Roussel was an important figure in French music in the early 20th century, seeking to bridge classical style and impressionism. This resulted in a distinctive and attractive voice, featuring as one commentator put it his exquisite sense of the voluptuous… at times wistful (Georges Jean-Aubry). Born in Turcoing, he was a late starter as he began his career in the French navy, resigning his commission in 1894 when he realised that much though he loved the sea, music was his true calling. He studied at the prestigious Schola Cantorum in Paris under Vincent d’Indy, where he later became professor of counterpoint. His travels inspired works with oriental themes at first but he later completed four fine symphonies and a range of orchestral and chamber music.
The Sérénade is a short work of about fifteen minutes duration and is scored for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello. It was first performed at the 1925 Paris Festival of the Société Musicale Indépendente, a group Roussel supported from its foundation. The same programme was repeated in London a few weeks later. It is a light-hearted work in the same spirit as his earlier and popular Divertissement of 1906. Given the instrumentation Roussel maintains an air of lightness and delicacy. He uses sonata form in the first movement, presenting two themes, first a breezy idea on flute with a following staccato motif with harp glissandi and high flute interjections; then a second, slower melody emerges on flute. A sparkling if brief development ensues and the movement ends with a flourish. The longer slow movement reveals Roussel’s mastery of impressionistic colours. The flute presents a high, ethereal theme given a sinuous elaboration over soft strings. The harp does not appear at first so its entry at the end of the section is all the more effective. The central section of the movement is richly lyrical with the cello providing the warm theme. The other instruments join this idyllic sequence to create a real lazy summer’s day mood. The opening theme returns with the flute in a lower register to complete the ternary form (A – B – A). The finale is also ternary with the flute first dancing over imaginative strings effects including flickering tremolandi. The middle sequence is slower and darker, creating a nocturnal atmosphere, but the jollity of the opening soon returns to provide an invigorating conclusion with some remarkable high string glissandi adding to the fascinating texture. The harp provides a short comment before an emphatic chord ends this attractive work.
© Ian Fox