Christopher Rouse 1949-2019

September 22, 2019
By George Grella
Photo: Jeffrey Herman

American composer Christopher Rouse has died at the age of 70, his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes announced Saturday night. Through Boosey, Rouse’s family stated that the composer died Saturday in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

Rouse was one of the leading symphonic composers in this country, carrying along the mid-20th century legacy of Roy Harris, William Schuman, and David Diamond. Like Schuman, Rouse was also an important teacher; he was on the Eastman School of Music Composition faculty from 1981-2002, and since 1997 had been teaching at Juilliard. He was also the Distinguished Composer-in-Residence at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Rouse was born in Baltimore in 1949, and kept the city as his home for his lifetime. He studied at Oberlin Conservatory and Cornell University, under, among others, George Crumb and Karel Husa.

At his death, he had composed six symphonies, the last of which was finished this year and will have its world premiere October 18-19 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and conductor Louis Langrée.

His work combined a sensibility that ranged from rugged modernism to wistful lyricism, and he was a master of orchestral color and of capturing explosive energy in his scores.

Rouse’s music typically features sophisticated and complex tonal harmonies and rhythms, extended, romantic melodic passages, and a feeling of direct, personal, guileless communication that is a natural extension of Rouse’s love for rock music. Pre-dating the interest among current composers of bridging the gap between art music and rock populism, Rouse had taught a course in rock at Eastman for many years. His works invariably appealed to concertgoers who had come for Beethoven. One of his most notable works, Bonham, for percussion ensemble, is both a tribute to and a riff and variations on the playing of the great Led Zeppelin drummer. 

He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1993 for his Trombone Concerto, written for Leonard Bernstein and dedicated to Bernstein after the conductor’s death. His Cello Concerto was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the recording of that work and his Concerto de Gaudi for guitar earned Grammy Awards.

Rouse partnered with many leading figures in classical music, including conductors David Robertson, Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop, and David Zinman. His twelve concertos includes pieces composed for Dawn Upshaw, Evelyn Glennie, and Emanuel Ax. 

He enjoyed close relationships with the Baltimore Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, among numerous other orchestras in America and Europe. He was the resident composer in Baltimore from 1986, and served as the orchestra’s New Music Advisor from 1989-2000, while from 2012–2015 he was the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s music director at the time, has brought numerous Rouse pieces to record, including Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 and 4, Prospero’s Rooms, and the Flute Concerto.

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