Dr David C F Wright
Albert Charles Paul Marie Roussel was born at Tourcoing
in northern France, otherwise known as French Flanders, on 5 April 1869,
the only child of wealthy French industrialists who specialised mostly
in textiles. The child was named after his father who died of consumption
shortly after his birth. The young widow, Louise, whose maiden name
was also Roussel, never recovered from this loss and she died in 1877.
Although she lavished love and attention upon her son and he was devoted
to her, her broken heart could not be repaired. The boy was brought
up by his grandfather, Charles Roussel-Defontaine, who was mayor of
Tourcoing. Later, young Albert's aunt married Felix Requillard and Albert
was brought up by him, his grandfather having died in 1880 when Albert
Every year his uncle took young Albert with his family
to spend the summer months at Heyst on the Flemish coast. He developed
a love for Belgium and claimed Flemish ancestry. Years later, in 1935
he composed his Flemish Rhapsody, Op. 56, in homage to the people
who won the battle of Eperons d'Or. Roussel also said that "the admirable
legend of Eulenspiegel makes our Flemish hearts beat."
He studied Flemish songs and was impressed by the workers'
chorales he heard at the Songs of the People Contest at the Brussels
exhibition which lead to his composing Le Temeraire, Op. 59,
a grand opera evoking the revolt and birth of the Flemish people. It
was unfinished at his death.
In 1884 he entered the College Stanislas in Paris training
to become Naval officer and specialising in the study of mathematics.
He always loved the sea since his early visits to the seaside resort
His first music instruction was from an eccentric organist
at the Church of Saint Ambroise but Roussel had no desire to take up
music at this time.
In 1887 he joined the training ship, Borda, and on
that and other ships made several journeys to French Indo-China. On
his return to France he received a commission on the Melpomene and later
joined the Victorieuse off Cherbourg.
While serving on these ships he began to compose. So
promising were his first attempts that a fellow musical officer, Calvé,
the brother of a famous opera singer, suggested that Roussel show them
to Edouard Colonne and the director of the Conservatory of Roubaix.
The verdict was favourable and so Roussel resigned his commission from
the Navy and went to Paris to study with Eugène Gigout.
Gigout was born in Nancy on 23 March 1844. In turn
he had studied with Saint-Saëns whom he replaced at the Madeleine.
Gigout is remembered mainly for his fine output of organ music. He died
in Paris on 9 December 1925.
In 1896 Roussel met Vincent D'Indy who came from a
wealthy and distinguished background. Roussel was one of his first pupils
at the newly founded Schola Cantorum.
D'Indy was a competent composer. He was born in Paris
on 27 May 1857. His family wanted him to study law but in 1872 he sent
his Piano Quintet to César Franck and the rest is history, as
they say. His Symphony no. 1 in A minor was unpublished but the Symphony
no. 2 in B flat , Op. 37 had some success. It is his Symphony on
a French Mountaineer's Song for piano and orchestra, Op. 25 that
is his best known work. There is also a Sinfonia Brevis, Op.
70. There are three string quartets, nos. 1 in D, Op. 35, 2 in E, Op.
45 and 3 in D flat, Op. 96. There is a Piano Trio, Op. 98 and an earlier
Clarinet Trio in B flat, Op. 28. His friend the composer Duparc had
introduced him to Wagner and he became a great admirer of Wagner. D'Indy
wrote five operas Le Chant de la cloche, Fervaal, L'Etranger,
La Légende de Saint Christophe and Le Rêve de
Cynias. As well as Roussel his pupils included Satie, Auric and
Turina. He died in Paris on 1 December 1931.
Roussel's first success were Two Madrigals for
four voices which won the prize from the Société des Compositeurs
During 1904-6 he composed his first large-scale orchestral
work, La Poème de la Forêt, which is his Symphony
no. 1 in D minor, Op.7. The four movements are entitled Forêt
d'hiver, Renouvres, Soir d'été and Faunes
et Dryades. The opening movement has a marvellous portrayal of a
In 1908 he married Blanche Preisach and went on an
extended tour to Cochin-China and India which travels inspired his Evocations
Op. 15 and Padmavati, an opera ballet in two acts, Op. 28,
completed in 1918.
During World War One Roussel served with the Red Cross
having been turned down for combat duty owing to ill-health. He was
a transport driver both at Verdun and the battle of the Somme which
greatly distressed him. Curiously he never wrote a war or protest work
and even more curious is that his music is nearly always cheerful and
vital. Nor did he write a work about the sea, his first love. The war
had interrupted his work on his ballet The Spider's Banquet,
Op. 17, which he had begun in 1912.
