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Bacchus et Ariane, Op. 43

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Albert Roussel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor/Ryu Goto, violin Nov. 10 - 12, 2005
© Richard Freed
Because Roussel was born midway between the births of Debussy (1862) and Ravel (1875) and died only four months before Ravel, one might assume that the reason his music is so much less familiar to us than theirs is simply that it pales in the shadow of his two great contemporaries, but there is more to it than that. Unlike Debussy and Ravel, who became known in their twenties, Roussel was a late bloomer. Although he did compose a bit in his youth, he did not develop his own style until about the time of Debussy's death (1918), by which time he himself was nearly 50, and most of his important works were composed in the last dozen years of his life. His Third Symphony, composed just before Bacchus et Ariane and introduced in 1930, was one of the numerous works Serge Koussevitzky commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but otherwise his music was not very well known beyond the borders of his own country. He still had ahead of him the Sinfonietta, the Fourth Symphony, the ballet Aeneas, the String Quartet, the String Trio, the Concertino for Cello, three operas and several other significant works, but he died just as his music was beginning to command attention abroad, and two years later the onset of the Second World War but the international circulation of his works "on hold." Since then his music has been heard in our country only infrequently, despite the invariably positive response of both the performers and their audiences, who tend to wonder why the suite that concludes the present concerts is not as widely circulated as the corresponding one from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé.

It is interesting beyond mere coincidence that these masterworks of both Ravel and Roussel are ballets based on legends from Greek antiquity, for underlying each of these composers' individual and forward-looking style was a strict and extremely self-critical discipline based on classical principles. While Ravel has been described as a spiritual heir of Couperin, Roussel is seen, in the words of Wilfrid Mellers, "as a successor, in command of physical movement and even in aesthetic ideal, to Rameau." In Bacchus the listener is made aware of the many characteristics Roussel's music does share with Ravel's--the brilliance, the elegance, the strain of refined exoticism--but we notice also that Roussel's style is somewhat leaner, that here, as in several of his late works, the writing veers toward neo-classicism, and that a page of lush harmonic color and sinuous melodic line is likely to be offset by a sequence of spiky rhythms and dryish textures.

Abel Hermant's scenario for the ballet differs significantly from the traditional legend in which Theseus, after killing the Minotaur and making his way out of the labyrinth, abandons Ariadne on Naxos in order to pursue her sister Phaedra. In the Hermant version, Theseus does not simply abandon Ariadne, but is chased away by Bacchus, who then casts an enchantment causing the sleeping Ariadne to dream of him instead of Theseus; when Ariadne awakes and seeks to destroy herself because Theseus is gone, the god saves her and bestows upon her the kiss of immortality. The music of the ballet's second act, in its concert form as Suite No. 2, is in eight interconnected sections, describing the following action:

I. Introduction (Andante). The slumber of Ariadne and her gradual awakening
II. Pantomime . Ariadne awakens (Moderato), looks about for Theseus (Lento) and, feeling herself abandoned, makes her way to the top of a cliff to hurl herself into the sea (Molto agitato), but Bacchus appears from behind a boulder and she falls into his arms (Meno allegro).
III. Bacchus and Ariadne dance as they had done in her dream (Poco più allegro).
IV. Bacchus Dances Alone (Allegro). A brilliant scherzo.
V. The Kiss and The Dionysiac Enchantment (Andante). A group of bacchantes marches past (Allegro deciso); the slow tempo resumes, and a faun and a Maenad present Ariadne with a golden cup into which they have pressed sweet grapes.
VI. Dance of Ariadne (Andante)
VII. Dance of Bacchus and Ariadne (Moderato e pesante). Others gradually join in as the dance ends.
VIII. Bachannal (Allegro brilliant--Presto). A counterpart to the Danse générale that concludes Daphnis et Chloé , but with a different sort of ending: an Apotheosis (Allegro molto) in which Bacchus, having given Ariadne the kiss of immortality, reaches into the heavens for a handful of stars and sets them on her head as a crown.