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Albert Charles Paul Marie Roussel (pronounced: [albɛːʁ ʁusɛl]; 5 April 1869 – 23 August 1937) was a French composer. He spent seven years as a midshipman, turned to music as an adult, and became one of the most prominent French composers of the interwar period. His early works were strongly influenced by the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, while he later turned toward neoclassicism.
Born in Tourcoing (Nord), Roussel's earliest interest was not in music but mathematics. He spent time in the French Navy, and in 1889 and 1890 he served on the crew of the frigate Iphigénie and spent several years in Cochinchina. These travels affected him artistically, as many of his musical works would reflect his interest in far-off, exotic places.
After resigning from the Navy in 1894, he began to study harmony in Roubaix, first with Julien Koszul (grandfather of composer Henri Dutilleux), who encouraged him to pursue his formation in Paris with Eugène Gigout, then continued his studies until 1908 at the Schola Cantorum de Paris where one of his teachers was Vincent d'Indy. While studying, he also taught. His students included Erik Satie and Edgard Varèse.
His sixtieth birthday was marked by a series of three concerts of his works in Paris that also included the performance of a collection of piano pieces, Homage à Albert Roussel, written by several composers, including Ibert, Poulenc, and Honegger.
Roussel was by temperament a classicist. While his early work was strongly influenced by impressionism, he eventually found a personal style which was more formal in design, with a strong rhythmic drive, and with a more distinct affinity for functional tonality than found in the work of his more famous contemporaries Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and Stravinsky.
Roussel's training at the Schola Cantorum, with its emphasis on rigorous academic models such as Palestrina and Bach, left its mark on his mature style, which is characterized by contrapuntal textures. Roussel's orchestration is rather heavy compared to the subtle and nuanced style of other French composers like Gabriel Fauré or Claude Debussy. While Roussel did not fully share the stylistic and orchestral aesthetic of so-called "French" music, he was never a mere copyist of Teutonic models. Roussel's manner could hardly be called heavy when compared with the sound of the German romantic orchestral tradition represented by Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler.
Roussel was also interested in jazz and wrote a piano-vocal composition entitled Jazz dans la nuit, which was similar in its inspiration to other jazz-inspired works such as the second movement of Ravel's Violin Sonata, or Milhaud's La Création du Monde.
Roussel's most important works were the ballets Le festin de l'araignée, Bacchus et Ariane, and Aeneas and the four symphonies, of which the Third in G minor, and the Fourth in A major, are highly regarded and epitomize his mature neoclassical style. His other works include numerous ballets, orchestral suites, a piano concerto, a concertino for cello and orchestra, a psalm setting for chorus and orchestra, incidental music for the theatre, and much chamber music, solo piano music, and songs.
In 1929, one critic described Roussel's search for his own voice:
Albert Roussel for a long period sought his true self among varied and contradictory influences. He seemed to waver between the tendencies of Cesar Franck and Vincent d'Indy and those of Claude Debussy. The violin sonata, the trio, the Poème de la Forêt derived more or less directly from the Franckian school, the Festin de l'Araignée and the Evocations from Debussyan impressionism; and yet the hand of Albert Roussel alone could have written this music, at once so subtle and so firmly fixed in its design....With Padmâvatî, the new Roussel begins to realize is possibilities and his individual technique....Then came works of perfect homogeneity and notable originality. The composer no longer is seeking his way—he has found it. The Prélude pour une Fête de Printemps, the suite in F, the concerto, and finally the Psalm No. 80 are the masterpieces which mark the last stage of this great artist.
Arturo Toscanini included the suite from the ballet Le festin de l'araignée in one of his broadcast concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Rene Leibowitz recorded that suite in 1952 with the Paris Philharmonic, and Georges Prêtre recorded it with the Orchestre National de France for EMI in 1984.
One brief assessment of his career says:
Roussel will never attain the popularity of Debussy or Ravel, as his work lacks sensuous appeal....yet he was an important and compelling French composer. Upon repeated listening, his music becomes more and more intriguing because of its subtle rhythmic vitality. He can be alternately brilliant, astringent, tender, biting, dry, and humorous. His splendid Suite for Piano (Op. 14, 1911) shows his mastery of old dance forms. The ballet scores Le Festin de l'araignée (The Spider's Feast Op. 17, 1913) and Bacchus et Ariane (Op. 43, 1931) are vibrant and pictorial, while the Third and Fourth Symphonies are among the finest contributions to the French symphony.
