Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane

Albert Roussel (1869-1937)

Bacchus et Ariane, Op.43

Act 1: Prelude - Games of the young men and women - Dance of the Labyrinth - Bacchus appears - Dance of Bacchus

Act 2: Prelude (Ariadne sleeps) - Ariadne awakes - The kiss - Bacchus’s spell - Parade of the Worshippers of Bacchus- Dance of Ariadne - Dance of Ariadne and Bacchus - Bacchanale - Coronation of Ariadne.

Roussel was born in to trade, and suffered a series of early bereavements: both his parents were dead by the time he was eight, and he was moved between various relatives as a boy, from grandparents who also died, eventually to his maternal aunt. He showed some early signs of musical talent and had lessons from the parish organist, but his real strength was in mathematics. He left home at 15 to study in Paris, and at 17 enrolled in the French Naval College. He spent seven years as a midshipman, and only decided to pursue a career in music at 25. His earliest attempt at composition is a fantasy for violin and piano, written in 1892 while he was serving on the naval ship Melpomène. Following a period of leave in 1894 during which he studied with Julien Koszu, who urged him to settle in Paris, he resigned his commission and moved to the capital. He studied with Vincent D’Indy, who soon entrusted his pupil to take his counterpoint classes for him. Roussel thus became the teacher of Varèse and Satie among others.

His relatively late decision to become a musician perhaps accounts for the fact that his earliest music seems torn between influences: his music owes something both to the French symphonic tradition exemplified by his teacher D’Indy, while also drawing on the innovations of his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel. Asian and Far Eastern music also left a profound impression on him when he encountered it on his voyages with the navy.

One of his earliest major successes as a composer was his first ballet, Le festin de l'araignée, premiered in 1913. By the time he came to write his second, Bacchus et Ariane, Roussel was in his early 60s and at the height of his career, having recently travelled to the U.S.A. to hear Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony première his Third Symphony. His music by now had evolved from the Debussy influenced impressionism of his youth to a more neo-classical style. His orchestral writing retains its sumptuousness, as Bacchus et Ariane amply demonstrates, but this is paired with a new clarity of line and a rhythmic vigour that acknowledges the influence of Stravinsky’s ballets.

The plot of Bacchus et Ariane is fairly minimal. Prior to the events depicted in the ballet, Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, has fled her home of Crete with Theseus, whom she has helped in his quest to kill the Minotaur that lived in the labyrinth built by her father. The ballet opens with a scene of young men and maidens dancing and celebrating Theseus’s defeat of the Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth to the island of Naxos. Theseus and his comrades reenact his adventures on Crete. The god Bacchus appears, disguised, and envelops Ariadne in his black cloak, causing her to faint. Theseus and his men rush at Bacchus, but fall back when he reveals his identity. He commands them to leave the island and claims Ariadne for his wife. He enters her dreams and dances with her, then lays her down on the rock where she sleeps.

Act 2 begins with a prelude depicting the sleeping Ariadne. She awakens, and sees Theseus’s ship sailing away. Believing herself to be alone and abandoned, she attempts to throw herself into the sea, but falls instead into the arms of Bacchus. Bacchus and Ariadne reprise their dream-dance, now awake, in music of ever intensifying eroticism. At the climax of their dance, Bacchus kisses Ariadne and transforms her into an immortal. Bacchus’s followers appear for a final wild dance, before Bacchus leads Ariadne to the highest rock, and crowns her with stars.

Ibert: La ballade de la geôle de Reading

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962)

La ballade de la geôle de Reading

Oscar Wilde’s poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' was written in exile after his release from prison in 1897 and was the last major work he completed. He had been sentenced in 1895 to two years’ hard labour after being found guilty of gross indecency (the legal term at the time for homosexual acts). By the time he was released his health had deteriorated severely and he would die three years later. In prison he had been addressed not by his name but by his cell number: Prisoner C.3.3 (Block C, Landing 3, Cell 3), and the Ballad was initially published under the pseudonym “C.3.3”. The first edition of 800 copies sold out within a week. The third edition, a limited signed run of 99, first revealed the identity of the author, but it was not until the seventh edition in 1899 replaced the number with Wilde’s name that the identity of its author became widely known.

The inspiration and dedicatee of the poem was Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a soldier in the Royal Horse Guards who had been convicted of murdering his wife. He was also imprisoned at Reading and hanged there in 1896 while Wide was resident. Wilde’s poem makes no judgement of the inmates or the laws that brought them to prison , but reflects on how the brutality of prison dehumanises its inmates. Wooldridge's experience is widened to stand for all prisoners, including Wilde himself: he famously observes that “each man kills the thing he loves” (itself an allusion to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice).

Ibert’s orchestral work inspired by Wilde’s poem was written between 1920 and 1922. He had studied at the Paris Conservatoire until the First World War intervened. Ibert worked as a nurse and stretcher bearer at the front and later as a naval officer at Dunkirk. Despite this interruption to his studies he still managed to win the coveted Prix de Rome at his first attempt in 1919. La ballade de la geôle de Reading is thus the work of a young man, still absorbing the influences of Debussy and Dukas, but filled with confidence, and undoubtedly drawn to the subject matter buy his own experience of the brutality of war. Its première in October 1922 was the first public concert to feature his work and established him as a major composer. In 1937 it was choreographed and presented as a ballet at the Opéra Comiquei. Ibert’s music has taken rather longer to cross the channel: tonight’s performance is the first time that La ballade de la geôle de Reading has been performed in the U.K.

The work is divided into three sections which run without a break. Each of them is headed by translated quotations from Wilde’s poem. The brooding opening movement sets the scene, portraying the oppressive prison and its inmates. Strange limpid interludes suggest the “little tent of blue / Which prisoners call the sky.” The second part evokes the terrors of night, when distant, disembodied sounds seem to suggest ghosts and spirits haunting the prison: “in ghostly rout they trod a saraband... And loud they sang, For they sang to wake the dead.” The final section returns to the mood of the opening, and builds to a passionate outburst before sinking back into Stygian mist. It is headed by lines relating to the execution of Woodridge, and his burial: “The warders stripped him of his clothes, And gave him to the flies... And there, till Christ call forth the dead, In silence let him lie.”