Albert Charles Paul Marie Roussel (5 April 1869 - 23 August 1937) was a French composer. Although Roussel spent seven years as a midshipman, only turning to music as an adult, he became one of the most prominent French composers of the inter-war period. His earlier works were strongly influenced by the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, with his later works turning more towards neoclassicism.
Born in Tourcoing (Nord department of France), Roussel's earliest interest was not in music but mathematics. He spent a time in the French Navy, and in 1889 and 1890 he served in the crew of the frigate Iphigénie. These travels affected him artistically, as many of his musical works would reflect his interest in far-off, exotic places.
After resigning from the Navy in 1894, he began to study music seriously with Eugène Gigout, then continuing his studies until 1908 at the Schola Cantorum (one of his teachers there was Vincent d'Indy). While studying, he was also teaching; his students included Satie and the young Edgard Varèse.
During World War I, he served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front. Following the war, he bought a summer house in Normandy, where he devoted most of his time to composition.
Roussel was by temperament a classicist. While his early work is strongly influenced by impressionism, 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 Stravinsky).
Another student of Roussel's was Bohuslav Martinů (after the war and his own apprenticeship, and starting in 1923.)
Roussel's training at the Schola Cantorum, with its emphasis on rigorous academic models such as Palestrina and 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.
Roussel 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 masterpieces which 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. He died in the town of Royan, (Charente-Maritime department), in western France, in 1937, the same year that his countrymen Maurice Ravel and Gabriel Pierné died.
Arturo Toscanini included the suite from the ballet Le festin de l'araignée in one of his broadcast concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Georges Prêtre recorded this same music with the Orchestre National de France for EMI in 1984.
Le marchand de sable qui passe, incidental music for a play, Le Havre, 16 December 1908, Op. 13
Le festin de l'araignée, ballet in one act. f.p. 3 April 1913, Op. 17
Padmâvatî, opera in 2 acts (1913–18, Louis Laloy, after T.-M. Pavie). f.p. Paris Opéra, 1 June 1923, Op. 18
La naissance de la lyre, opera in 1 act, Paris Opéra, 1 July 1925, Op. 24
Sarabande (1927; for the children's ballet L'éventail de Jeanne, to which ten French composers each contributed a dance)
Bacchus and Ariadne (ballet), ballet in two acts. f.p. Paris Opéra, 22 May 1931, Op. 43
Le testament de la tante Caroline, opera in 3 acts, 14 November 1936
Aeneas, ballet, Op. 54
Prelude to Act 2 of Le quatorze juillet by Romain Rolland, Paris, 14 July 1936
Elpénor, radio score, 1947, Op. 59
- Evocations pour orchestra Op. 15
- Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, Op. 52
- Suite for Orchestra in F major, Op. 33
Symphony No. 1 in D minor The Poem of the Forest, Op. 7
- Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 23
- Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Op. 42
- Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 53
- Cello Concertino, Op. 57
- Piano Concerto in G major, Op. 36
Psalm 80 for tenor, choir, and orchestra, Op. 37
- Andante and Scherzo, for flute and piano, Op. 51
Elpenor for flute and string quartet, Op. 59
- Divertissement for piano and wind quintet, Op. 6
- Joueurs de Flûte, flute and piano, Op. 27
- Piano Trio in E-flat, Op. 2
- Serenade for flute, string trio, and harp, Op. 30
- Sonatine for Piano, Op. 16
- String Quartet, Op. 45
- String Trio, Op. 58
- Suite for Piano in F-sharp minor, Op. 14
- Trio for Flute, Viola, and Cello, Op. 40
- Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 11
- Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 28
Segovia, for guitar, Op. 29
- Impromptu for harp
References and further reading
The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York, Schirmer Books, 1993. ISBN 0-02-872416-X
Albert Roussel, un marin musicien, 1st ed. by Damien Top. Séguier, 2000.
"The Piano Music of Albert Roussel", by Henry Doskey, D.M. Indiana University, 1981. 109 p., musical examples