Rex Burgess looks at the music of the French sailor turned composer

Born in 1869 in Tourcoing, in north-eastern France, Albert Roussel was the son of wealthy industrialist parents, for whom music was merely a hobby. Not for their son, though, who became an accomplished pianist while still a youth, and nurtured a keen interest in composition.

Yet it was only after first spending seven years in the French navy that he finally chose music as his career, moving to Paris in 1894 to study: initially with Eugène Gigout at the École Niedermeyer, being then too old for the Conservatoire! In 1898 he began working with Vincent d’Indy at the newly formed Schola Cantorum. Those studies continued till 1908, although such was his progress that by 1902 he had already joined the Schola’s staff as professor of counterpoint, with Satie, Roland-Manuel, Auric and Varèse numbered among his many pupils.

Roussel’s first compositional success came in 1897 with two prize-winning a capella madrigals, followed over the next ten years by various increasingly significant chamber and orchestral works including, in 1906, the first of his four symphonies, entitled Le poème de la forêt.

Influenced initially by d’Indy, Roussel started out composing highly pictorial music. He was stimulated also by Debussy, Ravel, and the allure of impressionism, although he soon realised that this alone would lead him to an impasse. Another somewhat contrary influence was the rhythmic innovation of the young Stravinsky, while his melodic imagery was nurtured by the old chansons and the charm of French folksong.

A series of tours in 1910 took him to many distant countries, including India and Indochina. This contact with music of the Far East also had a profound effect on his thinking, sensitising him to its subtleties of melodic and rhythmic inflection.

As his style and musical language continued to mature, he synthesised all these elements into an integrated approach in an idiom essentially lyrical, yet bearing the imprint of a vigorous thinker with a fastidious musical personality. In the words of one writer, “he (thereby) espoused the cause of a French neo-classicism oriented to the cultivation of the large forms: symphony, concerto, sonata, suite, trio and the like”, each of which has its place in his corpus of around 70 completed works.

Although he continued at the reactionary and increasingly unpopular Schola till 1914, Roussel had also been quick to join the progressive Société Musicale Indépendante, a breakaway organisation formed in 1910 by various prominent composers, including Fauré, Ravel, Koechlin, and Florent Schmitt.

Always forward-looking, in the mid-1930s Roussel became president of the French section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). For although he preferred to remain apart from musical groups or movements “in order to have the freedom of personal vision”, he had a strong sense of social responsibility, was always ready to help others and especially
younger musicians.

In 1914 Roussel started working on his opéra-ballet Padmávatî, although its composition was interrupted by World War I, during which he served as a transport officer. Completed in 1918, it created a sensation on its first staging in 1923, prompting one writer some years later to suggest that “reasoned history may well rate it of an importance on a level with Wagner”, high praise, albeit a prophecy which has yet to be fulfilled.

Padmávatî will be broadcast in At the Opera at 8pm on Wednesday 7 June

This article originally appeared in the June Issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine