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ClassicsOnline Home » ROUSSEL, A.: Bacchus et Ariane (Bacchus and Ariadne) / Symphony No. 3 (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Deneve)
Roussel’s two most successful works, the ballet Bacchus et Ariane and Symphony No. 3 demonstrate his mature, neo-classical idiom. The Third Symphony, one of a number of works
commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its fiftieth anniversary season, represents
the composer’s neo-classical language at its most incisive. Notable for opening and closing
movements which are propelled with unstoppable momentum, this is the only symphony by
Roussel to have retained its place in the repertoire. With its unbridled sensuality, subtle harmonies
and intricate counterpoint, the sumptuously scored two-act ballet Bacchus et Ariane, is another
dazzling display of Roussel at the height of his powers.
By Adrian Corleonis
By Julian Haylock
Albert Roussel (1869-1937)
Symphony No. 3 • Bacchus et Ariane
Albert Roussel, born at Tourcoing on 5 April 1869, touched on almost all the styles of his era on the way to a personal idiom. A gifted student, he was sent to Paris in 1884 and studied at the Collège Stanislas. His early career was in the French Navy, where he rose to lieutenant and visited the Near East and China. Resigning in 1894, he settled in Paris to study music in earnest. Entering the Schola Cantorum to study with Vincent d'Indy in 1898, he took over the counterpoint class four years later and taught a generation of composers including Eric Satie, Edgard Varèse and Bohuslav Martinu.
Roussel's output falls into three main periods. From 1902-13 he absorbed the Impressionistic tendencies of such composers as Debussy and Ravel, evident in his First Symphony and choral work Evocations, arriving at an idiom of great refinement and subtlety in his ballet Le festin d'araignée. The years of the First World War were occupied with an ambitious opera-ballet Padmâvatî, its Hindu-derived scenario a testament to his imagination and its harmonic complexity to an exploration of new musical territory. This was mined extensively in works from 1918 to 1925, notably the Second Symphony, the opera La naissance de la lyre and his Second Violin Sonata.
This musical soul-searching was succeeded around 1925 by a mature idiom which, while related to European neo-Classicism, is highly personal in its subtle harmonies, intricate counterpoint and energetic rhythms. Notable works include the comic opera Le testament de la tante Caroline, the ballets Bacchus et Ariane and Aenéas, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, a setting of Psalm 80, and chamber works including the String Quartet and String Trio. This period also coincided with his growing success outside France, notably in the United States where he made a triumphal visit in 1930, but failing health gradually took its toll. Following a heart attack, he died at Royan on 23 August 1937 and was buried overlooking the sea: a composer whose music was always created for its own sake.
The two pieces included here are significant products from Roussel's 'third period' and the works that accorded him greatest success. Composed in 1929 and 1930, the Third Symphony was one of a number of works commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its fiftieth anniversary season (others including Honegger's First Symphony, Prokofiev's Fourth Symphony and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms ), and was first performed in Boston under Serge Koussevitsky on 24 October 1930. It represents the composer's neo-classical language at its most incisive, and is the one such symphony by Roussel to have retained its place in the repertoire.
The Allegro begins with a pounding accompaniment for the coursing first theme, which assumes greater suavity as it progresses. A second theme, introduced by the flute, provides necessary contrast, before the music resumes its purposeful onward motion. Building to a climax, it briefly touches on a 'motto' idea that will have important repercussions in the finale. The two main themes are given a varied reprise, and the movement charges to its trenchant conclusion.
Initiated by graceful woodwind, the Adagio opens into an expressive threnody for strings. This is offset by a capering woodwind idea over a marching figure on brass, gaining in impetus as the pace gradually increases. Its reaching a brief culmination coincides with a drastic reduction in tempo and also the re-entry of the first theme, which builds to an expansive climax; in its wake, a solo violin climbs upward to end the movement in a mood of blissful serenity.
A synthesis of scherzo and intermezzo, the third movement opens with a theme of distinctly 'popular' tinge. Although the music often strays into foreign keys, its breezy humour remains unbroken right through to the nonchalant close. Launched by some lively woodwind exchanges, the finale sets off at a hectic pace. Upper strings have the capricious main theme, to which a brass fanfare makes its contribution. Near the centre, the solo violin suddenly recalls the motto from the first movement, now unfolding into the symphony's most expressive melody. At length, the movement's opening is brought back and the earlier ideas are then reprised. It moves forward with unstoppable momentum, until the motto theme returns climactically in the full orchestra, bringing the symphony to a decisive conclusion.
Composed to a scenario by Abel Hermant in 1930, the ballet Bacchus et Ariane had its première under Pierre Gaubert at the Paris Opéra on 22 May 1931. Although it follows in the lineage of ballet scores by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, the work is typically Rousselian in the degree to which its two acts are symphonically structured, reinforced by the composer's creating suites from each of the two acts (both of them given their premières in Paris, the First Suite by Charles Munch on 2 April 1933 and the Second Suite by Pierre Monteux on 2 February 1934) with no essential change to musical content.
Suite No. 1 opens with an Introduction [Track 5] that sets the scene in emotionally – rather than scenically-evocative terms. This passes into an equally lively depiction of the youths and maidens at play  before the mood darkens and a mysteriously-scored labyrinthine dance  ensues. This is interrupted when the god Bacchus appears disguised , now proceeding to envelop Ariadne in his black cloak, whereupon she falls asleep . Theseus and his companions rush at Bacchus, who reveals his godlike status to them and imperiously indicates to them the way over the sea . The music builds in intensity to a brief climax as clouds gather in the sky , duly calming when the sun reappears . There follows Bacchus's dance , which soon becomes more expressive as Ariadne, still asleep, begins to dance with him . Presently the music dies down as Bacchus lays Ariadne on the rock , and the first act ends in a mood of serene repose.
Suite No. 2 opens with a tenderly sensuous evocation of Ariadne as she sleeps , pervaded by a haunting viola melody. At length, Ariadne awakes: looking about her and believing herself to have been abandoned, she tries to throw herself into the waves , only to fall into the arms of Bacchus. With Ariadne now wide awake, they relive their dream-dance in some of the most sumptuous music Roussel ever wrote . Bacchus dances alone in energetic fashion , the music reaching a peak of sensuous intensity as they kiss . The Dionysian spell thus activated , worshippers of Bacchus pass in a processional that prepares for the ballet's finale . First comes a lithe and alluring dance for Ariadne , followed by an appreciably more animated dance for Ariadne and Bacchus ; gaining in energy, this culminates in an uninhibited bacchanal  which closes the second act in exhilarating fashion, with the coronation of Ariadne potently underlined during the soaring final bars .
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