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ClassicsOnline Home » ROUSSEL, A.: Piano Works, Vol. 1 (Armengaud)
Albert Roussel forged a unique musical identity in his music and remains one of the most intriguing and influential of French composers. In this first of three volumes of his complete piano music one can hear his originality as early as the Sonatine, Op 16, composed in 1912 where fantasy and atmospheric colour are prominent. Le Marchand de sable qui passe, Op 13 (The Sandman) is incidental music written for a verse play where the influence of Debussy and Wagner can sometimes be felt. Roussel’s last creative phase, represented by Trois Pièces, Op 49, reveals his incisive wit, concern for rhythmic vitality, and even jazzy turns of phrase.
Albert Roussel (1869–1937)
Piano Music • 1
Albert Roussel was originally destined for a career at sea, but after a period spent studying harmony in Roubaix with Julien Koszul, director of the Roubaix Conservatoire and grandfather of Henri Dutilleux, he made up his mind to become a musician instead. He continued his training in Paris, firstly with Eugène Gigout from 1894 to 1898, then at the Schola Cantorum, with Vincent d’Indy. Between 1902 and 1914 he taught counterpoint at the Schola, where his pupils included Erik Satie, Edgar Varèse and Paul Le Flem. His first orchestral works were conducted, by Alfred Cortot, in 1904. In 1909 Roussel was appointed to the committee of the Société Musicale Indépendante which had recently been founded by Fauré, Ravel, Koechlin and Schmitt. In 1920 he bought a house at Vastérival, on the beautiful Côte d’Albâtre, a favourite subject of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, as well as an area much loved by Debussy. The sea would always exert a great fascination over Roussel, and he was laid to rest (as was the painter Georges Braque) in the clifftop cemetery at Varengeville, near Dieppe.
The Sonatine, Op 16, composed at Belle-Île-en-Mer in the summer of 1912, shows early signs of the new direction he was to take after 1920, towards a more abstract form of composition, free from extra-musical inspiration. Its two-part structure is a condensation of the conventional four sonata movements. Three elements are introduced to begin with: a tranquil phrase in B minor with a steady rhythmic beat, a transitional passage in rising double notes culminating in a number of dazzling fragments in the high register, and a more animated second theme which is heard three times. In place of a development section there is a brief, modulating middle episode, while the recapitulation picks up the first three elements again, with the first theme, now truncated, becoming “très énergique”. A calmer, more free-flowing conclusion leads into the scherzo. The new tempo marking is Vif et très léger (Lively and very light), and a subject in detached chords rings out beneath an ostinato in octaves. A syncopated second subject gives the music a more uneven tone. The middle section, rhythmic and powerful, bears a likeness to the Sonatine’s opening subject. A brief moment of greater serenity gives way to writing full of fantasy and colour, harking back to the dazzling outbursts of the first movement. The recapitulation ends with a highly original coda in which the ostinato and detached chords gradually fade away.
The second part of the work opens with a slow movement whose atmosphere is one of intimate meditation, made up of sombre, twisting harmonies, followed by dramatic accents that echo between the two hands. A motif in octaves, slightly deformed in outline, surreptitiously unfolds in the shadow of the left hand, before an accelerando passage leads without a break into the finale. Three different ideas come into play here: a subject whose intonation is similar to that of a simple round (I), punctuated at regular intervals by a four-octave motif; a second, more emphatic and joyous subject (II), and a third subject characterized by leaping rhythms and a five-note motif. A peak is reached, and then (I) returns in the upper register. The music briefly becomes a little heavier (II) then, once the tempo has increased again, opens out into a rhythmical development of (III). Theme (I), with its octaves, is followed by (II), heavier still and at a broader tempo, before the work reaches a powerful conclusion of irregular rhythmic groupings and a final, dazzling burst of fireworks.
Le Marchand de sable qui passe…(The Sandman; recorded on Naxos 8.570323) is incidental music written in 1908 for a one-act verse play by Georges Jean-Aubry (1882–1950). In this symbolist work for three characters (He, She and the Sandman), “the sandman goes deep into the forest and vanishes after bringing together the man and woman who were, perhaps, unaware of their shared destiny”.
The Prélude introduces an expressive polyphony tinged with chromaticism. The more agitated central section, jerky and questioning in tone, dissolves into an impassioned, chromatic—almost Tristanesque—motif which recurs throughout the score, a rare trace of Wagnerian influence in Roussel’s music. After some mellow harmonies, the conclusion, with its plaintive motif, fades away as if in a dream.
Scène II begins in illustrative fashion on detached and opposing rhythms. A gentle theme with elegant accompaniment provides contrast and introduces the return of the Tristanesque motif, here more fully developed. After a dynamic peak, the opening music is reworked in a more restrained way. A tranquil, slow-moving and lyrical phrase is heard twice before a brief reappearance of the impassioned motif and some of the rhythmic fragments from the opening.
