Albert Roussel is a composer whose name rings few bells. Yet he is seen as the greatest French symphonist of the twentieth century and an inconnu at the same time. We are fortunate that Matthew has already touched upon him in the current series “Music Deco”. So why this mystery about a composer who was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel, was influenced by them but who found his own route to follow in the end. He was an especially late starter and did not begin to emerge as a composer until well after the other two were at the height of their powers.
He was born in Tourcoing, a large commune, now part of the Greater Lille conurbation in the Département of Nord. He displayed some musical aptitude at the piano but no signs of a genius à la Mozart. He would be orphaned as a young child, educated by his grandfather, mayor of Tourcoing, and after the grandfather’s death, by his aunt. She arranged for him to be sent to Paris both for his standard academic curriculum and to learn to play the organ. However, music was not going to be his chosen career at that time and mathematics was his primary study in preparation for him entering the Naval Academy. At 18, he began his apprenticeship as a sailor. Mozart at a similar age was in comparison writing his 29th symphony.
From 1889 to August 1890 Roussel was a midshipman in the crew of the frigate Iphigénie, sailing, not to Aulis nor to Tauris, but to Indochina. This voyage would open to Roussel a world of oriental culture and art, which became one of the later sources for his musical inspiration. He went back to sea on a number of occasions and on one of these trips would compose his first work – Fantaisie for violin and piano. In 1894, following an illness he took three months’ leave, and then decided to resign his commission. First he spent a little time at Roubaix back in the Lille area, where he took up his first musical studying under one Julien Koszul. It was he who had convinced Roussel to leave the Navy and pursue a life in music. Thus it was that in October of that year Roussel settled in Paris and resumed his organ studies. Next after being played at the Opera, landing an organ loft in a sought after church was a strong French tradition. Gounod, Saint Saens, Fauré and Franck had all been there.
Roussel was already 25 when he set out on this course and approaching 30 by the time he gained a place in 1898 to study at the Schola Cantorum where he received tuition from its co-founder, Vincent d’Indy. He continued student studies as a student until 1907, by which time he was 38 years old, and although the term was not yet in the public domain, he could well have been described as a mature student. During that period, he also was allowed to act as a tutor at the Schola with his own class in counterpoint, starting in 1902 and continuing through to 1914. Among his students were Erik Satie and Edgar Varèse. The Schola Cantorum which had opened as a rival to the Paris Conservatoire was founded in 1894 by D’Indy and a band of other disciples of the late César Franck . D’Indy set the curriculum, based on the study of late baroque and early classical works, Gregorian chant, and renaissance polyphony. A solid grounding in technique was given pride of place in priority to originality.
This leads up to the writing by Roussel of his First Symphony between 1904 and 1906, given the title of the Poem of the Forest. He had written just a few chamber works in the preceding year or two and one orchestral work given the title of “Resurrection, after Tolstoy”. La Forêt was written to the background that here we were at the beginning of a new century where impressionism, art nouveau and arts and crafts were all at the fore and a French answer to Germanic romanticism. Its flag bearer was Debussy. Although the movement was opposed by D’Indy in favour of formal classical training, he also came under the influence of impressionism notwithstanding. D’Indy was actually writing his symphony, Jour d’Été à la Montagne in 1905, at the same time as Debussy was writing his masterpiece, La Mer. Roussel had started out writing the Soir d’été which would become the slow movement of Le Foret, before both of the others. All three whilst resorting to impressionism were expressing it differently.
So 1905 was awash with Debussy writing about the sea, which he had scarcely seen until crossing to Jersey and then from Jersey to Eastbourne; D’Indy writing about French mountains and mountain airs; and Roussel who had been a professional seaman writing not about the sea but about forests and dryads. You cannot possibly mistake one for the other. I would say that this particular brand of impressionism by Roussel is more redolent of early Delius, rather than of Debussy.
The work did not start off life with the intention of being a symphony. Soir d’été was a single atmospheric piece. Roussel wanted to extend it with a movement to represent spring to precede to which he attributed its literary name of “Renouveau” (renewal), very much the centre piece of the whole work. This would be preceded yet again by winter as a shortish prologue intended to start the complete work. These three movements constitute Part 1 with autumn as its Part 2 to follow ending with a slow down back to winter to complete the cycle. Autumn to my ears does not sound particularly autumnal, not that autumn can have a sound. Still you usually know it when you hear it. Elgar’s cello concerto is what one might describe as autumnal as is the third movement of the Brahms clarinet quintet. Roussel chooses to add naiads and dryads to the movement which is a little scherzoid and adds a touch of energy which is a touch indicative of the later Roussel. Only when it was complete did Roussel entitle the work “The Poem of the Forest – Symphony”, later, after his second was written, to be Symphony number 1.
Chronologically one usually starts a cycle of seasons with Spring and ends with winter. Here it starts with winter and ends with autumn. Not so unusual perhaps when one realizes that Glazunov’s ballet, The Seasons, completed in 1900, itself also started with winter and ends with autumn.