In January 1918 he was discharged and retired to Perroc-Guierre
in Brittany where he completed Padmavati. This was followed by
his Symphony no. 2 in B flat, Op. 23, which dates from 1919-21.
The symphony is dedicated to the French composer Rhené-Baton
(1879- 1940). It is scored for a large orchestra: three flutes doubling
piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three
bassoons and double bassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones,
tuba, timpani, three percussion players, two harps, celesta and strings.
The opening movement begins slowly (crotchet=72) and
in 9/4 time with a bass clarinet over three bassoons with harp B flat
octaves. Low horns enter and the cor anglais takes up the melodic fragment
at bar 6 accompanied by divided violas. The oboes join in as do the
low brass and timpani. A short passage in 12/4 is less slow and employs
some mellow string playing. The opening tempo returns with flutes and
oboes in unison in what is a somewhat strange but lovely sound. The
metre constantly changes: 9, 6, 9, 6, 9, 12, 9, 12, 9, 12, 9 and 6.
The moins lent passage highlights the warm string music. The
movement accelerates at figure 3 to moderement anime, crotchet=108,
and in 4/4 time. The cellos take up a strident theme joined by an angry
brass outburst but the movement remains relatively calm. The opening
idea in the strings, in 9/4, returns at figure 5, and, now, in 3/4 assez
anime sans presser there is a high violin part. The music quickens,
crotchet=132, with the oboe having a compelling role and the music shifts
away from the D'Indy influence to pure Roussel. The tonality is now
C. I adore the fluttering brilliant flute work and the crescendo at
figure 11. When have power and beauty been so equally matched? There
is more dazzling woodwind work and impressive horn writing, a super
theme, in a scintillating climax. The tuba briefly recapitulates the
lugubrious opening and is soon joined by the trombones. The violins,
now in 12/4, take up the cause supported by busy woodwind. The music
slows and drops to crotchet=88 and 6/4 time and the oboe with clarinets
and bassoons sing a nasal melody and three solo violins take it up.
There is a little accelerando to crotchet=132 and the music goes into
F sharp minor with true Rousselian sound and glorious writing for two
harps. The music simply sparkles and returns to the tonality of B flat
as the horn theme make a welcome return. This is passed to the lower
woodwind. The music slows again after figure 27 and to 3/4 time. The
movement ends in a curious ambivalence of B flat and what could be F
The central movement could be dismissed as a scherzo
and trio. It begins in G and is marked modere, dotted crotchet=88.
It is rustic, bucolic with a soaring repetitive violin line. The trumpet
is also dance-like. The harp work is a delight and the music has that
captivating Rousselian joy. There is also that other great Rousselian
feature, the onward drive. But the music does slow down to a passage
in D flat mainly affecting the lower strings in a rich tapestry of sound.
It is profound, personal and almost tragic. The oboe's contribution
is very important. We pass in to F sharp minor and a soaring climax
ensues before the fun music returns but still in three sharps. But we
do return to G with that Rousselian joy, a climax and the peace of the
countryside has the final word.
The finale is not altogether satisfactory. It never
gets going. It begins slowly in A flat and has a broad theme low on
the violins. The speed picks up a little but then it sudsides. There
is an angular theme and a brief climax. A lot of work in this movement
is for the oboes and at one place the first oboe has to get top E flats,
that is three E flats above middle C. The music goes into the tonality
of C with a new and curious theme. The music is very nasal and dark
and the metre changes briefly to 3/4 and there is yet another oboe theme.
It presses on rhythmically and back to B flat but there is a long slow
passage for clarinet solo and the music sinks into silent ambiguity.
In 1920 he purchased a delightful villa at Saint-Marguérite-sur-la-Mer
near Varengeville and spent most of the rest of his life there quietly
with his wife. His health was always a worry.
The Piano Concerto, Op. 36 dates from 1927. It has
been subject to unfair criticism being described as melodic nullity
and that, at sixteen minutes, it is too short to be a concerto!
Surprisingly his favourite composers were Bach and
Chopin whose music he often played first thing in the morning. Another
leisure pursuit was tackling mathematical problems. The rest of the
morning would involve composition and his afternoons usually meant long
walks by the sea. He was an extraordinarily pleasant and kind man, very
cultured but sometimes a little aloof.
In 1930 Paris honoured him by holding a Musical Festival
in Paris mainly devoted to his music.
His setting of Psalm 80 was given in London at The
Queen's Hall on 28 July 1931 and the previous year he travelled to Boston
for the premiere of his Symphony no. 3 in G minor, Op. 42, commissioned
by Serge Koussevitzsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra which I have
no hesitation in saying is an unqualified masterpiece and the greatest
French symphony written to date.
