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ClassicsOnline Home » ROUSSEL, A.: Symphony No. 1, "Le poeme de la foret" / Resurrection / Le marchand de sable qui passe (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Deneve)
Stéphane Denève’s accounts of Roussel’s symphonies have been praised for their ‘energy, enthusiasm, and panache’ (American Record Guide on No. 2 – 8.570529 – which also gained Gramophone Editor’s Choice) and ‘electrifying…ravishing…breathtaking’ (The Herald on No. 3 – 8.570245). Résurrection, Roussel’s first orchestral work, is a delicate and mysterious piece inspired by Tolstoy’s last novel, while Le marchand de sable qui passe (The Sandman) is a tuneful, colourfully orchestrated suite. His Symphony No. 1 ‘Poem of the Forest’ traces the cycle of seasons from winter to autumn through its four movements.
By Robert Benson
Albert Roussel (1869–1937)
Symphony No. 1 • Résurrection • Le marchand de sable qui passe
Although he remained an outsider in French music, Albert Roussel, born at Tourcoing on 5 April 1867, touched on almost all the stylisms of his era on the way to forging a highly personal idiom. Academically gifted, he was sent by guardians (his father died in 1870 and his mother in 1877) to Paris in 1884, where he pursued his
musical studies at the Collège Stanislas. His early manhood, however, was spent in the French Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant and visited the
Near East and China, experiences that were to leave a considerable mark on his music. Resigning from the Navy in 1894, he settled in Paris to study music in earnest. It was a measure of his thoroughness that, having entered the Schola Cantorum to study with Vincent d’Indy in 1898, he was invited to take over the
counterpoint class just four years later and became tutor to a whole generation of composers, including such diverse figures as Eric Satie, Edgard Varèse and
Bohuslav Martinu˚ .
Roussel destroyed almost all his compositions from the 1890s, and only made his public début as a composer in 1903. Thereafter, he built a select but significant catalogue (59 opus numbers) that falls into three main periods. From 1902–13, he absorbed the Impressionistic tendencies found in such composers as Debussy and Ravel, evident in his First Symphony and the choral work Evocations, before arriving at an idiom of notable refinement and subtlety in his ballet Le festin d’araignée. The years around the First World War were occupied with an ambitious opera-ballet Padmâvatî, its Hindu-derived scenario testament to the composer’s questing imagination, and its complex harmonic language to his desire to explore new musical territory.
That territory was mined in works written during 1918– 25, notably the Second Symphony, the one-act opera La naissance de la lyre and the Second Violin Sonata.
This period of soul-searching was succeeded around 1925 by a fully mature idiom which, audibly related to the prevailing European neo-classicism, is inherently personal in its resourceful harmonies, intricate counterpoint and energetic rhythms. Notable works include the comic opera Le testament de la tante Caroline, the ballets Bacchus et Ariane [Naxos 8.570245] and Aeneas, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, a setting of Psalm 80 and chamber works including a String Quartet and String Trio. This period coincided with success outside France, notably the United States where he made a triumphal visit in 1930, but failing health took its toll on travelling then composing. After a heart attack, he died at Royan on 23 August 1937 and was buried overlooking the sea: the composer of music “willed and realised for its own sake”.
The First Symphony took shape during 1904–06 and was first heard complete in Brussels on 22 March 1908, Sylvain Dupuis conducting. Despite the subtitle, Poem of the Forest, this is no programmatic work; rather its four movements portray a seasonal course following the order Winter-Spring-Summer-Autumn. An amalgam between the often descriptive manner of Debussy and ‘cyclical’ formal procedures espoused by Roussel’s
teacher d’Indy is evident throughout the piece.
The Forest in Winter emerges out of a gentle haze on woodwind and strings, bassoon, flute and clarinet tentatively stating a melodic phrase against undulating figuration on strings. It is left to the oboe to unfold the actual melody, after which an increase in activity leads to a climax with the theme taken up by strings. Tension quickly subsides, and the horn sounds out musingly as the movement draws to its close. Without pause, Renewal starts with animated activity on woodwind and strings, the lower strings unfolding a rhapsodic theme complemented by a whimsical idea on flute and harp. The main theme is taken by strings as a whole, the orchestration becoming more varied as the activity increases. Brass and percussion bring about an energetic climax, before the flute and harp idea sees the movement to its conclusion with a crescendo followed by a last surge of activity.
Summer Evening is a nocturne, beginning raptly in lower woodwind and strings, the texture opening out as melodic phrases are exchanged between solo woodwind
while the music assumes greater expressive focus before hesitantly retreating into the shadows whence it emerged, with distant horn calls sounding across a vague expanse. Much the longest movement, Fauns and Dryads opens expectantly with an animated theme on strings and percussion (and with a hint of waltz rhythm).
This contrasts with a lyrical melody on strings, dreamily taken up by flute and horn. Activity resumes in the woodwind, before an interlude for flute and harp against
a hushed backdrop on strings. The initial theme reemerges, making way for the lyrical melody as elements of both are combined on the way to a powerful climax. This subsides into a recall of both themes as the music withdraws back into the atmospheric haze from the very opening—so bringing the work full circle.
Composed in 1903 and given its première in Paris on 17 May the following year, Alfred Cortot conducting, the symphonic prelude Résurrection
marked Roussel’s belated début as an orchestral composer. Its title alludes to the controversial novel by Leo Tolstoy, though little of the latter’s social didacticism is implied by the music beyond a certain earnestness of tone. The piece begins restively on woodwind and strings, taking on a menacing aura as brass and timpani announce their entry. Following a brief increase in activity, a related theme unwinds plaintively on cor anglais and is taken up impulsively by the strings. Aspects of it continue through solos for horn then flute, before upper strings draw the various melodic components into an expressive theme that pacifies any lingering unease. The music builds in emotion towards an apotheosis that itself fades away as the final resolution is reached.
Roussel’s first work for the theatre was incidental music to the pantomime Le marchand de sable qui passe (The Sandman) by the dramatist George Jean-Aubry, which the composer himself directed at Le Havre on 16 December 1908. This is scored for flute, clarinet, horn, harp and string quartet though the quartet part can, as here, be taken by orchestral strings. The Prélude opens with langorous music for woodwind and strings, creating an evocative backdrop for an upsurge in activity that does little to disturb the prevailing calm. The Music for Scene Two begins with a whimsical idea that makes
resourceful use of woodwind and pizzicato strings, assuming a more distant manner before closing with a hint of its initial lilt. The Interlude and Music for Scene Four starts impassively on strings, its languor finding contrast with a woodwind idea that briefly assumes the foreground before the strings bring about a gentle close. The Scene and Finale is ushered in with a wistful theme where the interplay between woodwind and strings is at its most evocative, solo flute taking up the melody as the music gently closes in on itself before ending in a mood of tender repose.
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ROUSSEL, A.: Symphony No. 1, "Le poeme de la foret...