Le Forêt received its first performance in 1908, the year Roussel married Blanche Preisach. The following year, they travelled to India and Indo-China on a delayed honeymoon where he learned of the legend of the queen Padmâvatî, It would not be until after the war that he came to return to the subject for his opera-ballet Padmâvatî, set in Mogul India when Roussel began to find his own individual voice and technique.
From 1909 to the outbreak of the first world war Roussel would have been aware of the great changes taking place in the musical centre of Paris with Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes. The war brought that period all to an end. Roussel, now 45, sought to re-enlist in the navy but was turned down because of his eyesight. Instead he joined an artillery unit and got seconded to be an ambulance driver, as was Ravel.
With the end of the war, there would be difficulty for him in picking up where he left off before. In 1919 he started out on composing a second symphony which would be his longest and gloomiest. It is searching a new path, more classical in shape. Gone is the world of impressionism. His first had not set out to be a symphony. This one does. It harps back to Franck and at the same time forward to the two great Roussel symphonies to follow ten year later. It contains a programme based on life, its early ardours, the emotions of middle age and the sufferings to follow. At my age that’s enough to make anyone as miserable as sin to contemplate. It contains a tremendous store of pent up energy and a scherzo, this time, without naiads or dryads.
It is pertinent to take a look, as Matthew has already, at the lack of any French symphonic tradition compared to that of the Austro-Germans. The first great French symphony was undoubtedly Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (1830), the first great programme symphony, yet, despite its dramatic episodes, classical in form. His other symphonies merit the name but are something else at the same time. Harold in Italy is a symphony but also has the characteristics of a viola concerto; Romeo and Juliet is a symphony but also a great musical panoply at the same time, and the Symphonie Funêbre et Marche Triomphale is processional best played by the Garde Républicaine en masse. Georges Onslow was a hairs breath behind Berlioz producing four symphonies between 1831 and 1840 but they owe more to the previous generation. Nineteenth century France was not otherwise interested in the symphony. The Bizet symphony in C justifies its charm as a Beecham lollipop but it hardly more advanced than early Schubert of forty years earlier. Saint-Säens wrote five but only the organ symphony ever gets played. The mainstream French composers of the Belle Époque had but one objective, to be played at the opera. Franck, who chose not the opera but the organ loft, eventually produced his one symphony, a master piece, in 1889 and but for a fatal collision with a horse drawn tram in 1890 might have written more. Chausson, the following year, had a stab attempting to follow suit. A rarely played symphony is that by Paul Dukas, Franckian in style, comes highly recommended and deserves more airing. La Mer by Debussy was described by him as three symphonic seascapes. Yet he found the term, symphony, too loaded. Whilst it definitely contains motifs which get developed and a two note theme that permeates the first and last movements, its attraction is the descriptive sonic sea, its dancing waves, its onomatopoeic burblings, its howling winds which render it not quite a symphony exactly but a superb canvas fit to make anyone suffer from sea sickness. It is against this background that Roussel, little known, was producing a real symphonic cycle in the wake of Debussy.
By this time he had resumed living in Paris but he also bought a summer house in Normandy where he spent much of his time in composing. He was like many others seeking a new direction to his music but not for him the fun and games of Les Six. The serious side of Roussel came to the fore aided and abetted by the training he had received from Schola Cantorum with its emphasis on rigorous academic models such as Palestrina and Bach. He was moving towards a powerful muscular classicism based on discipline and form and not the dolled up neo-classicism of the tongue in cheek Stravinsky variety. While his early work was strongly influenced by impressionism, he eventually arrived at a personal style which was more formal in design, with a strong rhythmic drive, and with a more distinct affinity for functional tonality between movements than is found in the work of his more famous contemporaries. Here, although completely different in aim and method, was an awareness to key relationships more akin to Nielsen.
It was during this late period that Roussel wrote his most important works. There were the ballets Le Festin de l’Araignée, Bacchus et Ariane, and Aeneas, the Third and Fourth symphonies, and his Suite in F. His music was not sensuous as was that of Debussy or Ravel but contained the motoric energy with the sensation of being on a whirling roundabout which you cannot get off of. This was music of immense power and perhaps he can best be likened to the one serious member of Les Six, Honegger, whose own second and third symphonies have something of the same power.
His third and fourth symphonies brought Roussel into the international spotlight, both written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the third in 1930 and the fourth a year later. They are classical in their concision, motoric in energy and contemporary in outlook. They are full of unexpected changes of character and piquant harmonies. They sound spontaneous but are the result of painstaking craftsmanship.
As with 1934 in England which saw the deaths of Elgar, Holst and Delius within three months, so it was in 1937 in France which saw the deaths of Gabriel Pierné (composer and conductor), Ravel and Albert Roussel (seaman and conductor).
Roussel’s music may not be as popular as that of some of his more renowned French contemporaries. Perhaps it is an acquired taste. But it is a taste worth acquiring.