Christopher Rouse

5 questions to Christopher Rouse (composer) about his Requiem

The New York premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Requiem, performed by the New York Philharmonic as the opening of the Spring for Music Festival on May 5, was a great excuse to ask the composer 5 questions…

Your Requiem is eclectic, modeled in different ways on Berlioz and on Britten’s War Requiem. Within your description of the materials you bring in, I was struck by juxtaposition of the Anglican hymn “Now the Laborer’s Task is O’er” and “Lo! How a Rose e’er Blooming,” representative of death and life respectively. What drew you to these particular tunes, given the abundance of hymns on those themes to choose from?

They both are very special to me. “Lo!” is my favorite of all Christmas carols, and “Now the Laborer’s Task is O’er” is a particularly beautiful hymn I first heard as a child attending a memorial service for President Kennedy. (NB – sadly, is was removed from the most recent edition of the Episcopal Hymnal.)

In the trailer for the NY Philharmonic performance this May, you mention a few instances where you mirror Berlioz–his Hostias and his Lacrymosa. Are there other ways in which the Berlioz shaped your thinking?

I decided not to use any actual musical quotations from Berlioz but did elect to set the text with the various cuts, emendations, and reshufflings he chose for his own Requiem. Beyond that I often took my expressive cue from him. His “Lacrymosa” is a slow, apocalyptic wail in compound meter, and so mine is as well. His “Hostias” is the weirdest movement, so I made my “Hostias” weird as well. In the “Dies Irae” I decided to do the exact opposite of Berlioz’ reserved and austere setting.

Christopher Rouse

Christopher Rouse

What did you intend to bring to the work by incorporating the “Everyman” baritone soloist, experiencing six deaths through six different poems/poets?

I was trying to humanize the experience of death. I think of the chorus as the ritualized representative of death in its monumental sense, while in a more personal and intimate way the soloist tells us of his own life as touched by the deaths of loved ones. (1. brother, as child; 2. friend; 3. parent; 4. son; 5. wife; 6. his own death)

LA Times review of the premiere calls this “the first great traditional American Requiem.” What do you see in the piece that might invite this characterization? What I mean is, what about it is distinctly “American”?

My hunch is that the reviewer simply meant “‘Requiem” by an American. I don’t believe that there is anything distinctly American in the music. Perhaps the fact that the expressivity is straightforward and direct could imply its being “American.” I look at that as being a characteristic of much American music anyway.

You have stated that this is the best piece you’ve written, a magnum opus if you will. As such, has your Requiem influenced your work since?

No. When writing it I made use of virtually everything in my own compositional lexicon (except for rock music), but my musical language adapts to the needs of each work as I compose it. However, no other work of mine is as stylistically broad as is my Requiem; I felt this was necessary in view of the piece’s ninety-minute length.

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