Resurrection: Symphonic Prelude after Tolstoy, Op. 4 (1903)

By Brian Hart, Indiana University

Written for the concert Faith: Meditation and Mysticism, performed on April 28, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

At the age of 25, Albert Roussel (1869-1937) left a promising career in the Navy to study music at Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum. Roussel became one of the most significant composers in France between the world wars, celebrated especially for his symphonies and ballets. His versatile style drew upon a number of diverse sources; in addition to the late Romantic language inherited from d’Indy (a pupil of César Franck), these included Debussyist impressionism, Hindu chant, and, eventually, Stravinskian neo-classicism.

Résurrection (1903), Roussel’s first orchestral work, dates from the composer’s student years. He provided no program for his so-called prélude symphonique, which takes its inspiration from the final novel of Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899) concerns a young nobleman’s desperate search for spiritual redemption; his journey eventually leads him to contemplate the Sermon on the Mount, and he dedicates himself to following its commandments. The subject made an appropriate choice for a member of the Schola Cantorum, an institution originally designed for the study of religious music; d’Indy, its director, stirred waves in the aggressively secular musical establishment with his blunt assertion, “Without Faith, there is no Art.”

By far the most remarkable portion of Résurrection is the somber introduction: its dark timbres and acrid harmonies (mostly built with semitones, tritones, and ninths) create a sound world that the composer would later recreate in his underrated Symphony No. 2 and tone poem Pour une fete de printemps (1919-21). The introduction gives way to a turbulent section that presumably represents the Prince’s longing for salvation. A more peaceful passage follows, marked by arpeggios and tremolos in the harps, flutes, and violins (a characteristic style used in Romantic music to suggest redemption and celestial images). A slow coda brings back the important themes and ties them together.

As one would expect of such an early work, Résurrection shows many affinities with the musical style Roussel learned from d’Indy. Scholiste traits in this work include frequent changes of key and tempo, contrapuntal passages, complex meters (one section is in 7/4, a d’Indy favorite), the use of religious melodies–one of the main themes is based on an Easter chant–and a rhetorical conclusion in which all of the primary material is recapitulated and reinterpreted. At the same time, Roussel combines these received procedures with elements of musical impressionism; in particular, the composer manipulates his material by varied repetition rather than systematic fragmentation and development. Résurrection calls for a large orchestra that favors the winds, most notably the oboe, English horn, and flute. Although the treatment of form betrays Roussel’s inexperience–the work tends to meaner, especially near the end–the orchestration and harmonic language show a confidence that would grow steadily with each of the composer’s subsequent works.