The Kennedy Center

Trombone Concerto

About the Work

Christopher Rouse Composer: Christopher Rouse
© Thomas May

Born after the Beatles and other heroes of the golden age of rock-whose music left a powerful imprint on him-Christopher Rouse belongs to the generation that came of age when orchestral music was considered a dead end by many living composers: a ticket to ride to complete obscurity. His legacy over the past several decades has been to help revitalize the appeal of American orchestral music through a splendid outpouring of concertos and other imaginative pieces for the concert hall.

Rouse, a Baltimore native, supplemented an education at Oberlin and Cornell (under the late Karel Husa) by taking private studies with the maverick, outside-the-box composer George Crumb. He himself has been a prominent educator, teaching composition at Juilliard since 1997. Rouse ranks among the most frequently performed living composers in America's orchestral scene. The National Symphony co-commissioned his new Organ Concerto-scheduled by the NSO for this May-which was acclaimed at its world premiere in December by the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The critic George Loomis wrote that it is a work "with musical substance" and has "a serious side, reflected in a hefty supply of dissonance within Rouse's typically expansive harmonic palette.")

Later in February the Dallas Symphony will unveil his Symphony No. 5 under Jaap van Zweden, who is slated to succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic. Rouse enjoys an especially close relationship with that ensemble, including an extended three-year composer residency that ended in 2015. The New York Philharmonic's recording under Alan Gilbert of Rouse's Third and Fourth Symphonies and other works was among NPR's choices for Best 50 Albums of 2016.

It was in commemoration of one of the New York Philharmonic's former music directors-Leonard Bernstein-that Rouse composed his Trombone Concerto in 1991. Commissioned by the Philharmonic for principal trombonist Joseph Alessi to mark the orchestra's 150th anniversary and dedicated to the memory of Bernstein (who died in October 1990), the roughly half-hour-long Trombone Concerto launched a highly successful, prolific, and ongoing series of concertos for prominent soloists that make up a large part of Rouse's catalogue.

The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 1993. Rouse had not gotten to know Bernstein personally until the very end of his life (in the summer of 1989), though he had long been a fervent admirer. Bernstein "remains for me a figure of inestimable importance in the history of music," Rouse wrote, "one whose passion for and commitment to his art was unsurpassable, and his sudden death in October 1990 robbed us all of an almost superhuman musical giant." The third movement of the Trombone Concerto includes a direct quotation from Bernstein's Third Symphony (Kaddish). Rouse describes this as "a gesture of the most profound affection and gratitude, mingled with sorrow at his passing."

Facing the prospect of writing a concerto for the trombone, Rouse noticed that existing models of concertos for brass instruments tended to prompt their composers "to give such works something of a light character. As a result, I set out to compose a work which, while requiring substantial virtuosity from the soloist, would contain music of a primarily somber and introspective character, one whose tone was serious in tone."


The Trombone Concerto is cast in the usual three movements, but, unconventionally, the outer two are slow movements surrounding a scherzo. Rouse offers the following description of the work: "The first movement begins and ends with sparse, ritualized music of an understatedly rhetorical nature, with its centerpiece being an expanding passacaglia featuring the soloist accompanied by the strings of the orchestra. The middle movement alternates scurrying music (which introduces the orchestral brass section for the first time in the score) with a more dancelike central part-the music ultimately builds to a loud, almost apocalyptic climax, and this gives way to the elegiac finale, primarily a funeral march, in which the Bernstein quote leads the music back to the hieratic material which began the piece. Each of the movements is connected by a brief cadenza for the solo trombone."