Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 1 (1986) Heroism in a Lyric Context

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Michael J. Morey


Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1 (1986) not only helped secure his position as one of America’s more prominent composers, but it also helped to elevate the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's reputation as a welcoming venue to performances of challenging new works. Cast in the form of a single movement adagio, it was meant to pay homage to those Rouse admired as composers of adagios – Shostakovich, Sibelius, Hartmann, Pettersson, and Schuman. However, only one composer’s music is recognizably quoted (the famous opening theme from the second movement of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, which is performed in Rouse’s Symphony by a quartet of Wagner Tubas). While Rouse’s Symphony is cast in the lyric mode of the adagio, it is the cumulative quotation procedure that provides the catalyst for the work’s narrative listening potential.

The lyric context offers analytical advantages to adagios as stand-alone movements. It is my intention to apply portions of Karol Berger’s lyric theory to Rouse’s Symphony No. 1, noting how the specific categories often associated with adagio rhetoric such as color and timbre, a sense of atemporality, and melodic expansion and contraction intersect with more traditional narrative-like properties such as the carefully prepared climaxes, periodicity, and the return of various materials at critical formal junctures. I conclude by noting that while the adagio rhetoric is present throughout most of Rouse’s Symphony, the potency and referential content of the Bruckner quotation acts as the critical point of departure that counterbalances the lyric with narrative modes of perception.

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