Every so often, a piece of music comes along that changes musical tastes (or at least forecasts them) for years to come. Arguably, this was the case in 1824 with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and again in 1913 with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
With one such piece coming along every 90 years or so, could the next revolutionary piece be right around the corner? Or could it already exist? While predicting future musical tastes is a dangerous game, in this blog I will point out an existing piece that I hope becomes a musical revolution for the 21st century…
…and that piece is Christopher Rouse’s Flute Concerto.
Why? Because in the piece, Rouse had the simple audacity to use whatever techniques were most effective at eliciting each moment in the emotional contour. So there are moments that are extremely simple, incorporating tonal harmonies and clear melodies. And there are moments that are extremely complex, using dense counterpoint and extreme dissonance. All of these musical ideas are placed into a logical long-term form that creates forward momentum throughout the piece and a clear sense of completion at the end. The resulting music is extremely effective at communicating emotion.
Arguably, this is a departure from previous trends in new concert music. Serialism and related genres are built, at least in part, on the premise of rejecting tonality. Minimalism is built on the premise of rejecting complexity. Rouse seemingly rejects nothing in his concerto, instead being willing to use any technique that would maximize the emotional impact of the music.
What might one call this compositional approach?1 It is not modern era music, romantic era music, or classical era music. It is not minimalism nor serialism. It is some conglomeration that incorporates great ideas from all of the above.
One might call it the aggregation of best practices. It seems the music begins with an emotional storyline, then uses whatever techniques are most effective for communicating that emotional storyline. So if the music is about love, then triadic harmonies and diatonic melodies are appropriate. If the music is about heartbreaking grief, then extreme dissonance is appropriate. If the music is building tension, then dense and complex counterpoint is appropriate. And so on…
Notably, this seems a logical approach for the 21st century. One could make the argument that the 20th century was about experimentation—at times experimentation for the sake of experimentation. What does one do after experimenting? Well, it would be logical to pause, evaluate what worked and what did not work, and then aggregate the best ideas.
It is my hope that the 21st century becomes a century of aggregating best practices. Such an ideological movement would cherry-pick the best techniques developed over the centuries, without feeling an obligation to include or exclude any one particular technique, harmony or structure, and combine them all to create something inherently new. Such a century could produce some intensely emotional music, and if such a century came to pass, the Rouse Flute Concerto could be viewed as the opening salvo.
Now… I suspect you may want to hear it. If you are currently in southern California, Saint Louis, or Connecticut, then you are in luck. The Saint Louis Symphony is currently touring southern California with the piece on their program. They have March performances scheduled in Orange County and Santa Barbara, followed by two performances in St. Louis (Friday, Saturday). The Eastern Connecticut Symphony is also performing the piece in March.
Christopher Rouse wrote his Flute Concerto in 1993. The piece is cast across five movements that are roughly symmetrical. Movements 1 and 5 are simple and pristine, using beautiful triads in strings and a wandering flute melody hovering on top. Movements 2 and 4 are larger in instrumentation, fast in tempo, and more complex in counterpoint. Movement 3 is again slow. It combines both tonal and atonal techniques. Movement 3 is incredibly sad, memorializing James Bulger (the two-year-old English boy who was abducted and murdered by two ten-year-olds). The original program note is available online here.