On October 3, 2002, the Quebec Symphony Orchestra (Orchestre symphonique de Québec, OSQ) celebrated its 100th anniversary. Since its foundation, the OSQ has been associated with countless Quebec City [...]
They spoke about it
The importance of Jacques Rouché on the evolution of scenic art in France was fundamental. Between 1910 and 1913, at the height of the Ballets Russes’ popularity, he presented in his Théâtre des Arts du boulevard des Batignolles a series of productions — including Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye — that reflected the knowledge acquired from a European trip devoted to modern theatrical stage direction.
In September, 1912 he decided to ask Roussel, whose symphonic triptych Évocations (created on May 18) had established as a genuine talent, to write a ballet based upon a libretto written by La Taglioni’s grandson, the comte Gilbert de Voisins. The libretto was based upon Joseph Henri Favre’s Souvenirs Entomologiques, a ten-volume set published between 1879 and 1907. Roussel had already declined the commission of another ballet. He hesitated. Finally, after much persuading from his wife, he decided to “leave sleeping in a drawer” the score of Roi Tobol, the opera he had undertaken in August at Belle-Ile.
Soon after receiving the libretto on November 27, the composer drafted at Bois-le-Roi “the garden theme that the flute (plays) so shyly over the murmurs of the violins.” He also collaborated in the development of the scenario. The “little ballet for a spider,” in fact his first commission, was completed on February 2, 1913 in Paris. Presented for the occasion with Rameau’s Pygmalion and Offenbach’s Mesdames de la Halle, Le Festin de l’araignée, Op. 17, was performed on April 3 (a few weeks before Jeux and Le Sacre du Printemps), in a choreography by Léo Staats, sets and costumes by Maxime Dethomas, and under the direction of Gabriel Grovlez. Its success was immediate, even without the benefit of the prestige of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The composer, a pessimist, merely hoped the work would complete the schedule of eight performances. There were in fact twenty-two.
In order to salvage his work, he had already adapted the Fragments Symphoniques which established his fame. The dimensions of the theatre did not permit a larger orchestral formation than thirty-two, but this became a positive creative factor: the orchestration subtly exploits all the registers, and gives each of the protagonists their individual and appropriate timbres.
There is invention on every page: here are, in embryo, the Poems of Ronsard; the entrance of the Bousiers announce the Silène of La Naissance de la Lyre; the entrance of the Fourmis conforms to the development of Roussel’s artistic progression which had previously appeared in his Divertissement, Op. 6. This ballet-pantomime, almost improvisational in nature (which contrasts greatly with the carefully devised Évocations), belongs to the works inspired by his naturist period, which in turn inspired his Rustiques, Pour une fête de printemps and the Poème de la Fôret. The Festin owes as much to the impressionism of L’après-midi d’un faune (1892) as to the admiring and respectful tact of Ravel’s aesthetics and the scholastic solidity of the conception of d’Indy’s L’après-midi sous les Pins (1905). Arthue Hoérée wrote quite appropriately: “Who can measure the greatness of small things? Such finesse, sensibility, poetry in the framework of this resonant lace; such perfect writing in the service of faultless orchestration harmonized by a virtuoso — is not all this the hallmark of a genuine masterpiece?”
The dreadful changes brought about by the 1914-18 war deeply affected Roussel: “We will live again, but from a new conception of life — which does not mean that everything done before the war will be forgotten, but that all that is to be created will be done differently.” His writing is thus progressively purified. The tripartite principle with a slow central movement is henceforth adopted, as in the Suite en Fa, the Petit Suite and in the chamber-music, while his vision of vocal and choreographic music is filled with a feeling of grandeur and inspiration that links Padmâvatî to Téméraire, La Naissance de la Lyre to Aeneas.
