Albert Roussel

1869 - 1937

French

Biography

Born on April 5th 1869 in Tourcoing, Albert Roussel was a French composer whose music was first influenced by the rise of impressionism, then later by that of neo-classicism. His youth was marred by almost constant bereavements – by the age of ten, he had lost both his parents and all his grandparents, having to be taken into the care of his maternal aunt. Before her death, he had learnt some of the rudimentary aspects of music from his mother and began organ lessons in 1880 with the parish organist who recognised his natural talent. He enrolled as a student at the Institution Libre du Sacré-Coeur, where he proved himself an outstanding student, particularly in French composition and Mathematics. 

At the age of 15, his guardians decided to send him to Paris, so that he might be able to better pursue music in a more culturally saturated climate. In 1887, Roussel joined the Navy having passed his entrance exams and finished his training two years later as a midshipman. He went out to sea on multiple occasions and it was on one of these trips that he composed his first work – Fantaisie for violin and piano – undoubtedly for a fellow sailor that happened to play the violin. In 1894, he took three months’ leave, which he spent in Roubaix, studying harmony with Julien Koszul. It was Koszul who convinced him to leave the Navy and pursue a life in music. In October of that year he settled in Paris and, after the recommendation of Koszul, studied the organ with Eugène Gigout. In 1898 he began studies at the Schola Cantorum where he received tuition from d’Indy, who, in 1902, entrusted Roussel with the counterpoint class, which Roussel took for the next 12 years, teaching pupils such as Varèse, Satie and Roland-Manuel. 

Throughout the next decade, Roussel’s works began to gain more and more public recognition thanks to various renowned conductors taking an interest in his music. At this stage of his life, his works had a distinctly impressionist sound, although individual in its harmonic language and its vigorous rhythms. The First World War noticeably affected his output. After returning from the war he finished his Second Symphony and although it was well received when performed a second time a year after the premiere, the premiere itself was a distinct disappointment to Roussel and as a result, he felt it was time to rethink his aesthetic. He wanted music that was more personal, less cluttered and much cleaner, in a similar vein to that of the neo-classical composers who were growing in popularity at this time. The first of work in this new style was La naissance de la lyre and it showed a more simple and serene approach. 

This new style was extremely well received and caused his reputation outside of France to grow. For his sixtieth birthday in 1929, there was a festival of his works held in Paris organised by the Société Musicale Indépendante, which he saw as the highpoint of his career. A year later, he and his wife travelled to Boston and Chicago to hear performances of his Third Symphony, written for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This was a significant success and he became very popular with the American public. Over the next few years, his output was slowed on several occasions by illness until, in 1937, he suffered a heart attack. Ten days later, he died on August 23rd 1937. He was buried according to his wishes in the small cemetery of Varengeville, overlooking the sea.