It is deservedly popular and needs no analysis from
The Symphony no. 4 in A, Op. 53 dates from 1934. It
is scored for three flutes one doubling piccolo, two oboes, cor anglais,
two clarinets, bass clarinet, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones,
tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings and is in four movements.
One critic wrote of this splendid piece, "Happy the
man who can produce works like this that will last as long as men appreciate
It was very well received as was its predecessor.
The symphony is dedicated to Albert Wolff. He was born
in Paris in 1884 and studied at the Conservatory and was Choirmaster
of the Opéra-Comique in Paris from 1908. He gave the premiere
of Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias. He introduced much
French music in New York shortly after World War One. He made his debut
at Covent Garden in 1937, the year of Roussel's death, with Debussy's
Pelleas and Melisande. He also wrote an opera L'Oiseau Bleu
performed in New York in 1919. He was a fine interpreter of Roussel.
He died in Paris in 1970.
The first movement has a slow introduction, crotchet=48,
and is slightly eerie and has a religious or spiritual feel about it.
The woodwind are given solos before the Allegro con brio begins
crotchet=169 with a stunning angular theme. The metre has changed from
4/4 to 3/4. The music is bold, brave and has an exciting swagger and
onward drive. The pace slackens a little, crotchet=120, to accommodate
the second theme. The music modulates to C and quickens. Throughout
the orchestration is truly superb. The brass heralds the return of the
con brio allegro (a tremendous moment) and the woodwind and harp
sparkle. The music is both busy and exhilarating. We return to A major
with some peaceful but interesting music, and then slows down for another
haunting oboe melody accompanied by warm strings The coda, in the quickest
tempo of the movement, heads towards an abrupt but splendid end.
The slow movement is a joy. All slow movements should
be like this. It begins Lento Molto, crotchet=48, but it is so
well written that it does not sound slow. Anyhow, it does not drag.
The string melody is effortless and is later supported by the horns.
A tam tam strikes at figure 24 introducing the sometimes exotic sound
Roussel makes. The oboe sings a plaintive but compelling song. The solo
trumpet meanders through soaring strings and the full orchestra sparkles
complete with vigorous timpani writing. The music is thrilling. The
strings have another outpouring of melodic invention. A flute solo in
its low register with high cello writing is yet another delight. Trumpets
and timpani thrive and the music accelerates to Andante, crotchet=69,
before reverting to the opening material commenced by the clarinet and
then the flute over muted trumpets and, finally, the oboe and bassoon.
I admire Roussel's equality in the use of the orchestra. A solo trumpet
imitates a previous oboe theme which appears somewhat sad and string
music appears before a calm and definite end.
The third movement is marked allegro scherzando,
crotchet=138 and is in F and 6/8 time. It is mainly delicate, deft but
great fun. The humour simply buzzes and watch out for the bass clarinet
clowning just before figure 43. The success of the movement also has
much to do with the fact that the tempo does not change. It keeps going
and in marvellous good spirits.
The finale is an allegro molto and in A. The
oboe gets things going over two clarinets, harp and strings in a very
diverting and entertaining way. When the melody is strengthened with
the whole orchestra the resultant character one of exuberant power.
The music moves in to the tonality of C. This is really joyous and cheerful
music full of captivating liveliness. The writing for the full orchestra
is exemplary and absolutely faultless. The general opinion is that of
all French composers Berlioz is the master of orchestration. The music
relaxes slightly with a solo bassoon over three muted trumpets both
unusual and very clever. The music then rushes to a splendid and abrupt
The recording I have is of a live performance by the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf. It is stunning. This
is the orchestra that has only had one truly great conductor who turned
it into one of the world's finest orchestras. His name was Fritz Reiner.
It is this originality, durability of his music and
technical skill which make Roussel undoubtedly a great composer.
In the 1930s he composed two sumptuous ballet scores,
Bacchus and Ariane (1930) and Aeneas (1936). There are
also some choice chamber works of the very highest quality, namely the
luscious Serenade for flute, string trio and harp (1925), the delightful
Trio for flute viola and cello (1929), the String Quartet and the enchanting
String Trio of 1937.
Roussel was warned by his doctor to rest after a serious
angina attack in the summer of 1936. He eventually went to Royan in
the south west of France but on 13 August 1937 he suffered a heart attack
and was confined to his bed. His Trio for clarinet, oboe and bassoon
will never be completed. On 23 August shortly before four o'clock in
the afternoon he died.
His first love was the sea. He was an orphan, a sailor,
husband, ambulance driver, professor, composer and one of that rare
breed, a really nice guy! He is buried near his country house at Varengeville.
His grave rightly overlooks the sea.
Copyright David C F Wright 2002. This article, of any
part of it, must not be copied or used in any way, stored in any retrieval
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