Covering some familiar territory this week. Usually, it’s a case of underrated and overlooked composers or composers whose work has fallen into neglect in recent years. Not so with Albert Roussel.
Albert Roussel began his work under the influence of French Impressionism, with its dependence on exotic moods and poetic association. He eventually found a personal style which was more formal in design, with a strong rhythmic drive, and with a more distinct liking for functional tonality than is evident in the work of his more famous contemporaries (for instance Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and Igor Stravinsky). The sense of formal design asserted itself in his symphonic works; his Suite (1926) signalizes a transition toward neo-Classicism; the thematic development is vigorous, and the rhythms are clearly delineated, despite some asymmetrical progressions; the orchestration, too, is in the Classical tradition. Roussel possessed a keen sense of the theater; he was capable of fine characterization of exotic or mythological subjects, but also knew how to depict humorous sitUations in lighter works.
Albert Roussel’s training at the Schola Cantorum, with its emphasis on rigorous academic models such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and J.S. Bach, left its mark on his mature style, which is characterized by contrapuntal textures. In comparison with the subtle and nuanced style of other French composers like Gabriel Fauré or Claude Debussy, Roussel’s orchestration is rather heavy. While the stylistic and orchestral aesthetic of so-called “French” music was one which Roussel did not fully share, it is nevertheless true that Roussel was never a mere copyist of Teutonic models. Certainly, in contrast with the sound of the German romantic orchestral tradition (such as Anton Bruckner or Gustav Mahler), Roussel’s manner could hardly be called heavy at all.
He was also interested in jazz, and wrote a piano-vocal composition entitled Jazz dans la nuit, similar in its inspiration to other jazz-inspired works such as “Blues” second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata, or Darius Milhaud’s La Création du Monde).
Roussel’s most important works are 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.
His Third Symphony was done as a commission by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony’s 50th anniversary in 1930. This broadcast studio recording was done approximately 1958 with the French National Orchestra, led by the legendary Pierre Dervaux. Although there are several recordings of this symphony, this one I don’t believe has been made available commercially.