Albert Roussel: Symphony no. 3 in Gm, op. 42

performed by the Orchestre National de France under Charles Dutoit

(cover image by Soroush Karimi)


Albert Charles Paul Marie Roussel was born on April 5, 1869, and turned to music only as an adult, after seven years as a midshipman. He was impressed and/or influenced by the likes of Debussy and Ravel, but later turned more to neoclassicism.

He was born in Tourcoing, and I did not spell that wrong. He was initially interested in math, but didn’t pursue it apparently. He resigned from the navy in 1894 and studied harmony with Julien Koszul, grandfather of French composer Henri Dutilleux. Roussel later studied at d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum with d’Indy himself until 1908, but also eventually taught there. His students would include Satie, Edgard Varèse, and later on, Martinů.

In total, Roussel would write four symphonies, a piano concerto, cello concertino, as well as works for stage, solo voice, and chamber ensembles.

Wiki includes a quote from “One 21st-century critic,” and then cites a Bernard Holland article in the New York Times as saying:

For the general public, Roussel remains almost famous, his work just beyond the pool of repertory universally drawn from. His music, said another way, walks the line between the memorable and the impossible to forget. The writing sets unrelated keys against one another but eventually seeks strong tonal centers; in other words, it can bark and growl but in the end wags its tail.

For a less literary, less historically significant, but still eloquent, compelling expression of the value in Roussel’s music, we turn to a comment on the above video from one Gérard Begni, who says:

This is a work of maturity of Albert Roussel. His style is generally tense with relaxed moments, the harmony is dissonant but never leaves the tonal context., the orchestration can be massive but it always clear, the construction is perfect. We can retrieve all these features and qualities in this sympjony [sic], which many critics and music lovers consider often as his masterwork.

I like the underscoring of dissonant yet tonal, massive but clear.

Roussel’s third symphony was a commission from the Boston Symphony to commemorate their 50th anniversary, the same for Honegger’s first, Prokofiev’s fourth, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. It was premiered in Boston on October 24, 1930, with the ubiquitous Serge Koussevitzky on the podium.

The work runs around 25 minutes, and is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro vivo
  2. Adagio
  3. Scherzo- vivace
  4. Allegro con spirito

The piece begins wildly, driving and intense, with heroic, almost frenetic roars from horns, but quickly brightens and lightens. It loses the menace to become a warm, colorful thing, eventually scaling down to a flute solo, into which other woodwinds interject here and there. No matter what face the music puts toward us, the near harrowing roar of sounds, or the softer, broader passages, a relentless energy persists, like a city that never sleeps. It may not roar the entire time, but it’s always moving forward, and with such spirit.

The first movement is breathtakingly, scintillatingly arousing, a compact, five-six minute burst of energy and excitement, and the second is fantastically interesting in a very 20th century way. As the aforementioned YouTube commenter states, there’s dissonance, but it’s never atonal or anything. By the time of this symphony, there was already a lot going on in that realm. The second (and longest) movement has some slithery, even almost sultry passages that call to mind the impressionist, sensual sounds of, say, Debussy, in his richly French style. This second movement, marked adagio, hides in its central portions an almost scherzo-like passage, making this much more than a slow chapter in the overall story. It really goes somewhere, as clearly evidenced by the grand, sweeping climax it reaches, almost of a cinematic nature, and ultimately a violin solo closes this movement.

But that more lively passage in the second movement doesn’t have to double as the scherzo, for we have a true one here, as brief as it, and it is adorable. It’s like he had to fit all the musical material for a scherzo at least quadruple this length on a sticky note and forgot to go back and expand everything. It’s very quick, but there’s a sense that there’s just a lot going on here that would be fun to hear more of. It’s celebratory and carefree, something to bring a smile to the face and the soul.

The finale picks up that same sense of unceasing energy in whirling flute and string sounds. You may by this point have forgotten that we began in G minor. Can you hear any remnant of it? It’s jovial, bombastic, and in the more thinly scored passages, extremely colorful, with a more subdued central passage. In this relatively short symphony, though, Roussel is able to pack effectively quite a lot into a small package, like when you roll your clothes and are surprised to see how much can actually fit in there. The finale, with its bombast, quiet passages, and colorful, extravagant, near Strauss-like finish, completes this image of a symphony that seems deceptively epic. You wouldn’t think you’d get so much out of a 24-minute symphony, but here we are.

We obviously skipped his first and second symphonies, but if they’re anything like this, I’m in for a treat. Roussel’s third is a work that could scarcely be more compelling, a symphony with spirit, true to the intentions of the form, but exhibiting a perfect balance between tradition and innovation. I really love it. It’s something you can sink your teeth into.

It of course isn’t as short as all those Milhaud (chamber) symphonies we discussed the past few days, but for the landscape it presents, it really is a pretty compact little symphony. We have another smaller symphony tomorrow and a revisit of a truly gargantuan piece on Friday, so please do stay tuned for all of that, and thanks so much for reading.


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