Christopher Rouse, Composer of Rage and Delicacy, Dies at 70


Christopher Rouse, a Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning composer known for vibrantly orchestrated works that explore extremes of expression, from kinetic vehemence to elegiac reflection, died on Saturday in hospice care in Towson, Md. He was 70.

The cause was complications of renal cancer, his family said.

Mr. Rouse was one of the most commissioned composers in America, a favorite of major orchestras, which gave him extended residencies. The sheer intensity and sometimes frenetic tempos of his music, with evocatively titled pieces like “The Infernal Machine” and “Bump,” came in part from his excitement over rock as a young man, especially the band Led Zeppelin. “Bonham,” Mr. Rouse’s bruising 1988 work for eight percussionists, was an ode to the group’s drummer, John Bonham.

Yet he avoided explicit references to rock in his compositions.

“It’s really the extremes that I find interesting,” Mr. Rouse said in a 2008 interview with the online magazine NewMusicBox. “Music that is just kind of safe does not appeal to me.” What mattered was a “sense of urgency in the expression,” he said.

Yet, from the works that first brought him wide attention — including his Symphony No. 1 in 1986, an elegiac yet nightmarish score written for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that quotes from Bruckner and Shostakovich — Mr. Rouse drew on myriad sources and styles to create his distinctive musical voice.

Elements of atonality and sturdy diatonic harmony and moments of fleeting lyricism and blazing sonorities often merge or clash. He spent two formative years after college studying privately with the composer George Crumb, whose work with experimental instrumental sounds and colors left a lasting impression on him.

The loss of friends and family often motivated the severity, rage and mournfulness in many of Mr. Rouse’s earlier works. “I am known for writing a very dark, disturbing music,” he told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. “It just happened that every time I had a piece to write, somebody died whose death had a big effect on me.”

He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1993, for the Trombone Concerto, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which gave the premiere with Leonard Slatkin conducting and Joseph Alessi, the Philharmonic’s principal trombone, as soloist.

Written in three connected movements, the concerto was a memorial to Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990; in it Mr. Rouse quotes from Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony, named after the Jewish prayer of mourning.

Reviewing the performance in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein wrote that the trombone, an instrument usually associated with “slides and energy and swing,” turned introspective in this work, “lyrically mourning, then raging, and mourning again.” Yet the “deliberately grotesque, aggressive” middle movement grew so loud, he added, that “some of the string players even put their fingers in their ears.”

A shift in Mr. Rouse’s approach seemed to take place starting in the mid-1990s, with works featuring episodes of delicacy and humor touched with brittleness. His Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma, who gave the 1994 premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by David Zinman, is an extended elegy, in part a response to the deaths of two admired composers: Andrzej Panufnik and Stephen Albert. The concerto quotes their works while also borrowing from William Schuman’s “Orpheus With His Lute” and a haunting lullaby from Monteverdi’s opera “The Coronation of Poppea.”

In 2007, in a review for The Los Angeles Times headlined “At long last, a fitting American Requiem,” the critic Mark Swed hailed the premiere of Mr. Rouse’s 90-minute Requiem, performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Orchestra, with baritone Sanford Sylvan as soloist. Inspired by Berlioz, the piece has moments when “God is described in all His majestic glory,” Mr. Swed wrote, “with percussion storming the land and the chorus describing the indescribable.” Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, chose the requiem for the New York Philharmonic’s Spring for Music program at Carnegie Hall in 2014.

Mr. Gilbert appointed Mr. Rouse composer in residence from 2012 to 2015 and led the orchestra in a recording of Rouse works (including the Third and Fourth Symphonies) that was nominated for the 2017 Grammy Award for best orchestral performance.

Mr. Rouse won the Grammy for best classical contemporary composition in 2001, for his “Concert de Gaudí” for Guitar and Orchestra, inspired by the fantastical work of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. It was written for the guitarist Sharon Isbin. The concerto genre, with its built-in competitiveness between soloist and orchestra, was a good fit for Mr. Rouse’s temperament. He wrote a dozen such works.

Just weeks before his death, Mr. Rouse was putting the finishing touches on his Symphony No. 6. The work will receive its premiere performance on Oct. 18 in Cincinnati by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Louis Langrée.

Christopher Chapman Rouse III was born in Baltimore on Feb. 15, 1949. His father worked in sales at Pitney Bowes, the office machines company; his mother, Margery Rouse, was a secretary for a radiologist. When the young Mr. Rouse started listening avidly to Little Richard and Elvis Presley, his mother, who appreciated classical music, put on a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth. It proved a revelation to him. Before long he was also listening to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Mr. Rouse’s enthusiasm for rock never translated into playing it himself.

“I could play what I called Grace Slick piano, the pianistic equivalent of rhythm guitar,” he said in the NewMusicBox interview, referring to the Jefferson Airplane singer, adding that he also wrote a “bunch of songs” that “mercifully” he soon forgot.

He attended Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1971. After his private lessons with Mr. Crumb, he entered Cornell, studying with the composer Karel Husa, among others. After completing the doctoral program there in 1978 he began teaching at the University of Michigan. He left in 1981 to join the composition faculty at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.

Among the courses he offered at Eastman was a history of rock, which raised eyebrows among some colleagues, Mr. Rouse said in The Post-Gazette interview. At the time, students “didn’t really have terribly much memory of rock before, say, the Eagles, so the idea of plunking down the Byrds was a real revelatory experience for them,” he said.

He was for decades a sought-after teacher whose appointments included a residency at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and, starting in 1997, a 20-year association with the Juilliard School in New York.

Mr. Rouse’s marriage to Ann J. Rouse ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Natasha Miller, whom he married in 2016; two children, Alexandra Glende Brownlee and Adrian Rouse; a stepdaughter whom he adopted, Jillian Rouse; and a stepdaughter, Angela Burg, all from his earlier marriage; and three grandchildren.

His publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, issued a statement on Monday that it said Mr. Rouse had written to be released after his death.

“Without music my life would have had no meaning,” he wrote. “It has not only informed my life or enriched my life; it has GIVEN me life and a reason for living. I’ll never be able to explain why these vibrating frequencies have the power to transport us to levels of consciousness that defy words — I simply accept the fact that music has this miraculous power for me and for myriad other people I have known.”

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