The Interlude begins with a searching theme of great freshness, though with a hint of melancholy, which is based on three layers of sound. We hear again the lyrical phrase from the previous movement, then the spellbinding music from the opening. Over a rocking triplet accompaniment, Scène IV introduces a delicate, ornamented melody of great rhythmic suppleness. The original, haunting theme returns, then the melody with triplet accompaniment, after an accelerando, reaches a dance-like section dominated by fourths. Out of nowhere, the ardent, chromatic melody which unifies the work as a whole re-emerges. The slow-paced coda brings back a muted version of the ornamented melody.
The last movement, Scène finale, conjures another dreamscape. From hushed calls below mysterious tremolos emanates a brief, hesitant fragment, surrounded by arpeggios, which is soon supplanted by another restrained piece of writing. Suddenly, a sublime phrase, brimming with gentle innocence in its counter-melody and fluid accompaniment, melts twice into rising F sharp major then minor arpeggios. After a repeat of these elements, we hear more rising arpeggios, this time in B major and minor. A sudden modulation into B flat major leads to the Tristanesque theme which, in a stretto-like effect, builds up through four entries to reach the score’s overall climax. The second movement’s last subject returns, followed by the initial motif of the ardent theme. With its chromatic descending thirds, the otherworldly coda is reminiscent of the hushed, mysterious ending of Debussy’s Pelléas.
In his last creative period, Roussel focused primarily on line and rhythm, as well as paying ever closer attention to the way in which his works were constructed. Written between August and November 1933, the Trois Pièces, Op 49, had their première in Paris on 14 April 1934 at the Société Nationale with their dedicatee Robert Casadesus. The Allegro con brio in C is a continuum of sound full of rhythmic energy, whose stability is disturbed by the subtleties of the harmonies. The writing remains detached and is barely troubled by a rapid semiquaver motif. The second piece, an Allegro grazioso in F, begins like a Schubertian waltz, while Roussel’s Parisian humour shines through in the faster central section. Finally, the form of the Allegro con spirito mirrors the overall fast-slow-fast pattern of the cycle. This is a kind of scherzo, full of life and taking the occasional jazzy turn, with a more lyrical central Andante, dominated by obsessive triplets.
The Prélude et Fugue, Op 46, is a composite work. The F major Fugue was written in September 1932 for a Hommage à Bach commissioned by La Revue musicale (the December 1932 issue). Its subject is based on Bach’s name, as expressed in German musical notation (B flat – A – C – B natural). The last interval, a minor second, is replaced by its inversion, a major seventh. The Prélude in F minor, the composer’s last work for piano, was added in 1934. After a rapid-fire opening, a chordal theme imposes itself at a constant fortissimo above a rhythmic ostinato repeated thirteen times, then three more times (triple forte) in the coda.
Doute (Doubt), which is dated 30 October 1919, is characterized by a tormented motif which creates an ominous atmosphere suggestive of both the war that had just ended and the uncertain future ahead. The work, which has no dynamic markings, first appeared in Paris in the bimonthly journal Feuillets d’Art, then was reissued by Durand in 1948, without opus number. We learn, meanwhile, from a letter of 3 April 1912 to its dedicatee, the Comtesse de Chaumont-Quitry, that the Petit Canon perpétuel was written in the late March and early April of 1912. This is a canon between the upper and lower lines, two octaves and two beats apart, with a free-flowing accompaniment between the two.
L’Accueil des Muses (The Muses’ Welcome) was written in September 1920 for the Tombeau de Debussy supplement issued by La Revue musicale as a tribute to the late composer and featuring contributions from Dukas, Malipiero, Goossens, Bartók, Schmitt, Stravinsky, Falla, Ravel and Satie. Unlike Dukas, Roussel did not borrow from Debussy’s music. The muted grief of this piece with its laden harmonies and obsessive rhythm is for the most part confined to the lower register. As the music climbs into the higher notes at the end the resultant sense of light brings the work to a tranquil close.
Segovia bears the name of the Spanish guitarist to whom the original guitar version was dedicated. Roussel himself realized the piano transcription of this tripartite work full of colour and humour, in which a waltz frames a middle section with Hispanic resonances: a bolero. Conte à la poupée (Doll’s Tale) was composed in 1904 for the Schola Cantorum’s Album pour enfants petits et grands. It is a gentle lullaby in D flat, again in three-part form, whose central section in F consists of a little canon at the octave.
© 2013 Gérald Hugon
English translation by Susannah Howe
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ROUSSEL, A.: Piano Works, Vol. 1 (Armengaud)