A History and Analysis of Albert Roussel's a Glorious Day, Op. 48

Article excerpt

In the early twentieth century, established composers rarely wrote serious concert music specifically for the wind band. Notwithstanding, French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937) composed A Glorious Day, op. 48 in 1932. To say it has had an uncelebrated history would be an understatement. Since its initial publication in 1933 by Durand et Cie in Paris, it has never been reprinted. It has been recorded commercially only twice.1 In Frank Battisti's book outlining the evolution of literature for the 20'h century wind band, it was not identified.2 Even Edwin Franko Goldman, who premiered the work and for whom the work was dedicated, programmed it only once more in over 20 years after its premiere.3 Despite its obscurity, it is an important work steeped in a unique French compositional style of its day. It is worthy of performance not only for historical interest, but for its artistic value. What follows is a brief history of the composer and his music, a formal analysis of the described work, and suggestions for making subsequent performances of the work musically successful and, optimistically, more frequent.

A Biographical Sketch

Albert Roussel's career in music was circuitous. Although he received some piano lessons as a youngster, his childhood was only peripherally musical. His piano teachers enabled him to pursue music enthusiastically. And this he did; but only as an amateur. He entered the Collège Stanislas in Paris studying rhetoric and in 1887, began a career with the French Navy. He graduated from a naval academy and prepared for a life at sea. While in the navy, he found himself playing piano for the officers and occasionally tried his hand at composition. He was promoted to the rank of naval officer and in command of a torpedo boat stationed near China and Thailand when his health grew poor. He resigned his commission in 1894 but he never lost his love for the sea.

Now a civilian, Roussel showed his compositions to Julien Koszul, director of the Roubaix Conservatoire in Toulon. Koszul recognised Roussel's talent and encouraged him to seek out Eugène Gigout, the famous Parisian organist. Roussel was too old to enter the Paris Conservatoire so he studied the music of the master composers with Gigout. In 1896 he entered the new Scola Cantorum, a school founded by Vincent d'lndy and created to oppose the staid practices of the French Conservatoire. By 1902, Roussel became professor of counterpoint at the Scola. He included Erik Satie and Edgar Varèse among his pupils. For the next 10 years, Roussel composed nothing that even his biographers would call "epochal." However, his compositional voice was developing a unique personality.

Minor successes followed including a ballet but his three Evocations for piano lifted Roussel to a high position in French music circles. When the war broke out, Roussel's health limited his contribution to that of being a Red Cross ambulance driver. Nevertheless, time for composing was limited. Once again, his health broke down and in 1918 he was forced out of military service, returning once again to composition. His opera-ballet, Padmâvatî, created a sensation at its 1923 premiere, and his work was finally receiving praise and comparisons to such composers as Paul Dukas, Darius Milhaud, and Arthur Honegger.

From 1923 to his death in 1937, Roussel composed indefatigably. Interest in his music reached far beyond France. Conductors Serge Koussevitsky and Charles Munch championed his music in the United States and Roussel traveled to America in 1930 to witness the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras perform several of his works. By 1937 he was recognized as the "doyen of French composers" with tribute concerts by the Paris Festival of the Contemporary Music Society.4 Throughout this period, however, he was still in fragile health. Bouts with pneumonia and jaundice weakened him and finally a heart attack caused his death. Honoring his request, he was buried in the cemetery of Varengeville, France, overlooking the sea. …