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.


If those locations don’t work for you, then the score is available from Boosey & Hawkes and recordings are available from the Houston Symphony and Stockholm Philharmonic.


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.



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    1 Many have taken to calling this music “neo-romantic”. The argument is that the music recalls the sensibilities of the 19th century, when composers were trying to create music with as much intensity of emotion as possible. There is validity to this point of view. Clearly, Rouse is trying to write intensely emotional music. Still, inherently linking this music to the 19th century romanticism seems incomplete if not misleading. The music incorporates many techniques developed in the 20th century that would never appear in 19th century romanticism. The Flute Concerto, as an example, has a painful climax in the third movement that uses harmonies composers had never employed before the 20th century. That particular moment is more modern than romantic. In the end, the music employs great ideas from many periods and ideologies, including but not limited to 19th century romanticism.

    I liked very much what I read! As composers for imagens, therefore, emotions, we can not deny any kind of music/or technic as long as they conect us with the kind of emotion we are trying to enhance!
    And I think this is the kind of mentality you bring to our on line course and that’s very good idea.

    So glad to find your blog, and for this entry which turned me on to Rouse’s Flute Concerto, something I had overlooked years ago or which wasn’t on my musical radar screen at the time. I like what you say about the hopes for this century in the world of concert music. People are very influenced by the world of film music especially over the past generation, and music like this can help to engage the concert goers’ imagination….. kind of harkens back to the ideas of Berlioz and Debussy… programatic music and aspects of the impressionistic period… even Vivaldi in a way, for his ’4 Seasons’. Why not give the public something they can involve themselves in while attending a concert these days? The last thing we want to do as composers is scare people away from the concert hall these days! I adjunct teach Music History and Appreciation, and today’s teen-agers and 20-somethings are sorely underexposed to ‘art music’. It’s a very sad state of affairs in this country these days, and if music like Rouse’s can help bring people back to the concert hall and ‘art music’, then I say all the more power to him! (By the way, I got, and get great mileage, out of your DP book myself! Thanks!)

    Yours is the most intelligent comment I’ve encountered on how to conceive a new ethos for composition in the 21st Century. I have long agreed that the 20th Century was a period of experimentation, but that the time is overdue for
    evaluation and consolidation.

    Though I didn’t explicitly articulate this perspective when working on my own compositions, upon reading your statement I had an immediate “aha!” reaction of instant recognition.

    I realized that it is precisely this perspective which is behind my composing efforts since 1980.

    My 3-act opera “The Dybbuk: An Opera In Yiddish” premiered in Israel, Spring 1999, at Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba), and in Tel Aviv at the Susan Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre.

    Performances were sold out, audiences gave standing ovations, and Tel Aviv press reviews were uniformly excellent.

    Whatever my individual compositional abilities, I believe that the bedrock reason for this success was precisely that I had embraced the perspective you have defined so articulately.

    I said to myself, “This is an opera; enough experimentation! It needs passion, so that first and foremost it CONNECTS with an audience.”

    I’m also very happy to say that the singers were thrilled with the piece, and never once complained about “that awful modern music”, even though I ranged harmonically along a spectrum from tonality to modality to non-Western techniques to free atonality.

    Thank you for your exhiliratingly clear and comprehensive statement of a vision!

    Solomon Epstein

    DMA, Composition,
    Hartt Music School at
    University of Hartford

    M.Mus., Yale University
    School of Music

    very glad to find this blog,lm an australian composer writing mainly orchestral music.for sometime l have employed the approach you discribe. l let the emotion determin which technics l use. l include technics for a wide variety of world music,my aim is to create music with maximim emotional impact,by choosing the best technics for all forms of music,l don’t know what you might call this approach.but l feel it is the best approach for the contemporary composer.ps you can listen to my music at http://www.onedarylsprakecomposer.com

    What is music evolved quicker and more often than ever before in history?

    Very interesting post, i think one advantage to our generation is that theres so many more people writing and composing music than there has ever been in history. Which could mean that music will evolve a lot quicker than in previous era’s, and that there will be a lot more music to go around as well.

    BUT At the same time, one could argue that there is too much of the same type of music around, which could mean that one style of music can get boring a lot quicker than it used to take. So music will have to be forced to keep evolving, in order to keep people interested.

    Conclusion, I think there will always be someone, who (through his imagination, knowledge and skill) will come up with a piece of music which will change the course of music. I just think its going to be happening a lot more often than it used to in the past. But you know what they say; ‘A great piece is never forgotten.’

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