Norbert Rosseau was born on 11 December 1907 in Ghent, the son of two circus artists, Max Rosseau and the Italian Stella Lussie. From them (his mother studied piano at the Royal Conservatory in Ghent and his father was a violinist and musical clown) Norbert received his first music lessons. At the outbreak of the First World War, the family fled to Italy, where Rosseau took lessons from Piramo, a leading Roma violinist. A wunderkind (“il piccolo celebre violinista”), he travelled throughout Italy, giving recitals until after the war. He also received his formal musical training in Italy, studying composition with Giuseppe Mulè, organ with Fernando Germani and piano with Silvestri. After graduating from the conservatory in Rome, he completed his studies in composition with Ottorino Respighi. Around 1934, Rosseau studied psychology and philosophy in Ghent. His career as a violin virtuoso came to a sudden end with an injury to his right hand, incurred during his military service. After the Second World War, Rosseau was introduced to concrete and electronic music, and took several courses in Darmstadt and at the IPEM (Institute for Psycho-acoustics and Electronic Music) in Ghent. Together with Louis De Meester, he was the first composer in Flanders to compose twelve-tone and electronic music (after the Second World War!). A number of Rosseau’s compositions won prizes, and his works have been frequently performed for the radio and in concert halls. In contrast to most composers, he never held a position at an institution such as a conservatory, orchestra or radio broadcaster.
Rosseau himself stated that there are no discernible periods in his work. He was sometimes simultaneously writing several works in completely different styles. His first significant compositions, the Suite agreste (1937) and H_O (1939), followed out of his studies in Italy and include both impressionistic and expressionistic stylistic elements. After 1940, he took more interest in the oratorio, producing such works as Inferno (written during the war on texts by Dante) and L’An Mille (mid-1940s). At that moment there was no experimentation in Rosseau’s music. In 1952, he composed the oratorio Maria van den Kerselaar for the 500th anniversary of the pilgrimage to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Kerselare, near Oudenaarde. His contacts with the Schola Cantorum of St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent led him to write a number of large-scale choral works over the next twenty years, including the Evangelie volgens Johannes (Gospel According to John, 1965), Het lied van de vriend en zijn wijngaard (The song of the friend and his vineyard, 1967), Stenen en brood (Stones and bread, 1972) and the Passieverhaal volgens Mattheus (Passion story according to Matthew, 1970-1973). This last work is traditionally performed on Good Friday in St Bavo’s Cathedral.
Despite his claims to the contrary, it is possible to cite a change of direction in the composer’s oeuvre, in 1947. In op. 38 he abandoned the general rules of composition, something he experienced as a veritable “liberation”. Rosseau’s analysis of op. 38 led to a study of serialism, the fruits of which he would subsequently apply to many of his compositions, such as the Sonatine op. 41 for viola and piano (1949), the Postludio op. 81 for organ (1962) and the Piano Quartet opus posthumus (1975). In his approach to the twelve-tone technique, he set out to maintain thematic development and consonant harmony. He created a twelve-tone series from which four consonant chords could be formed: two minor and two major chords. With this material he constructed a harmonic system that formed the basis of a number of compositions such as his First Symphony (1953), a Mass for eight voices and double bass (1953), the Variations for orchestra (1962), 24 vocalises dodécaphoniques (1955), Trois jouets (1955) and the oratorio Maria van den Kerselaar (1951).
Up until 1960, Rosseau mostly wrote in the serial style. After this he gradually moved to electronic and concrete music. He had in fact begun to experiment in this area before the war. Together with a technician friend he designed machines that could help him create electronic works. Through a lack of money and the necessary technical material, these experiments were delayed. In 1957 he visited the Centre des recherches radiophoniques in Paris to acquaint himself with the latest developments in the area of electronic and concrete music. The establishment of the IPEM in 1962, the result of a collaboration between the Ghent university and the BRT (Belgian Radio and Television), was a significant development for all those interested in electronic music. Lectures and concerts were held there, and functional music was produced for television and film. Rosseau took part, writing electronic music as accompaniment for the poems of Bertien Buyl (De Twee, Weerty and Klokhuisruimte, 1964) and Adriaan Magerman (Ode aan Gent – Impromptu, 1969). In 1967 Rosseau composed the Elektronische Mis for the feast of the Assumption, a completely electro-acoustic work. The material for this mass (which includes Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, etc.) consists of distorted tape recordings of choirboys’ voices, sounds of crystal glass and water drops splashing. Norbert Rosseau was also a member of Spectra, a movement that came out of the IPEM, in which Louis De Meester played a prominent role. Here the emphasis was particularly on experimental music and the collaboration between culture and science, the dialogue between composers and engineers.
Around 1963, Rosseau wrote several monophonic works, single-line compositions for large orchestra without any chords or polyphony. The tension is here to be found in the melody. Rosseau based the work on music history: pure monody or monophony, as in Gregorian Chant, folksongs and some trouvère songs, was the point of departure. In the Sinfonia liturgica (his second symphony) of 1961, the only “harmony” is an octave. The melody, sung by four soloists and four-voice mixed choir, however, has an extremely large range (up to four octaves) and is coloured by the orchestra in many different ways. The work was originally written without bar lines (as in Gregorian Chant), which were added only later in order to facilitate the performance but have no rhythmic significance. This same technique is also applied in his Evangelie volgens Johannes (1965), a passion story for soloists and a capella four-voice choir.
List of works
Orchestral works: Two symphonies (1953 and 1961); Suite agreste op. 20 (1935); H_O op. 22 (1938); Symphonic Variations; Concerto à cinq for winds and orchestra; Concertino for piano and strings; Concertsonate for chamber orchestra op. 64 (1957)
Organ: Salve Regina op. 79 (1961); Preludio, Interludio en Postludio op. 81 (1962)
Oratorium: Inferno op. 23-25 (1940-44); L’An Mille op. 32 (1946); Sinfonia Liturgica op. 73 (1961); Zeepbellen for children’s chorus and chamber orchestra op. 69 (1959); Maria van de Kerselaar op. 44 (1951)
Opera: Sicilienne op. 39 (1948)
Chorus: Ave Maria op. 43 (1950); Dédicace op. 51 (1954); Stabat Mater op. 67 (1957); Blues and Fuga op. 102 (1968)
Electronical works: De Twee for mezzo soprano and tape op. 89/1 (1964); Electronische Mis (stereo tape) op. 100 (1967); Ode aan Gent – Impromptu (stereo tape) op. 106 (1969)
– M. DELAERE, Pioniers van de Nieuwe Muziek (1920-1950), in Nieuwe Muziek in Vlaanderen, uitg. dr. M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, Brugge, 1998, p.5-33
– F. DELEU, Norbert Rosseau (1907-1975), Oudenaarde – Gent, 1984
– C. MERTENS, Hedendaagse Muziek in België, Brussel, 1967
– Sonatine for viola and piano op. 41, MUSIC FOR VIOLA AND PIANO (altviool: Diederik Suys, piano: Filip Martens), In Flanders’ Field vol. 4, Phaedra 92004
– THE FLEMISH CONNECTION – ORCHESTRAL MUSIC (Vlaams Radio Orkest o.l.v. Jan Latham-Koenig), MMP 024
Texts by Kristien Heirman
Last update: 2018