The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 2

About the Work

Christopher Rouse Composer: Christopher Rouse
© Richard Freed

The Symphony No. 2, commissioned by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, was composed in 1994 and was given its premiere in Houston under Christoph Eschenbach on March 4, 1995. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach, calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, bongo, cymbals, suspended cymbal, Chinese cymbal,  tambourine, large tam tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, and strings. Duration, 27 minutes.

While Christopher Rouse is so solidly acknowledged now as one of the outstanding composers of his time that it is no longer necessary to introduce a work of his with references to the positions he has held or the honors and awards he has received, it does seem fitting, in Leonard Slatkin's valedictory season as the National Symphony's music director, to take note of the conductor's long and productive enthusiasm for this composer. Mr. Slatkin began performing Mr. Rouse's music during his tenure with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, with which he recorded The Infernal Machine for Nonesuch in 1984, a few months after he introduced that work into the NSO's repertory during an appearance here as guest conductor. Two years later, also in Saint Louis, Mr. Slatkin gave the premiere of Phantasmata, a three-part work which he commissioned, in which The Infernal Machine became the middle movement, and he subsequently presided over the premieres of three of Mr. Rouse's concertos: the one for violin, with Cho-Liang Lin at the Aspen Festival in 1992; the one for trombone (for which Mr. Rouse received a Pulitzer Prize) with Joseph Alessi and the New York Philharmonic in December of that year; and the piano concerto Seeing, with Emanuel Ax and the Philharmonic in May 1999. Since taking the podium of the NSO, Mr. Slatkin has performed The Infernal Machine at Wolf Trap in 1998, the percussion concerto Der gerettete Alberich, with Evelyn Glennie, at Wolf Trap in the "Drums along the Potomac" festival a year later, and Seeing, with Mr. Ax, in subscription concerts in the spring of 2001.

In the meantime, Mr. Rouse became composer-in-residence to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1986; his First Symphony, commissioned by that orchestra and introduced under David Zinman in 1988, won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award that year. The Second Symphony, conceived at the same time as the First, though actually composed several years later, has an indirect connection with the National Symphony Orchestra itself, in that its middle movement is a memorial to Stephen Albert, a composer closely identified with the NSO in the 1980s. Albert's own First Symphony, RiverRun, was the first work commissioned and introduced by the NSO with the support of the commissioning fund created by Hechinger Foundation. RiverRun was given its premiere here under Mstislav Rostropovich in January 1985, and brought Albert a Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Rostropovich performed the work again in 1987, recorded it for Delos at that time (it is the only American symphony Slava recorded), and took its two outer movements (a "short version" approved by the composer) on the orchestra's historic tour of what was then the USSR in February 1990. Stephen Albert died in an automobile accident at the end of 1992, six weeks shy of his 52nd birthday. His Second Symphony, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, was completed by his young colleague pupil Sebastian Currier; Hugh Wolff conducted the Philharmonic in the premiere in mid-November 1994, and included it in his NSO concerts the following week.

Thoughts of leave-taking and farewell, of the loss of friends and associates, and the generally elegiac frame in the music of earlier composers admired by Mr. Rouse are apparent in several of his works-concertos as well as the two symphonies-which have come to be regarded as a "death cycle." In acknowledging this, Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, an especially perceptive commentator on contemporary music, has observed that the music so categorized "is also a music of catharsis, survival and a celebration of being alive. Just as Rouse at his darkest is also a composer with a love for light, at his lightest he never forsakes the real world for a falsely ideal one."

The composer himself has provided the following note on his Symphony No. 2.

I conceived both my First and Second symphonies almost simultaneously in the summer of 1984. I completed physical work on my Symphony No. 1 two years later, and it was given its premiere in January 1988 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for whom it was written, under the direction of David Zinman. However, it was not until some time later that the Houston Symphony Orchestra commissioned its successor, which was finally set down in full on paper by July 15, 1994. The work is dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach.

Although the passage of ten years between conception and execution of my Second Symphony undoubtedly effected alteration in a number of details as originally conceived, the fundamental concept of the work remained unchanged. There are three connected movements-Allegro, Adagio, Allegro-and the first and third movements (each set at precisely the same unchanging tempo) share the same motivic material; in a sense, the third movement constitutes a further structural "development" of the first, even though both movements are cast in a tripartite form (A-B-A) in which the B section introduces new material as well as elaborating and developing music already stated.

The central Adagio functions as a kind of prism through which the music of the first movement is "refracted," in the process altering its mood and effect. This Adagio, composed in memory of my friend and colleague Stephen Albert, might be said to act as a tunnel through which the somewhat mercurially-mooded first Allegro passes; on the other end of this tunnel, this Allegro music emerges recognizably both the same and different, with the lighter temperament of the originally heard music now darker and more threatening in tone. As a result, the arch-like form of the symphony brings the work to a close at virtually the same structural point at which it began, but the conclusion's emotional world is light years away from that of the beginning.

                                                                                                                   CHRISTOPHER ROUSE © 1994
                                                                           Reprinted by kind permission of Christopher Rouse