Albert Roussel

1869 1937

Albert Roussel



The late 19th and early 20th-century French composer Albert Roussel was one of the most individual composers of his era. He was a man who laid out his own path musically, creating music for its own sake and only following mere academic rules of composition at his own discretion. Roussel’s music displays the influence of his travels and time at sea with the Navy.

Albert Roussel’s childhood was marked by tragedy in the form of death, perhaps describing the composer’s individuality and independent nature, as a composer and as a human being. Death seemed to follow the young boy, first with the death of his father in 1870, his paternal grandparents and then his mother in 1876. After the passing of his parents, Albert was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, who died just three years later in 1879. After surviving the death of five close relatives in nine years, Albert went to live with his maternal aunt and her husband.

In his brief years with his mother, Albert was able to receive a very basic music education, though it was not until 1880 that he received his first official lessons. He studied organ with the local parish organist, who instantly recognized his gift for music. He also received high marks in French composition and mathematics at his school, the Institution Libre du Sacré-Coeur.

Roussel’s aunt sent him to Paris to study at the Collège Stanislas at the age of 15. He received piano lessons from Jules Stolz, the organist of St Ambroise. Roussel’s interest in the Navy led him to the Naval Academy (École Navale) in 1887. His travels on board Navy ships took him primarily east. It was during his time on the Melpomène in 1892 that he composed his Fantaisie for violin and piano for a fellow sailor who played violin. Roussel had been promoted to lieutenant by 1893, when he travelled on the Styx to Cochinchina, Vietnam, which at that time was a French colony. Upon his return to France in 1894 he took a three-month leave of absence, spent in Roubaix studying harmony with Julien Koszul. Impressed by the young sailor’s musical talent, Koszul urged Roussel to move to Paris and study with organist Eugène Gigout. After considering this advice, Roussel resigned from the navy to pursue his career as a musician in Paris.

After four years of private study, Roussel entered the Schola Cantorum, where he studied withd’Indy. In 1902, d’Indy put Roussel in charge of the counterpoint class, which he taught until 1914. Among his pupils were prominent composers such asVarèse, Satie, Le Flem, Raugel and Roland-Manuel. Roussel also guided composers such asMartinů, Conrad Beck and Jean Cras during the 1920s.

Roussel’s works were first introduced successfully to the public through the conductorCortot, who conducted Roussel’s first orchestral work, Résurrection (1903), at a concert of the Société Nationale. Hereafter, Cortot also conduted Soir d'été (1904), which later became the third movement of the First Symphony ‘Poème de la forêt’ (1904-6). The symphony was premiered in Brussels in 1908 under the direction of Sylvain Dupuis. In addition to the premiere of his symphony, 1908 was also the year of his marriage to Blanche Preisach and the year he composed music for Jean-Aubry'sMarchand de sable qui passe, which was premiered at the Cercle de l'Art Moderne in Le Havre.

Never able to stay far from the water, Roussel embarked on a three-month journey in 1909 to the Indies and Cambodia by boat. This experience influenced his two most important works,Evocations (1910-1) and Padmâvatî (1913-8). Following the success of the former, Roussel was asked by director of the Théâtre des Arts, Jacques Rouché, to compose a score for the balletLe festin de l'araignée (1913). The ballet was a great success, and led Rouché, who had become the director of the Opéra, to commission another work from Roussel, in the form of an opera.Padmâvatî was the result of this commission and is based upon Hindu legends from India, which he discovered on his travels there. The libretto for the opera was written by Louis Laloy.

Roussel’s rising success was abruptly interrupted by war. Despite no longer being a part of the Reserve list for health reasons, Roussel was determined to serve at a lieutenant in the artillery unit of the army. He ended up serving as a transport officer from 1915 until 1918, when he was deemed no longer fit to serve.

Roussel settled in Cap Toulom, where he began his Second Symphony. Unfortunately, Roussel was interrupted yet again, this time by health problems. He became sick and left for the mountains near Grenoble to recover in 1920. It was there, surrounded by nature, that he was inspired to compose the symphonic poemPour une fête de printemps (1920), dedicated to his former teacher Gigout.

Returning from the mountains, Roussel decided to buy a beautiful estate in Varengeville near the sea together with his wife. From this stunning location he composed the majority of his remaining works, including the Second Symphony (1922), which did not receive a welcoming premiere. The work was performed again in 1923, this time under the direction of Koussevitsky, to more praise. This same year his operaPadmâvatî, which he had completed before the war, was finally premiered. It was enthusiastically received by critics and the public alike.

Roussel was deeply affected by the near failure of his Second Symphony, leading him to reassess his compositional approach and abandon his conservative, outdated practices. He decided to compose more personal music, music that was purer and simpler. His first work in his new style was theLa naissance de la lyre,which displays a sense of clarity and combines music, dance, song and speech.

Roussel’s popularity continued to increase, not only in France but also throughout Europe and North America. His success at the Paris Opéra continued in 1931 with his balletBacchus et Ariane. The Opéra-Comique also performed one of his works, the operetta Le testament de la tante Caroline (1932–3).

In Roussel’s final years, he was plagued by sickness and forced to work at a much slower pace. He composed the Sinfonietta (1934) and the Fourth Symphony (1934), which was a raving success. He also composed another tremendous ballet, Aeneas(1935), which was performed at the Palais de Beaux-Arts in Brussels. He also spent a brief time in Nice.

With no desire to slow down anytime soon, Roussel returned home and composed the Trio op. 58. Sickness, which was not helped by the severe climate in which he lived, prompted him to move to Royan, where he started composing a trio for winds, but was unable to finish it. Roussel died ten days after suffering a heart attack. He was buried in his beloved town of Varengeville.

Roussel’s style always remained very much his own. His early works were certainly influenced by the Schola. He was also influenced by Impressionism and programmatic elements. Later works demonstrate his interest in Eastern tonalities, rhythm, more dissonant harmony, bitonality and an overall increasingly complex harmonic language. Roussel also borrowed ideas and forms from the 18th century. He was a great teacher and was able to inspire many successful composers, but his style remains unique to him. He did not encourage others to compose in his manner, and as a result did not have any students follow in his stylistic footsteps.