One 21st-century critic, in the course of discussing the Third Symphony, wrote:
For the general public, Roussel remains almost famous, his work just beyond the pool of repertory universally drawn from. His music, said another way, walks the line between the memorable and the impossible to forget. The writing sets unrelated keys against one another but eventually seeks strong tonal centers; in other words, it can bark and growl but in the end wags its tail. The Vivace movement is a carnival of exuberant energies. Roussel was more than just an anti-19th-century dissident.
- Le marchand de sable qui passe (The Sandman), incidental music for a verse play by Jean-Aubry, Le Havre, 16 December 1908, Op. 13
- Le festin de l'araignée, ballet in one act. f.p. 3 April 1913, Op. 17
- Padmâvatî, opera in 2 acts (1913–18, Louis Laloy, after T.-M. Pavie). f.p. Paris Opéra, 1 June 1923, Op. 18
- La naissance de la lyre, opera in 1 act, Paris Opéra, 1 July 1925, Op. 24
- Sarabande (1927; for the children's ballet L'éventail de Jeanne, to which ten French composers each contributed a dance)
- Bacchus and Ariadne (ballet), ballet in two acts. f.p. Paris Opéra, 22 May 1931, Op. 43
- Le testament de la tante Caroline, opera in 3 acts, 14 November 1936
- Aeneas, ballet for chorus and orchestra, Op. 54
- Prelude to Act 2 of Le quatorze juillet by Romain Rolland, Paris, 14 July 1936
- Melpénor, radio score, 1947, Op. 59
- Résurrection, Prelude for orchestra Op. 4
- Evocations for orchestra, Op. 15
- Petite Suite, Op. 39
- Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, Op. 52
- Suite for Orchestra in F major, Op. 33
- Symphony No. 1 in D minor (The Poem of the Forest), Op. 7
- Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 23
- Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Op. 42 (1929-30), commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its 50th anniversary
- Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 53
- Cello Concertino, Op. 57
- Piano Concerto in G major, Op. 36
- Psalm 80 for tenor, choir, and orchestra, Op. 37
- Andante and Scherzo, for flute and piano, Op. 51
- Elpenor for flute and string quartet, Op. 59
- Divertissement for piano and wind quintet, Op. 6
- Joueurs de Flûte, flute and piano, Op. 27
- Piano Trio in E-flat, Op. 2
- Serenade for flute, string trio, and harp, Op. 30
- Sonatine for Piano, Op. 16
- String Quartet, Op. 45
- String Trio, Op. 58
- Suite for Piano in F-sharp minor, Op. 14
- Trio for Flute, Viola, and Cello, Op. 40
- Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 11
- Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 28
- Segovia, for guitar, Op. 29
- Impromptu for harp
- Symphonies 1-4 - Orchestre National de France/Charles Dutoit (Apex - Erato Records)
- Symphony No. 3 and Ariadne et Bacchus - Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève (Naxos Records)
- Symphony No. 3 - New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein (Sony Classical)
- Symphony No. 4 - Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan (EMI)
- Symphony No. 2, Aeneas, Bacchus, Spider's Feast - ORTF/Jean Martinon (Erato)
- Padmavati (opera) - London Symphony Orchestra/Jean Martinon (BBC)
- Padmavati - Marilyn Horne, Nicolai Gedda, Michel Plasson conducting (EMI)
- New York Times: "Albert Roussel, 68, French Composer, is Dead," August 25, 1937, accessed March 23, 2011
- New York Times: Bernard Holland, "What Do You Play in the Evening? Serenades. Moonlight Becomes Them," February 8, 2007, accessed March 23, 2011
- New York Times: Henry Prunieres, "A Roussell Festival," May 26, 1929, accessed March 23, 2011
- David Dubal, The Essential Canon of Classical Music (NY: North Point Press, 2001), 442
- New York Times: Bernard Holland, "The Boston Symphony Reunites With Friends at Tanglewood ," July 11, 2006, accessed March 23, 2011
References and further reading
- Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. (NY: Schirmer Books, 19930, ISBN 0-02-872416-X
- Damien Top, Albert Roussel 1869-1937, un marin musicien (Paris: Séguier, 2000)
- Henry Doskey, The Piano Music of Albert Roussel (Indiana University, 1981)
- Basil Deane, Albert Roussel (London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1962; Greenwood Press Reprint, 1980)
- Norman Demuth, Albert Roussel: A Study (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1979)