by Anja Weinberger
Albert Roussel and the “Joueurs de Flûte”
Albert Roussel was born in 1869 in Tourcoing in the Département du Nord into a rich industrialist family and came to music late in life. For from his earliest youth, three souls quarreled in his breast. He loved music, mathematics and – the sea. This is what his first professional education will be about, and it will never leave him for the rest of his life.
In his early childhood his parents and both his grandparents died, so he grew up with an aunt. Soon he stood on his own feet and decided to become a naval officer. Music accompanied him even on the high seas and he taught himself basic harmony and music theory. In 1894 he officially took his leave from the navy and some time later became a pupil of Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum in Paris, as he was no longer eligible for the Conservatoire for reasons of age.
His stylistic development mirrors that of French music of his time: from late Romantic beginnings, he progressed through Impressionism to Neoclassicism. And although he is far less well known today than his colleagues from the “Groupe de Six”, he was an extremely popular composer in the Paris of the twenties and thirties. He himself divided his work into three sections: weak Debussy influences – works close to the impressionist school – new tone and actual expression. Exciting, because it is rather rare that a composer looks at his own work so analytically. Usually it is only those who come after him who do that.
As a composition teacher, he was extremely sought after; Edgar Varèse and Bohuslav Martinů were also among his students.
Already during his time at sea, he gathered impressions in Indochina and Far East Asia. Newly married, he then set off with his wife at the age of 40 on a trip to Southeast Asia, which had a great impact on him and whose influences can be found in many of his works.
On closer examination, Roussel combined sound impressions from India with myths from Greek and Roman antiquity.
And it is in this context that we come across the 1924 work Joueurs de flûte with the movements Pan, Tityre, Krishna and Monsieur de la Péjaudie. In addition to the four flute players of the respective movement titles, each of these movements is dedicated to a flutist of the time – flutists in abundance, so to speak.
In the first movement, Pan, we hear the god of nature and the forest playing his pan flute in wistful, mostly chromatic runs. We sense the leaps of the buck-legged one and perhaps remember a bit of Syrinx by Claude Debussy. This movement is dedicated to Marcel Moyse, the legendary flutist, pedagogue and prophet of beautiful sound.
In the second movement, we find ourselves in Roman antiquity. Tityrus is a shepherd who comes along in Virgil with the famous hexameters without which no Latin lesson can take place. Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi, silvestrem tenui musam meditaris avena. In Roussel’s work, we do not have the impression that Tityre is encamped under the roof of the beech tree. Nor does he ponder or rest. The rapid leaps of the flute and the leaping chords of the piano just fly by. This movement is dedicated to the flutist Gaston Blanquart, the enthusiastic chamber musician who loved new music as much as he loved the works of Bach.
In the third movement, we travel to India. Quite contemplative and only discreetly reminiscent of Hindu music, Krischna appears before our inner eye. Roussel had already staged the “Indian” ballet opera Padmâvatî in 1918, in which he used material collected from his travels. The audience was enthusiastic about this hybrid of opera and ballet. Louis Fleury, the flautist so successful in France and England, is the dedicatee of this third movement.
The literary allusion of the last movement is hardly understandable outside France. For Monsieur de la Péjaudie is the name of the flautist in Henri de Régnier’s novel La Pécheresse (The Fisherwoman), very well known in France. His flirtatious waltz is made for Philippe Gaubert, the magnificent, always well-dressed, eloquent and empathetic flautist who was also an institution as first conductor of the Paris Opera.
Roussel also wrote symphonies and more ballets. He worked at high frequency. From 1936 he visibly overdid himself and in 1937, during a stay at the Atlantic, that is, at the so beloved sea, he died of a heart attack.
Böhmer, Dr. Karl: Kammermusikführer online
Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009