ALBERT ROUSSEL: Symphonic Fragments from Le festin de l’araignee (The Spider’s Feast), op. 17

Albert Charles Paul Marie Roussel was born at Tourcoing, Nord département, France, on April 5, 1869, and died at Royan on August 23, 1937. The ballet Le festin de l’Araignée (The Spider’s Feast) was produced at the Théâtre des Arts, Paris, on April 3, 1913, with a scenario by Gilbert de Voisins; Gabriel Grovlez conducted. The orchestra consists of two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, celesta, harp, and strings.

Albert Roussel’s parents refused to consider his becoming a professional musician. Roussel began naval training at the age of eighteen, and for several years the only opportunity he had to express himself musically was by playing the piano at officers’ dances. But before long he began to study harmony from a book and to attempt some small compositions of his own. At twenty-five he resigned from the navy, moved to Paris, and began his formal studies. He achieved his first success when he submitted two unaccompanied madrigals, under different pseudonyms, to a competition organized by the Society of Composers in 1897, and the judges picked them both for a joint first prize.

The following year, Roussel cast his lot with the newly founded Schola Cantorum, an institution established by Vincent d’Indy, Charles Bordes, and Alexandre Guilmant in opposition to the hide-bound traditions of the Conservatoire. Its rigorous program took him ten years to complete, but already in 1902 he was named professor of counterpoint; his classes included such diverse students as the free-spirited Erik Satie, the Czech Bohuslav Martinů, and the revolutionary Edgard Varèse.

At the beginning his music reflected the outlook of the Schola, dominated by d’Indy, who was an unreconstructed Wagnerian. But Roussel quickly became interested in the music of the Impressionists, and much of his best early work—including his First Symphony, entitled Poème de la forêt, and the delightful ballet Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Feast)—reflects that outlook.

At first Roussel was not enthusiastic about writing a ballet a spider, a butterfly, some maggots, a day-fly, and a troupe of ants. It seems that his wife persuaded him to give it a try, and in doing so, she helped him prove to himself that he had a natural gift for the ballet, especially in his rhythmic invention. The “symphonic fragments” provide just over half the score. Roussel omits the most “violent” parts of the score—the spider’s dance and the battle of the mantises. What remains is most characteristic of the young composer, still essentially Impressionistic in his style.

The scene is a garden (magical, in some way, as we might judge from the marvelous flute solo and the ensuing delicate waltz) in which a spider waits for his prey. Some ants enter at a lively pace, then try dragging a rose petal, which is a heavy object in comparison to their weight, and they struggle mightily with it. Two beetles cross the garden. A butterfly flits past, and at the climax of its waltz gets caught up in the spider’s web; a violin solo of a few brief notes is marked “plaintively.” As the spider is about to begin a dance of triumph, an apple falls to the ground, sending the spider back to his web. Two maggots crawl up to the apple and burrow into it, where they gorge themselves. Two praying mantises, having missed the maggots, begin to fight one another—and get caught in the web. A day-fly hatches from its egg (in a particularly picturesque passage of string tremolos and lonely woodwind solos) and dances its brief life away (another waltz, lively but with an undercurrent of impending mortality and increasing desperation); suddenly it collapsed in death. The spider is about to begin banqueting on all the corpses, but the beetles free one of the mantises, which kills the spider. All the remaining animals perform a mini-funeral service for the day-fly, with solemn music. As night falls, the hushed music of the opening returns. —© Steven Ledbetter