Norbert Rosseau was born in an artistic family: his mother Stella Lussie earned first prize for piano at the Conservatory of Ghent, and his father Maximiliaan was electrician, violinist, circus artist and musical clown. Both of them worked as variety artists for a vaudevile company which mainly roamed through Italy. Already at a tender age Norbert was taught violin by his father. The first world war kept the Rosseau family in Italy for a long time. Norbert took violin classes with Armando di Piramo (first violinist of the orchestra of Monte Carlo, later leader of a well-known gipsy orchestra and jazz pioneer), performing already at the age of eight as refugee-prodigy, "il piccolo celebre violonista direttore d'orchestra e compositore Norberto Rosseau". For his general education he depended on home schooling and self-teaching. At age twelve he started to study composition, privately tutored by Giuseppe Mulè, at that moment director of the Conservatory in Palermo.
From 1925 on Rosseau followed his teacher to Rome, where Mulè had become director of the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia. Rosseau started studies of Italian literature and history of early music, followed by private instruction with Renzo Silvestri for piano, with Fernando Germani for organ and with Cesare Dobici for fugue. At the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia Rosseau earned his degree in composition in 1929. The same year he did advanced studies with Ottorino Respighi as well as an apprenticesehip of conductor with the philharmonic orchestra of Rome, while concurrently often performing as a soloist.
In 1932 he was drafted for his military service in Belgium, his parents returning with him and calling it quits with their nomadic life in Italy. From October to April Norbert Rosseau used to live at his parents' home in Ghent, while spending the summer months in Kerselare (near Oudenaarde) where he continued the family business as a sugar baker to subsist. Around 1934 Rosseau studied psychology and philosophy in Ghent. His career as a concert violinist ended in 1940 when he served as a soldier in the Belgian army, his right hand being injured by a bullet. From then on he dedicated himself to composition.
Already before the Second World War he explored as one of the first in Flanders electronic composition and dodecaphony. In 1957 he visited the 'Centre de Recherches Radiophoniques' in Paris, in 1962 he participated in the 'Internationale Ferienkurse für neue Musik' in Darmstadt. When in 1963 the Institute for Psycho-acoustics and Electronic Music was founded in Ghent, he enrolled in the class of Lucien Goethals. From 1967 to 1969 he taught a course of early music and the playing of period instruments at the Conservatory of Ghent.
The opus list of Norbert Rousseau counts 121 works. His oeuvre shows a broad interest in style periods, composition styles, poetry and literature. He composed orchestral works (Rousslane, 1936; H2O, 1938; Concerto opus 37, 1947; Symphonie, 1953; Bericht aan een arkeneel, 1974), works for soloists, choir and orchestra (L'Inferno, 1940-1944 and Il Paradiso terrestre, 1967-1968, both on texts by Dante; L'An mille, 1946; Incantation, 1950), chamber music (Prelude et fugue for organ and strings, 1947; Pianokwartet, posthumous work); oratorios (Maria van den kerselaar, 1951; Stenen en brood, 1972); song cycles (among others on texts by Maurice Carême); Masses (Messe solennelle à 8, 1953; La Messe des morts à Is, 1959); passions (Johannespassie, 1965; Mattheuspassie, 1969-1975); ballets; the opera Sicilienne, and works with or for eletronics, as well was several works for small strength.
As a composer Norbert Rosseau was eclectic, respecting the great traditions but concurrently showing a lively curiosity about twentieth-century innovations. His earliest important works are late romantic and combine impressionist and expressionist style elements in a tonal musical language. As Rosseau himself put it: "The great turning point came in 1947. I had been commissioned by the radio to write a concerto. However, the work went far too smoothly and easily to give me genuine satisfaction. Therefore I made a new work Opus 38, which signified a fundamental rebellion against everything I had learnt before. I wrote it very spontaneously, without observing the rules from before. After I had added the finishing touch, I felt a sense of liberation". Two weeks later Opus 38 (Pièces Symphoniques) was already broadcast, the commissioned piece only six months later. Surprised himself, he analysed his own Opus 38, ending up with a twelve-tone system that he combined with a consonant harmony, hence his term "harmonious dodecaphony". He was as strongly fascinated by the early church modi, plainchant and Greek monody, as by experiments with electronics and concrete music, witness his Elektronische Mis (1967), using as basic materials tape recordings of boys' voices, a crystal goblet and drops of water tapping away.
Kamiel Cooremans has defined Rosseau's identity as a composer as follows: "the essence of his art (...) rather lies in his critical and personal handling of old and new means. In terms of traditional techniques he never was an epigone, in terms of progressive technique he refrained from being newfashioned. No servile imitations, no experiments without purpose, no mistakes either. Despite his deep concern about (genuine) form he never indulged in formalism."
Norbert Rosseau received important awards for his work, starting in 1939 with his prize-winning H2O at the Internatonal Composition Contest of the Water Exhibition in Liège. In 1957 he was awarded the prize of the province of East Flanders for his Stabat Mater, followed in 1962 by the Belgian State Prize of Music Criticism for his Blazerskwintet, and in the same year also a State stipend for the whole of his oeuvre, as well as in 1964 the Koopal Prize (a stipend from the Belgian State). Rosseau's works are preserved at the CeBeDeM in Brussels.
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Annelies Focquaert (translation: Joris Duytschaever)