Albert Charles Paul Marie
Roussel (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
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.
During World War I, he
served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front.
Following the war, he bought a summer house in Normandy and
devoted most of his time there to composition.
Starting in 1923, another
of Roussel's students was Bohuslav Martinu, who dedicated
his Serenade for Chamber Orchestra (1930) to Roussel.
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 died in the village
(commune) of Royan (Charente-Maritime), in western France,
in 1937, and was buried in the churchyard of Saint Valery in
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. He preserved something
of the romantic aesthetic in his orchestral works, which
sets him apart from Stravinsky and Les Six. However,
Roussel's music can hardly be called heavy when compared
with the sound of the German romantic orchestral tradition
represented by Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler.
He 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
In 1929, one critic described Roussel's search for his own
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
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.
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