Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1929-1930
Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 19, 1950, Alfred Wallenstein conducting

Albert Roussel’s Third Symphony stands out as one of the most successful of Serge Koussevitzky’s 99 premieres with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Joining Roussel as part of the 1930 celebration of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary were Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony, Copland’s Symphonic Ode, and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4.) Part of the attraction of this work is its timbral charm: the standard orchestra is decorated with enhanced percussion, including tam-tam, celesta, and two harps. Another is its compressed drama: within the duration of an 18th-century Mozart symphony lies the emotional intensity of his 19th-century Romantic successors.

From the beginning, the listener understands this is no minor trifle – certainly no evidence for Mersenne’s claim about the absence of the “passion” in French music. Here, in fact, Mersenne’s metaphorical “accents of passion” become literal, as Roussel introduces a syncopated tune with a brittle quality reminiscent of Stravinsky or Prokofiev (the latter a friend of Roussel’s who greatly admired this work). Floating passages featuring solo woodwinds alternate with the first idea; the exaggerated contrast between these two extremes reinforces the size of the dramatic frame – so that when we reach the climax it feels proportionate even within its condensed time frame.

The slightly more expansive second movement reminds us that Roussel’s contemporaries were exploring the cinematic techniques of structure, character, and setting: it begins with atmospheric solo woodwinds, builds to a sweeping melody at home in a screen drama, follows a violin solo to a more animated section, and finally broadens out to a huge climax. The scherzo plays on a conventional idea of a dance; its use of the tambourine moves us south and reminds us of the ongoing French fascination with all things Spanish. The finale is an essay in orchestral color. Roussel calls on the hard-working woodwinds to get the game going, first rounding up strings, then brass into a cheerful romp. The movement is marked “con spirito” – an apt description of a movement that begins with the nimbleness of youth and keeps the spring in its step even as it acquires the weight and substance of the prime of life. As Francis Poulenc put it: “It is really marvelous to combine so much springtime and maturity.”

— Susan Key is a musicologist specializing in 20th-century American music.