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Christopher Rouse
Flute Concerto

"I completed my flute concerto in Fairport, New York on August 15, 1993. This five-movement work was composed for Carol Wincenc, who also commissioned it.

The concerto, in a general sense at least, was inspired by my reactions to and reflections upon the Celtic tradition, though in no sense is the piece intended to be heard as music to a specific program.

Although both of my parents' families immigrated to America well before the Revolutionary War, I nonetheless still feel a deep ancestral tug of recognition whenever I am exposed to the arts and traditions of the British Isles, particularly those of Celtic origin. Perhaps the Jungian concept of 'genetic memory' is at work here, but the kinship I feel with this heritage – reflected in musical sources as distinct as Irish folk songs, Scottish bagpipe music, and English coronation marches – never fails to summon forth from me a profoundly intense reaction of both recognition and homesickness.

My flute concerto is dedicated to the memory of James Bulger."

– Christopher Rouse, Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1949; died in Towson, Maryland in 2019

Flute Concerto 

  1. Amhrán
  2. Alla marcia​
  3. Elegia
  4. Scherzo
  5. Amhrán

American composer Christopher Rouse’s music is wonderfully expansive – frisky, rock-n-roll-ish, wildly colorful, rage-filled, gentle – and consistently excellent.  He mainly wrote large-scale works for big orchestras with a long roster of percussion instruments – festivals of volume and color, and pathos.  Having won a Grammy and a Pulitzer, among many other awards, Rouse was highly sought-after for commissions.  Such was the case with his Flute Concerto (1993), which was jointly commissioned by flutist Carol Wincenc and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  It’s become a staple for flutists since its 1994 premiere. 

The Concerto is, largely, a celebration of Rouse’s Celtic heritage, but in its hefty middle (third) movement, Elegia, Rouse detours and gives a deeply emotional expression to a horrible murder that made world news in 1993, the year of the Concerto’s creation.  The first and fifth movements are the outer bookends of the Concerto and are expressions of transcendental wandering.  Rouse titled both of these movements Amhrán, the Gaelic word for “song.”  In the first movement, the solo flute wanders and bares its tender soul above gracefully luminous chords.  Rouse’s writing here is agreeably tonal and straight-forward to our ears, but, the musical score shows something different: the meters change every bar (the opening bars in succession, for example, are 5/4, 5/8, 7/8, 3/4, 7/8, 4/4, 2/4, 3/4 and so on) and the rhythms for the soloist are metrically intricate and complex.  But it’s an incantation, creating the effect of drifting clouds.  Rouse wanted to evoke, as he put it, “a more spiritual, even metaphysical, manner through the use of extremely slow tempi, perhaps not unlike some of the recordings of the Irish singer Enya.”  And indeed, the first movement drifts by in a kind of numinous bliss. 

With no breaks between movements, the second movement march (Alla Marcia) breaks in on this trance with jarring volume.  This is a typical Rouse-ian bit of fun and fright.  Everything is delightfully fractured.  As the flute tries with valor to play a dance-like jig, the tempo and the orchestral interruptions are too much for such a thing. After about a minute and a half, a wonderfully quirky trio occurs, between the piping flute, the bone rattling snare drum, and the muscular and manic timpani.  There are more percussive effects to come – in about one more minute, listen for the brittle-sounding “rute” (“roo-tah”), a swatch of sticks strapped together and, as directed in the score, slapped “against the [percussionist’s] thigh” in a short rhythmic solo.  Glissandi and colors abound throughout the rest of the movement, and though eventually the flute and orchestra coalesce as partners, listen for the virtuosity of the solo flute part.   

In the Classical tradition of Concertos, the middle movement is typically slow and emotionally weighty.  As Rouse came to this point in composing his Flute Concerto, a tragic event unfolded in Britain.  Two boys, barely 10-years old each, abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year old boy named James Bulger, and left his body to be mangled on some railroad tracks.  Rouse was so deeply horrified by the event that he felt compelled to give homage to the young victim by crafting this third movement as an elegy for him.  Using his Concerto’s slow movement as the place for this elegy seems to have struck Rouse as his humanitarian duty: 

“In a world of daily horrors too numerous and enormous to comprehend en masse, it seems that only isolated, individual tragedies serve to sensitize us to the potential harm man can do to his fellow. For me, one such instance was the abduction and brutal murder of the two-year old English lad James Bulger…. I followed this case closely during the time I was composing my [Flute] concerto and was unable to shake the horror of these events from my mind. The central movement of this work is an elegy dedicated to James Bulger’s memory, a small token of remembrance for a life senselessly and cruelly snuffed out.” 

This third movement Elegia is much more than a dirge, however.  Rouse captures the emotional spectrum of tragedy: the grief, the resignation, the terror and anguish, and the need for hope and resolution.  After a stark opening with a haunting bassoon solo, the flute then continues its singing, both in and out of harmonic step with the orchestra.  At about 7 minutes into this movement, a main theme emerges for a second time using the timpani, tuba, contrabassoon and Double basses for the bass line.  It’s filled with hope, housed in simple tunefulness, and slowly builds to a monumental majesty – but it’s fleeting.  The moment is caved in by an orchestral scream of shattering grief.  The movement ebbs away after this, returning to the lonely bassoon, then a gentle fade into the following movement.  

Retreating from elegiac darkness back toward the light, the fourth movement, Scherzo, returns to Rouse’s British Isles heritage.  It’s a flight of peculiar fancy in the garb of a jig.  At first, soloist and orchestra dance together, trading phrases and jigging in step, in an off-kilter kind of fun way, with occasional sonic outbursts.  Rouse’s orchestration is a continuing delight here.  For example, at about one minute into the dance, the trumpets are muted (a cone is inserted into the instrument’s bell, creating a nasal effect) and quietly quack out a dancing rhythm, while the flutist rhapsodizes above.  Shortly after this comes a moment of sheer whimsy – above metallic rhythms form the percussion, three flutes, along with the soloist, erupt as though a thousand birds are taking sudden flight.  But things begin to get out of hand.  The orchestra wanders into its own mad dance, layering multiple kinds of rhythms on top of each other (and this is surely a nod to Stravinsky’s modern ballet, The Rite of Spring), until everything finally spills over into the kind of jig we’ve been expecting to hear.  Except, as Rouse puts it, “by the time the jig is stated in its most obvious form, the tempo has increased to the point that the music seems almost frantic and breathless.”  The last bars feature the soloist catching its breath directly into the finale. 

The last movement, like the first, is also a Celtic Amhrán. Whereas the first movement was more of an improvisation over atmospheric chords, though, this finale is truly song-like, and meltingly beautiful.  Rouse wrote, just before his death, that “…music has this miraculous power for me”, and in this masterful Flute Concerto, one can’t help but hear Rouse’s adoration of that power. 


Program Notes © Max Derrickson