Music: Albert Roussel—The Freedom of Personal Vision

Why, you are probably wondering, have there been so few, if any, French symphonists? What about Arthur Honneger (1892-1955) and his five symphonies? Sorry—though the French claim him for their own, he was Swiss. Yes, Cesar Frank (1822-90) wrote one symphony, and Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) wrote several, but that hardly qualifies them as symphonists (and Frank was Belgian-born). Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote more but, for good reason, only his Third Symphony is played with any frequency. In other words, the French do not have much of a symphonic tradition.

The reason is Germany. The German-speaking world developed and completely dominated the symphony. By itself, that was sufficient cause for the French to avoid it. In fact, the German influence in music was so overwhelming that it left the other musical nations of Europe in a quandary as to what could be distinctively their own (when, with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, such things became concerns). Preoccupied with not being German, the French fell back on their strong suit: insouciance. The wit and whimsy in the music of composers like Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, and Darius Milhaud are like a big poke in the eye to the prevailing pretensions of German music.

But aside from thumbing their noses, what else could the French do? In addition to disguising their adoption of Italian opera, they composed ballets and, harkening back to French Baroque composers like Rameau and Couperin, wrote charming suites of descriptive music.

More was needed. In addition to the problem of the German symphony, there was the nearly overwhelming influence of Wagner to reckon with. As Erik Satie wrote, “I explained to Debussy that a Frenchman had to free himself from the Wagnerian adventure, which wasn’t the answer to our national aspirations. I also pointed out that I was in no way anti-Wagnerian, but that we should have a music of our own—if possible, without any sauerkraut.” Ingeniously, Satie suggested that the way out for French music was French painting. Why not look to “the means that Claude Monet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and others had made known? Why could we not transpose these means into music?” It is a measure of French musical genius that they were able to do so, as brilliantly exemplified in the works of Debussy and Ravel, the most renowned French musical impressionists.

There was another composer of their ilk who also achieved initial success and fame in the field of musical impressionism but then abandoned it for the very thing at which the French had so miserably failed: the symphony. Albert Roussel (1869-1937) paid for his audacity with obscurity. His four symphonies are easily the most significant French contribution to the genre in the first half of the 20th century, if not beyond (because the French symphony has not achieved much since then), and he excelled in every other musical form as well. Yet almost every popular classical musical guide passes alphabetically from Rossini to Saint-Saëns without a pause for Roussel.

The neglect is undeserved, but understandable. In fact, Roussel would have understood it, as he claimed that music “will always be destined for very rare listeners.” In his case, the listeners may be rare because his music is an amalgam of styles that came together in an original way. Roussel’s biographer, Basil Deane, speaks of Roussel’s development of the French symphonic tradition as passed “from Frank to d’Indy, although his abrasive final style is far removed in its attitudes from their works.” On the other hand, Deane explains, Roussel also “belonged to the succession of French pictorial composers stretching back to the 17th century harpsichordists, with his ability to translate visual and verbal imagery into precise musical terms.” To this stylistic complexity can be added a certain ambiguity in the tone of his expressive message that came from the times through which he lived. Roussel said of his avoidance of musical “schools” that he “remained somewhat apart in order to have the freedom of personal vision.”

So where does that leave us in trying to understand exactly the kind of composer he was? The fact that it is hard to say does not make his music any less an achievement or any less appealing once one abandons the attempt to categorize it. Anyone who loves French music, or music, will find a rich store of treasure in this unique master. Two new Erato Ultima releases of his symphonic and other orchestral music in two-CD budget sets make this discovery easy and inexpensive. They add to some other outstanding recordings that make a convincing case for Roussel, including two new ones from the French label, Auvidis Valois.

Orphaned at an early age, Roussel took to the sea in the French navy, serving as an officer in the Far East. He loved music so much that he brought a piano on board with him. A naval comrade, who was the brother of a famous opera singer, heard Roussel play one of his own works and promised to show it to an important music director. In one of the most productive white lies in musical history, he told Roussel that the director felt Roussel should devote his life to music (Roussel’s friend had not bothered to show the composition to anyone).

