About this Recording
8.572243 - ROUSSEL, A.: Festin de l'araignee (Le) / Padmavati Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Deneve)
English  French 

Albert Roussel (1869–1937)
Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Banquet) • Padmâvatî – Opéra-Ballet: Suites


Although he was to remain an outsider in French music, Albert Roussel, born at Tourcoing on 5 April 1869, touched on almost all the stylisms of his era while forging a highly personal idiom. As an academically gifted student, he was sent by guardians (his father having died in 1870 and his mother in 1877) to Paris in 1884, pursuing musical studies at the Collège Stanislas. His early manhood was spent in the French Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant and visited the Near East and China; experiences that left a considerable mark on his music. Resigning from the Navy in 1894, he then settled in Paris to study music in earnest. It was a measure of his thoroughness that, having entered the Schola Cantorum to study with Vincent d’Indy in 1898, he was invited to take over the counterpoint class after little more than four years and went on to tutor a new generation of composers, including such distinct figures as Eric Satie, Edgard Varèse and Bohuslav Martinů.

Roussel destroyed almost all of his compositions from the 1890s, and made his public début as a composer in 1903. Thereafter, he built up a select catalogue (59 opuses) which falls into three main periods. From 1902–13, he absorbed the Impressionistic tendencies found in Debussy and Ravel, evident from his First Symphony [Naxos 8.570323] and choral work Evocations, before arriving at an idiom of refinement and subtlety in his ballet Le festin de l’araignée. The years around the First World War were occupied with an ambitious opera-ballet Padmâvatî, whose Hindu-derived scenario is testament to the composer’s imagination and its complex harmonic language to an exploration of new musical territory evident in works written during 1918–25, such as the Second Symphony [Naxos 8.570529], one-act opera La naissance de la lyre and Second Violin Sonata.

This period of soul-searching was succeeded around 1925 by an idiom which, while related to the prevailing neo-classicism, is wholly personal in its resourceful harmonies, intricate counterpoint and energetic rhythms. Notable works include the comic opera Le testament de la tante Caroline, ballets Bacchus et Ariane [Naxos 8.570245] and Aeneas, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, a setting of Psalm 80 and chamber works including a String Quartet and String Trio. Growing success outside France saw a triumphal visit to the United States in 1930, but failing health had already begun to take its toll. Following a heart attack, he died at Royan on 23 August 1937 and was buried overlooking the sea: a composer of music “willed and realised for its own sake”.

Written in 1912 to a two-part scenario by Gilbert de Voisins, Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Banquet) is designated a ‘ballet-pantomime’. It depicts insect life in a garden, their relationships tacitly though insistently likened to that of the human domain. The work was premiered at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris on 3 April 1913, enjoying successful revivals at the Opéra-Comique in 1922 and the Paris Opéra in 1939. A set of ‘symphonic fragments’, which comprises just over half of the music, was for many years the composer’s most performed orchestral work other than the Third Symphony, though the ballet has latterly enjoyed a number of revivals.

Part One: The Prelude [1] commences with sensuous music for flute and strings, which touches on more chromatic harmonies as it unfolds. A lilting motion soon presages greater activity, but the initial music continues much as before—harp and strings leading into [2] the Entrance of the Ants which at first sounds almost mechanical on woodwind and strings before becoming more trenchant as it heads directly into the Entrance of the Dung-Beetles. This in turn makes way for [3] the Dance of the Butterfly, replete with darting gestures and lightly syncopated rhythms that underpin some especially piquant activity in the woodwind. The butterfly having been captured, a sudden change of mood prepares for [4] The Spider rejoices Dance of the Spider, alternately quiet and restrained then loud and boisterous as the arachnid contemplates and then celebrates its catch. After the Entrance of the Fruit Worms [5], the Warlike Entrance of two praying Mantises sees those insects appear to a clamour of brass and percussion with strings soon launching a hectic motion [6]. The Round-dance of the Ants makes for a brief though spirited interlude, before the Mantises in turn come to grief [7].

Part Two: The preceding music continues more animatedly as it heads into the Hatching of the Mayfly [8] and the Dance of the Mayfly [9] in what becomes an enticing mixture of poise and robustness, until [10] the mayfly collapses, exhausted. The spider, meanwhile is preparing for its feast but has failed to spot the escape of one of the mantises, which strikes the spider a mortal blow. Hence a simmering down into silence, followed by lunging gestures from full orchestra (its only such deployment in the piece) as the arachnid makes its regretful departure. The poignant Death of the Mayfly ensues [11]. Halting gestures now inform the Funeral of the Mayfly [12], with material from earlier now being recalled in solemn terms as the procession heads into the distance, leaving the garden in the same idyllic state as at the beginning of the work.

Composed during 1914–18, to a libretto by Louis Laloy, the ‘opera-ballet’ Padmâvatî is based on Théodore-Marie Pavie’s novel La légende de Padmanî, itself derived from Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s medieval poem Padmâvat. Roussel was inspired by his visit to the ruined city of Chittor in Rajasthan, and incorporated many aspects of Indian music into what was to remain his most ambitious undertaking. The first performance, at the Paris Opéra on 1 June 1923 conducted by Philippe Gaubert, was a considerable success but the lavish nature of the stage requirements as well as the music’s technical demands, allied to the hybrid nature of the overall conception, meant subsequent revivals were rare. Roussel was no doubt conscious of this when he prepared the two suites, assembled from each of the work’s acts in 1924.

Suite One: The Prelude [13] begins quietly and remotely, woodwind heard in haunting dialogue with the strings as the music gradually gains in expressive intensity. At length an eruption of orchestral energy leads into the War Dance [14], whose impetus is heightened by incisive rhythmic interplay and a forceful response by brass and percussion. The music subsides to a pulsating motion over which upper woodwind and strings exchange animated gestures, dying down expectantly in a transition to the Dance of the Female Slaves [15] where woodwind, accompanied by harp, unfold a bewitching discourse that soon gains in energy before vanishing into silence.

Suite Two: The Prelude [16] unfolds some of the work’s most sensuously evocative orchestration, lower strings having a chorale-like theme over which upper strings and woodwind sound delicate arabesques—the music building to a powerful climax that at length subsides into the Danse et Pantomime [17], with its extensive use of oriental scales and timbres such as define the work overall. Strings maintain an expressively varied presence, tension mounting with surging gestures from horns and strings. Reaching a vast climax, the music dies down into the elegiac mystery with which the suite ends.

Richard Whitehouse

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