The Spider’s Banquet is the first and the most ingenious of Albert Roussel’s three ballets. It is brief and seeped in the impressionistic style of Debussy and Ravel, although unique in its simplicity of melody. Roussel completed the ballet in a few months in 1912 for the Teatre des Arts in Paris, where it was debuted by conductor Gabriel Grovlez.
In the beginning, the Spider is interrupted by a group of ants, who attempt to carry a rose petal. In order the worms and the butterfly appear, the latter quickly caught by the spider. While the spider celebrates his catch with a lively dance, the ants battle a cadre of praying mantises over a slice of apple. The spider snares the praying mantises in his web, and the next appearance is of a waltzing may fly who is captured with ease.
Having assembled his feast, the spider chooses to eat the butterfly first, only to find a praying mantis has beat him to the tasty snack. The other insects escape and prepare a funeral for the may fly, one by one leaving the scene.
The premiere of The Spider’s Banquet preceded the famously controversial premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by only a few months. Both would achieve widespread fame for the ballets, although for very different reasons. Roussel was seen by critics as an exemplar of the French tradition, while Stravinsky became known as an iconoclast, pushing boundaries until he, like Roussel, embraced neoclassicism.
Roussel’s two additional ballets were of far greater scale, taking for their subject stories from classical mythology. The second of these, Aeneas, was one of his last works, completed in 1935. For Aeneas, Roussel augmented the orchestra with a large choir, much as Ravel had done with Daphis and Chloe. although he retained the compunctual time-keeping and functional tonality that distinguishes him in the French tradition. Roussel would never become as famous as Debussy and Ravel, and his later works are today performed and recorded far less often than The Spider’s Banquet.
The notes to a 1971 recording on France’s Erato Records report that Roussel was hesitant to take the commission to compose the ballet for the Teatre des Arts, and did so only at the urging of his wife, Blanche. Jacques Rouche, the Theatre’s director, had been inspired by the popular work of Jean Henri Fabre, today considered the father of modern entomology — which, of course, is the study of insects.
It often bothered the composer that the popularity of The Spider’s Banquet eclipsed that of his symphonies in the neoclassical style, but it did not prevent him from conducting a performance of the ballet for record, the only recording he would make, in 1928.
The Spider’s Banquet by Albert Roussel, performed by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and conducted by Ernest Ansermet.