His purely orchestral experiments lead him to make the orchestra resound with the mobile refinement of a chamber music ensemble or, conversely, to extract the maximum from the timbre effects of a string orchestra, everything in a dissonant mixture of epicurism and stoicism. The magician’s touch of a master sorcerer, so personal that it is surprising to encounter it in… Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes in 1941. We still underestimate the essential originality of the Concert, Op. 34 for small orchestra, whose genesis (Paris, October, 1926 — February 12, 1927) followed the composition of the Suite en Fa, and in whose shadow it was unfortunately to linger.
Roussel evokes with panache the spirit of the concerto grosso. As in the Sinfonietta, he rediscovers the 18th-century form, and his orchestra is curiously reduced to the dimensions of that of his first ballet. Each instrument is used rather for its timbre than for its technical possibilities, which allows an intensive use of a surprisingly clear counterpoint. Here, the delicate humour of Festin is transformed into an insolent insouciance: the Presto previews the “caf’conc” atmosphere of Testament de la Tante Caroline or the truculent Rapsodie Flamande with which it shares a pianissimo conclusion. The three movements hover about one central, affirmed tonality, while the use of polytonality reminds us that Roussel, together with Koechlin and Milhaud, was one of its pioneers (creation in Paris, salle Gaveau during a Straram concert on May 5, 1927).
A number of Roussel adagios — the prelude to the Suite en Fa#, Concerto pour piano or the Concertino pour violoncelle — seem in direct contact with death: an explosion of rediscovered vitality always follows their painful brevity. This is also true of the Sinfonietta (Varengeville June 12 – August 6, 1934). In 1934 after a serious bout of pneumonia, Roussel was fired once more by a creative flame. “About twelve days ago, I began an andante and allegro for string orchestra,” he wrote on July 4. He then got the idea of balancing the work by introducing an initial Allegro molto. The ascetic excercise is here pushed to its limit: a condensed symphony which hardly uses any counterpoint, as opposed to the Quartet Op. 45 or the Third Symphony. It seems as if the playful composer is winking at us at every bar, integrating styles of writing and developments taken from Beethoven, Brahms or Franck (the cyclical principle appears, a sketch of the short 37-bar Andante serves as the theme for the Allegro). Here is the best symphonic tradition encased in a virtuoso manner.
The Parisian public of salle Gaveau at the creation on November 19, 1934, given by Jane Evrard’s female orchestra, was so enthusiastic that the work had to be repeated! “Through the balance, skill and efficiency of his writing he succeeds in drawing from the strings such a fullness and power that one never regrets what he has omitted” (Robert Bernard). Only four days after completing the Sinfonietta, between August 10 and 30, Roussel sketched out on three and four staves, as was his wont, a three-part lied which was to become the emotional Lento molto of his Quatrième Symphonie, Op. 53, in A Major.
He followed this with the Scherzo (completed in five days), moved onto the first movement (September 6-21), and ended with the finale of this pre-orchestral form on September 26. The Scherzo, whose rhythmic continuity is based on the most subtle balancing act between binary and tertiary forms, was immediately repeated by the conductor Albert Wolff at its premiere at l’Opéra-Comique on October 19, 1935. After the controlled rigour of his Op. 42, Roussel seems to want to amuse himself like a schoolboy: reducing the Franckist procedure to the extreme, he plays with more freedom and draws the form from the writing process itself. Its polymodal and polytonal language is even more refined, if possible; the ingeneous nature of its rhythmic invention supports a tight counterpoint and creates, with a breathtaking impact, a continually renewed palette.
Roussel thus seems, in the autumn of his life, to be speaking with himself, “in the contemplation of what fascinates him” (Yvonne Gouverné). Let us conclude with the opinion of Alexander Williams, who wrote, after the work’s Boston premiere: “The Fourth Symphony is the glorious crowning of the composer’s remarkable career. In its force, it illustrates numerous qualities which the French school can take pride in: clarity, spirit, grace and logic.”
© Damien Top, Fondation Albert Roussel, Paris
Translation: Richard Turp