Roussel – Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No. 2, op 43

by Max Derrickson

Albert Roussel
(Born in Tourcoing, near Lille, France, on April 5, 1869; died in Royan, France, August 23, 1937)

Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No. 2, op 43
1. Introduction
2. The Awakening of Ariane
3. Bacchus Dances Alone
4. The Kiss and the Dionysian Spell
5. The Procession of the Thiase [of Bacchus and his devotees]
6. Ariane’s Dance
7. Dance of Ariane and Bacchus
8. Bacchanale; Apotheosis of Ariane

It would seem that Fate had destined Albert Roussel to be the perpetual odd man out.  He was orphaned twice, first from his loving parents who died within seven years of each other, and then once again by his adoptive grandfather who died a mere four years later.  In his subsequent naval career he never quite fit in amongst the sailors as the erudite mathematician (math being his first love) and novice composer.  And upon resigning his naval post to formally study composition, he was the oldest music student in his class at the Schola Cantorum in 1898 – a conservatory that itself had been founded to set itself apart from the stuffiness of the Paris Conservatoire.  Having completed its mandatory 10 year curriculum, Roussel emerged at age 39 in 1908 as a composer in the shadows of some of France’s most famous musical creators – Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel.  Not surprisingly, having taken this unconventional route, Roussel’s style then grew into something uniquely his own, unclassifiable.

His music seemed to live for a while at the margins,
[. . .]
It’s perhaps no wonder that the relatively small body of his works needed some time to become recognized once again as the masterpieces that they are.

The ballet score of Bacchus et Ariane is indeed one of those masterpieces.  Written in 1930 while he was working on his Symphony No. 3, Roussel was in his peak form.  The original ballet in two Acts was received somewhat tepidly, however, and so Roussel turned the music into two suites – Suite No. 1 being the first Act of the ballet, and Suite No. 2 the second.  The Suites soon became popular in their own right, and the Second Suite in particular reveals the unique genius that set Roussel apart from his contemporaries.  Roussel is often referred to in this later period as a Neo-Classicist, which in music equated to more emphasis on structure and precision of expression, in reaction to the excesses of late-Romanticism from such composers as Strauss and Mahler.  Bacchus, however, rather defies the Neo-Classicist label, although, of course, Roussel’s choice of subject is explicitly Classic – the story of Ariadne (“Ariane” in French) on Naxos and her marriage to the God of Wine, Bacchus.

The story is classically complex and melodramatic – perfect for a ballet.  As Bacchus and his devotees are debauching on the Greek Island of Naxos, Ariadne is deposited on its shores by the future founder-king of Athens, Theseus.  Bacchus comes upon the sleeping Ariadne and he is instantly smitten, even without Cupid’s help.  When she awakes, she’s frightened and, not seeing Theseus, she feels abandoned; she agitatedly makes her way to a precipice only to see Theseus sailing away
[. . .]

It’s marvelous material for a ballet, and Roussel rose to the occasion.  Not only is Bacchus infused with perfectly danceable rhythms, but it’s filled with wonderfully descriptive music.  For example, in the opening scene depicting the sleeping Ariadne, Roussel begins with a floating musical current on ambiguous beats creating the otherworldly realm of sleep.  And he had a knack for choosing the perfect instrument for the moment,
[. . .]

The music follows the story with great detail, such as when Ariadne awakes with the jitters, the clarinet plays quick rhythms, like eyes darting, followed by plucked strings, like eyes blinking.  Throughout the Suite enchanting moments such as this surface constantly.  One particularly clever moment occurs when
[. . .]

Passages like these highlight Roussel’s unique talent for creating driving rhythmic drama, yet keeping the drama contained – emotions are intensified but not completely given into.  This technique of holding tight on the reins, in fact,
[. . .]
The entire ballet’s inventiveness and unique genius are more reasons why Roussel’s music is rightly finding growing and appreciative audiences, as the once odd man out comes into his own.