Roussel resigned his commission at age 25 and went to Paris to study at the Schola Cantorum for ten years. There he fell under the influence of first Frank and d’Indy, and then, beyond the confines of the Schola, Debussy. Roussel became a professor of counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum and eventually retired to the Norman countryside to devote himself to composition. He was a consummate craftsman who worked carefully and slowly. His output extended to only 59 opus numbers. Their substance and quality compensate for their scarcity.

One needn’t struggle to characterize the stylistic periods into which Roussel’s works conveniently fall because Roussel himself did that for us in his autobiographical notes. In the first period, from 1893 to 1913, Roussel tells us, with a measure of understatement, that he was “slightly influenced by Debussy.” In fact, his early works, caught in the full flower of impressionism, would be unthinkable without Debussy, though they also contain the early fingerprints of Roussel’s distinctive style, particularly his vital rhythmic drive and the use of cyclical themes that he had learned from d’Indy.

Roussel’s First Symphony, subtitled “The Poem of the Forest,” is actually a glorious suite of four movements depicting the four seasons. Lovers of Debussy and lush harmonies should not miss this impressionist masterpiece. In this period, Roussel also grouped his meltingly lovely Trio in E flat; the Divertissement for wind instruments and piano; the ballet, The Spider’s Feast; and Evocations, a triptych for soloists, choir, and orchestra, written after a visit to India. The exotic Evocations is at times an almost hallucinatory recollection of India and its holy Hindu sites. It was an early sign of Roussel’s ability to take on major subjects with massive forces that could erupt in almost barbaric power without losing a sense of refinement and control.

The Spider’s Feast has an entomological storyline that Roussel anthropomorphized with a magical charm and lightness of touch that immediately vaulted this ballet into the pantheon of France’s most popular stage works, where it deserves to remain. Its shimmering textures, brilliant orchestration, and melodic appeal add up to enduring enchantment. Roussel apparently came to resent this work’s popularity because he felt it came at the expense of the reputation of his later masterpieces, but that is the danger of writing something this good.

Another fruit of Roussel’s oriental wanderings was the opera-ballet Padmavati, inspired by his visit to the ruins of Chitoor in Rajputan, India, in 1909. There he learned the story of a princess who immolated herself rather than be dishonored by a Mogul conqueror in 1300. Finished in 1917, Padmavati is a mesmerizing, gripping masterpiece that shares the exoticism of Evocations but adds narrative drive and human passion. It belongs among the French operatic greats of the 20th century and is completely Wagner-free in its influences.

Roussel placed Padmavati at the beginning of his “transitional period,” during which “the style changes, the harmonic sequences become bolder and harsher, [and] the Debussian flavor has completely disappeared.” This is certainly true of the Second Symphony, a disturbing, mournful work in which the tonal harmony that could be so deliciously languid and almost lighter than air in the First Symphony, produces, to the extent it is still there, a queasiness in the stomach. Roussel admitted that the symphony “is a fairly hermetic work, whose access is accordingly difficult.” The harsher sequences that Roussel speaks of are not there for harmonic spice: They are minatory. Here we also discover the driving ostinato figures that seem about to hammer the music into dulled submission that became typical of his later music. Even the good spirits that develop later in the long first movement seem to have something desperate about them. Clearly this is different music from a changed man. What happened?

The answer is World War I, in which Roussel so honorably served, despite bad health. One can only imagine the horrors he witnessed as an ambulance driver and then an artillery officer. He wrote to his wife, “We shall have to begin to live again under a new conception of life; which is not to say that everything that was done before the war will be forgotten, but that everything that will be done after it will have to be different.” This explains the difference in the Second Symphony, much in the same way as World War II explains the abrupt violence in Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, coming as it did after works of such pastoral calm. The impressionists felt betrayed. Emile Vuillermoz wrote, “Albert Roussel has deserted us.”

