Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Christopher Rouse ’71 Dies at 70

October 11, 2019
Erich Burnett
composer Christopher Rouse
Photo credit: Jeff Herman

His deeply emotional, evocative works were performed by major orchestras around the world.

Christopher Rouse ’71, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose music has been performed by every major orchestra in America and by many prominent orchestras worldwide, died September 21, 2019, at age 70.

As news of Rouse’s passing began to circulate, his lifetime of work was described by news outlets as “fast and furious,” a blend of “rage and delicacy,” and “vivid, colorful, and emotionally powerful.”

It was all of that and more, and it poured from the genius of a humble man with a dry but well-calibrated sense of humor, who despite his prolonged success continued to dwell for many years in the modest Baltimore home where he was raised.

Rouse developed a passion for music—and creators of music—at a young age, first through rock and roll and by age 6 through classical music; his introduction came through an LP record of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony presented to him by his mother. (He would go on to amass a considerable collection of records and composers’ autographs throughout his life.)

By age 7, he was composing his own music.

At Oberlin, Rouse studied under Richard Hoffmann. He continued his education with a master’s degree and doctorate from Cornell University, and he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His principal postgraduate teachers included George Crumb and Karel Husa.

Rouse taught composition for more than 20 years at the Eastman School of Music, where he also created a course on the history of rock and roll. Other appointments included the Juilliard School and the University of Michigan, where he had first developed his affinity for composing for orchestra—in part through a spur-of-the-moment assignment to write a five-minute piece for the school’s large ensemble.

"I became, I would honestly say, typecast as an orchestra composer, but that's fine with me," Rouse later said. "I love writing for the orchestra. I would think I would rather write for the orchestra than anything else."

One of Rouse’s first major works, Symphony No. 1, was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1988 and went on to win the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. Over the course of his career, Rouse penned five more symphonies, 12 concertos, and a requiem.

Death—especially the loss of loved ones and friends—played a pivotal role in Rouse’s output throughout his career, a tendency that earned him the nickname “Mr. Sunshine” among associates in the Baltimore Symphony, with which he was composer in residence in the 1980s and which he later served as its advisor for new music.

Rouse won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his Trombone Concerto, which was dedicated to Leonard Bernstein and composed immediately after his death. He earned a Grammy Award in 2002 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“I had always associated Christopher Rouse's name with impressive scoring, including bombastic writing for percussion,” says Alexa Still, Oberlin’s associate professor of flute. “So when I first heard his Flute Concerto, I was stunned. I was compelled to listen to it over and over and over again, and particularly the first and last movements. It struck me as perhaps the most beautiful music I had ever heard.”

In writing the five-movement concerto, Rouse was informed in part by his ancestral connection to Celtic music and culture—much like Still—but also by the tragic abduction and murder of a 2-year-old English boy at the hands of two 10-year-olds.

“Maybe it isn't surprising that I find it deeply moving, to the point that quite honestly tears well up in my eyes just thinking of the melodies,” says Still. “But it is also a finely crafted work. The more I studied the score, the more I understood the depth of complexity and intricacy of the motifs, harmony, layers of voices, structure, and even orchestral scoring. It is remarkable. Once you start looking, you realize every note was very carefully planned.”

Still performed Rouse’s concerto with the Oberlin Orchestra in 2017. The composer had intended to return to campus for the occasion, but was forced to cancel due to illness; instead, he showered Still and her colleagues with praise in a note he wrote after taking in the live stream of the concert at home.

“It is challenging and absolutely punishing to play,” Still says, “but it is undeniably a fabulous composition with tremendous power for the listener.”

In January 2013, Rouse took part in Oberlin’s Illumination Tour of New York City. It included a DiMenna Center performance of Rouse’s Compline by the Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Timothy Weiss. One day later, the Oberlin Orchestra presented the New York premiere of Rouse’s Iscariot at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Raphael Jiménez.

Prior to the concert, Rouse appeared as part of a panel discussion entitled “Forging the Future: The Successful Creation, Transmission, and Celebration of New Music,” which also featured International Contemporary Ensemble founder Claire Chase ’01 and conductor Weiss.

Jiménez, Oberlin’s director of orchestras and a professor of conducting, marvels at the profound emotion that seems to pour out of every Rouse piece—from the torment conveyed in his Flute Concerto, to the humor of The Nevill Feast, an eight-minute work composed in 2003 for the Boston Pops, about a famously elaborate meal served in 15th-century England. The score, Rouse once said, was “intended simply to entertain.”

“Every conductor loves composers who write really well for orchestra, and he loved the orchestra,” says Jiménez. “He was a symphonist and somebody who drew phenomenal sounds out of our instruments. Christopher Rouse did great things for the repertoire.”

Rouse leaves his wife, Natasha Miller Rouse; two children from a previous marriage; and three grandchildren.

Even in death, he continues to have impact: Rouse’s final work, Symphony No. 6, will be given its world premiere by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on October 18.

The Oberlin Orchestra will perform Rouse’s Symphony No. 5 on May 8, 2020.

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