–05) and Phoenix Symphony (2006–07), and he was Composer-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic from 2012 to 2015 and with the Eugene Symphony during the 2016–17 season. He died in Towson, Maryland on September 21, 2019, just weeks after completing his Symphony No. 6, which was premiered one month later by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Louis Langrée.

Christopher Rouse received commissions from many distinguished ensembles and patrons, including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Detroit Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Houston Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Music America, Koussevitzky Foundation, Yo-Yo Ma, Jan DeGaetani, William Albright and Leslie Guinn. Among his many distinctions were the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music (for the Trombone Concerto), 2002 Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition (Concert de Gaudí for guitarist Sharon Isbin), three BMI/SCA Awards, American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music, Rockefeller Chamber Works Award and the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award; he received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Warner Brothers, American Music Center, Guggenheim Foundation and Pitney-Bowes, as well as honorary doctorates from Oberlin College and the State University of New York at Geneseo; in 2002, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2009, he was named “Composer of the Year” by Musical America magazine. In addition to his activities as a composer and teacher, Christopher Rouse was also a rock music historian, writer on various musical subjects, and author of William Schuman Documentary, published jointly by Theodore Presser and G. Schirmer, Inc.

Death has been woven through the history of music from time immemorial, in the plots of countless tragic operas, in sacred and secular works meant to remember the departed and console the living, and in compositions that grieve for humanity (Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar, about the Nazis’ slaughter of thousands in Ukraine in 1941, or Britten’s War Requiem, inspired by pity over World War I), but there have been few instances in which composers have directly addressed their own deaths in their music.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s last work was The Art of Fugue, which he planned to close with a stupendous Fuga a tre soggetti (“Fugue on Three Subjects”). His health and eyesight had failed completely by then, however, and he could not get beyond the 26th measure. He asked a scribe to head those final pages of his life’s work with the title Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich—“I Come Before Thy Throne”—and then dictated the chorale prelude (BWV 668) he had created some 30 years before on Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (“When We’re in Greatest Need”). Bach took his last Communion at home on July 22, 1750 and died on the evening of July 28 following a stroke.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart worked intermittently on his Requiem Mass during the last months of his life, when he suffered from swelling limbs, feverishness, pains in his joints, and severe headaches caused by a still-uncertain disease. He became obsessed with the Requiem, referring to it as his “swan-song,” convinced that he was writing the music for his own funeral: “I know from what I feel that the hour is striking; I am on the point of death; I have finished before I could enjoy my talent.... I thus must finish my funeral song, which I must not leave incomplete.” Mozart was unable to finish the Requiem before he died on the morning of December 5, 1791, six weeks shy of his 36th birthday.

Christopher Rouse found in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony—written 1908–10 when Mahler was not yet 50 but already suffering from a serious heart condition that would end his life in May 1911—his most significant example of creative self-awareness. Mahler was acutely aware of his own mortality during those years but refused to curtail his strenuous schedule, which then included full seasons conducting the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Realizing that the pace of his career would probably soon cost him his life, he embedded in the Ninth Symphony a message of farewell and an acceptance of his own approaching death. Leonard Bernstein, decades later a successor to Mahler as Music Director of the Philharmonic and a masterful interpreter of his music, wrote a “personal introduction” to the Ninth Symphony that he titled “Four Ways to Say Farewell.” “In the Ninth,” Bernstein wrote, “each movement is a farewell: the 1st is a farewell to tenderness, passion—human love; the 2nd and 3rd are farewells to life—first to country life, then to urban society; and the finale is a farewell to life itself.”

Rouse, upon completing the Symphony No. 6 at his home in Baltimore on June 6, 2019, wrote, “One final time my subject is death, though in this event it is my own of which I write.” He died three months later, in hospice, on September 21, and the Sixth Symphony was premiered on October 18 by Music Director Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which had commissioned the work. He continued:

I realized that I had largely avoided the standard four-movement form and recognized that this would be the time to tackle it. (To be fair, my Fifth Symphony does also exhibit many elements of four-movement structure.) I first chose to bookend the piece with two slow movements, and it then occurred to me that by placing a moderate-tempo movement second and a fast one third I would have replicated overall the architecture of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, though in a much more modest time span. (My Symphony lasts only about 40% as long as Mahler’s.) An immediate decision was required vis-à-vis how referential I would be in relation to the Mahler, and I elected not to employ any actual Mahler quotations. As in Mahler’s second movement, I would in mine present music in both slow and fast tempi, but my third movement would consist of fast music only. Throughout my piece I would make subtle reference to the “stuttering” motive that opens the Mahler Symphony.

My choice of an “unusual instrument” in the Sixth Symphony was the fluegelhorn. The timbre of this dark-tinged member of the trumpet family seemed right for the elegiac quality of the Symphony’s opening idea, and it is a color that will return at various stages during the piece. My intent was to imbue the opening movement with a feeling of yearning as it strives to find an anchor in a sea of doubt. Each of the middle movements serves as an interlude in its own way, neither working with nor against the expressive grain of the opening Adagio. (For me, this is also how Mahler’s two middle movements largely function within the span of his Ninth Symphony; the essential connection in both symphonies is that between the opening and the closing movements.) The music continues its path towards the end. Ultimately there is a valedictory passage featuring the strings over a long droning E in the contrabasses. The drone is the lifeline. Fear and doubt give way to an uncertain serenity. Still the life drone sounds. Love adds its grace and its healing power. The drone continues. Gradually all begins to recede but for the drone. The drone holds and holds. At the end, the final step must be taken alone. The drone continues…and continues...until it stops.

The last note of the Sixth Symphony is a stroke on the gong alone, distinct but neither loud nor soft, marked funesto (“fatal”). In place of the legend Rouse usually placed beneath the last line of a score—
Deo gratias (“Thanks be to God”)—he inscribed Finis.

“My main hope,” Rouse said, “is that the Symphony will communicate something sincere in meaning to those who hear it.”

© Dr. Richard E. Rodda