In his third and final period, starting in 1926, Roussel said he seemed “to have found a definitive style of expression.” This style was “more pruned, more distilled, more schematized,” allowing him, through neoclassical forms, to write “music which satisfies itself.” No more pictorial allusions; no more orientalisms. His works became very direct, concise, astringent, and, at times, abrasive, with rhythmic energy even more predominant than before. This period produced the Suite in F, the Concerto for Small Orchestra, the Sinfonietta for string orchestra, the great Bacchus et Ariane ballet, the String Trio, his only String Quartet, and the final two symphonies. There are few compositions in the first half of the 20th century that accomplish so much in so little time as these and with such a unique combination of asperity, charm, and vivacity.

Roussel considered the Third Symphony “the best thing I’ve done.” With uncharacteristic immodesty, he said that “from its first performances [it] proved to be one of the most undisputed successes of modern symphonic music.” He was right. Is there anything as magnificently propulsive in French music as the Third Symphony, especially in its first movement?

The Third Symphony begins with a jolting ostinato figure that eventually gives way to a five-note theme “which will reappear, more or less modified, as a main theme or accessory design in the other parts of the symphony.” If one listens carefully, one can hear the rhythmic maelstrom of the Third Symphony gestating as far back as The Spider’s Feast. Poulenc applauded, “It is truly marvelous to combine so much springtime with maturity.” Yet there is more here than the manic energy of springtime. Almost recklessly, Roussel repeatedly takes us to the edge and then pulls back. It is not that he is playing a game of musical chicken. He shows us something that, if left to go on, would grind us up. Yet, when that something seems to have us relentlessly in its grip, Roussel transmutes it into music far less threatening, even lyrically touching, and finally triumphant in its human spirit. In a less frantic way, the same thing happens in the Fourth Symphony. This music proves that Roussel was able to overcome the rupture of World War I.

Charles Munch largely owned the Third Symphony. He conducted Roussel the way another French conductor, Rene Leibowitz, conducted Beethoven. He melted the music down to a molten core and spewed the lava up in an eruption of tremendous excitement. At the same time, he did not miss any nuances, some of them quite tenderly expressive. Roussel himself congratulated Munch on the “fire, conviction, enthusiastic warmth, and energetic drive” of his rendition. One of Munch’s white-hot performances, in only so-so sound from a live performance in 1964, can be heard on an Auvidis Valois CD, along with the Fourth Symphony and the Suite No. 2 from Bacchus and Ariane.

With the Third Symphony, Roussel proved that he could produce a great French symphony that was not beholden to German influences, in the same way that he had shown that he could write a great opera without Wagner. For these feats, he is highly esteemed in France. But there is no reason why his reputation should not be greater in countries oblivious to the concerns that gave rise to these singular achievements. Another interesting thing about Roussel is that he seemed to reach full maturity within each of his three stylistic periods, which makes almost all of his music worth listening to.

Both traversals of the four symphonies, by Janowski on BMG (RCA Classics) and Dutoit on the recently reissued budget Erato Ultima, are very worthwhile. The Munch performances of the last two symphonies, as already stated, are indispensable. The other Erato Ultima 2-CD release is also a steal at its two-for-one price, with four of the six works presented conducted by the great Jean Martinon, a student of Roussel. The Olympia label has cleverly arranged all of Roussel’s chamber music in chronological order on three CDs, very well performed by Dutch musicians, that allow the listener to follow Roussel on his fascinating journey. As a lover of chamber music, I especially treasure this set.

Another Auvidis release offers new recordings of four of Roussel’s mid-to late-period concertos for orchestra in excellent renditions. Roussel’s earlier adventure into Hindu modes, Evocations, is available on a mid-price EMI CD in a thrilling performance, coupled with the even earlier Resurrection. EMI is also responsible for the only available, and fortunately superb, recording of Padmavati, Roussel’s single largest work, and one of his most impressive.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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