Ned Rorem wrote in 1962, "Some well-known composers, when they die, become less well-known, enter a sort of limbo, and occasionally never reemerge. . . . One thinks of Roussel, Vaughan Williams, and Hindemith." But Vaughan Williams has reemerged, on discs anyway, thanks to British musicians and critics. And Hindemith, if he hasn't reclaimed his former ubiquity in the concert hall, is amply documented on CDs. Roussel, easily their peer, remains odd-man-out despite occasional recordings (withdrawn almost as soon as catalogues list them). Only his dithyrambic second suite from the ballet Bacchus et Ariane, and the muscular, masculine Third Symphony that preceded it in 1930 have gained a toehold in the international repertoire.
Born midway between Debussy and his good friend Ravel, Roussel was orphaned at eight, raised by a grandfather and then by an aunt, who was the first to recognize his remarkable rhythmic acuity. Yet he became, like Rimsky-Korsakov, a naval-preparatory student in 1884, and was assigned to a training ship in 1887 that several times visited French Indo-China (now Vietnam). He composed on these and subsequent voyages, prompting a fellow officer to recommend him to the conductor Édouard Colonne. Their congenial meeting prompted Roussel, at the age of twenty-five, to resign from the navy.
Too old for the Paris Conservatoire, he enrolled in L'École Niedermeyer (Fauré's alma mater). When Vincent d'Indy founded the Schola Cantorum in 1896 (to perpetuate César Franck's dogma), Roussel was appointed professor of counterpoint. Before he resigned in 1910 -- stifled by the Césarians' mauve spin on Wagner -- his pupils had included Roland-Manuel, the young Bohuslav Martinu, and Erik Satie (who was three years his senior!).
Marriage in 1908 and then a tour of Europe and India cleansed Roussel's musical palate. By 1912, he'd made a stylistic breakthrough in Évocations, followed by the ballets Le festin de l'araignée and Padmâvitî. He drove an ambulance in World War I before the army made him a gunnery officer, despite his age. When his health failed in January 1918 (as Ravel's had earlier), a year of recuperation allowed him to compose freely.
In 1926, he converted to the neo-Classicism of Ravel and Stravinsky without forfeiting his individuality. (Is it not odd that neo-Classicists disavowed the nineteenth century by retreating into the eighteenth?) He followed a crossover Suite in F with the Concerto for Small Orchestra in 1927 (double winds and horns, trumpet, timpani, strings); Walther Straram introduced it in Paris with his orchestra. While the concerto grosso served as his model, Roussel's diction was assertively twentieth century.
Norman Demuth, in a sometimes useful study of his works, complains that it "smacks largely of the brain rather than the heart . . . a musician's work rather than one for the ordinary concertgoer who seeks warmth and color rather than pure abstraction." De gustibus non est disputandum. The brief outer movements -- Allegro and Presto, respectively -- are contrapuntal antidotes to the sugar-level found in so many of today's concert-hall programs. In between, the murmurous, muted Andante is a secret garden of ivies, tendrils, and fragrant wildflowers, withal a masculine environment -- that rarity in mainstream French music after Cherubini and Berlioz.