“Berceuse Infinie,” the work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Christopher Rouse that receives its world premiere this week from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, opens with only a portion of the violins playing an E. They are instructed to make that note not just very soft, but way beyond soft — instead of writing “pp” (as in pianissimo) on the score, Rouse writes “pppppp.”
That’s an intriguing enough sound for a beginning. But things get much more so in the second measure, when the other string players make their entrance — and not with their instruments. The composer calls on them simply to “exhale loudly.”
There is another exhaling, this time by the whole orchestra, when “Berceuse Infinie” (French for “Infinite Lullaby”) reaches its likewise quiet close. In between is music the 68-year-old Rouse describes as “largely introspective” and “consoling,” music that often evokes the gentle rocking of a lullaby.
“I used ‘infinie’ in the title because the piece ends just the way it begins,” the composer says, “so it seems that it could start all over again.”
Completed in July 2016, “Berceuse Infinie” is dedicated to BSO music director Marin Alsop.
“When I opened the score and saw that the voices of the musicians would be heard sighing, I thought it was absolutely beautiful,” says Alsop, 61, who will conduct the premiere.
The Baltimore-born and -based Rouse, who was the composer-in-residence at the BSO during the late-1980s and recently held that post at the New York Philharmonic, drew inspiration for this work from another, now largely forgotten berceuse.
The “Berceuse Elegiaque” by extraordinary pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni, premiered in 1911 by the New York Philharmonic with the great composer/conductor Gustav Mahler on the podium, is subtitled “The Man’s Lullaby at his Mother’s Coffin.” (Mahler was seriously ill when he led the concert, which turned out to be his last.)
“We think of cradle songs being for infants, but in Busoni’s case, it was for his mother, who had recently died,” Rouse says. “My ‘Berceuse’ is not nearly as dark as his. Also in the back of my mind were the [1880s] ‘Isle of the Dead’ paintings by Arnold Bocklin of a boatman rowing a soul across the water. They haunted me a bit. Something about that scene is very comforting.”
Alsop isn’t at all surprised that Rouse would cite the likes of Busoni and Bocklin.
“Chris has such a wide knowledge that no one else has,” the conductor says. “It’s unfathomable and formidable. He loves using obscure references in his pieces. And he has turned me on to so many lesser known works.”
Although Rouse has made quite a mark writing large-scale, full-throttle music — “Those insane, flash-and-burn pieces that I always like to do,” Alsop says — his more lyrical, poetic side is just as potent.
“Berceuse Infinie” feels “to me like a little bit of a meditation,” the conductor says. “It’s really a piece about coming to a certain place in life where you think about the next chapter, what is to come. It feels like a beautiful moment.”
Alsop and Rouse have shared many moments during their careers.
“Chris has had such a long and fruitful relationship with the BSO,” Alsop says. “But I fell in love with his music before the BSO was on my radar, or I was on theirs. We’ve had a 30-year friendship.” (Rouse’s 2008 Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Cabrillo Music Festival, was dedicated to her.)
That connection was on the composer’s mind as he wrote “Berceuse Infinie.”
“This one was a real labor of love,” Rouse says. “Marin has been such a wonderful champion of my music, and very dear to me personally.”
If you go
The BSO premieres Christopher Rouses's "Berceuse Infinie" on a program with Mozart's Requiem at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Also, 3 p.m. Dec. 3 at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $33 to $99. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.