The importance and magnitude of the artistic movement that took place in France during the last decades of the 19th Century cannot be denied. It created a transformation in the evolution of art, poetry and music.
To better grasp what was taking place in France at this time, it is necessary to understand the influence that the music and writings of Richard Wagner had upon many young creative artists living and working in Paris. The first performance of Wagner’s revolutionary work Tannhaüser that took place in Paris in 1861 created such a scandal among the entrenched establishment that another Wagner music drama would not be staged in Paris until 1887 (a performance of Lohengrin directed by Charles Lamoureux, with the help of Vincent d’Indy). Despite the lack of a French Wagnerian staging for twenty-six years, French artists, composers, and poets listened to piano reductions of Wagner’s music and consumed his writings.
The world premiere of Wagner’s fifteen-hour-long ring cycle took place in his new theater in Bayreuth, Germany in August 1876, and a handful of French composers made pilgrimages to this almost holy shrine. Upon returning, they talked and wrote profusely about what had taken place; Saint-Saëns, for example, wrote five articles about the Bayreuth experience and Catulle Mendès three. A few years after, concerts of Wagner’s music began to take place in Paris. Those at the Eden Theater, conducted by Charles Lamoureux, resembled holy services, to which painters like Blanche and Valloton, poets and writers such as Mallarmé and Proust, and many musicians and composers flocked.
By the mid-1880s, the music and thinking of the now-deceased Wagner had ignited nearly the entire intellectual and artistic movement in Paris, including the most distinguished and the most gifted artists, writers, and composers. Some, in addition to attending the Eden Theater concerts, made pilgrimages to Bayreuth. The effect of Wagner’s music was deeply felt. Ravel and Chabrier had similar experiences during performances of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde: the music so moved them that they broke into tears and sobbed. Composer Guillaume Lekeu fainted during an 1889 Bayreuth performance, and Vincent d'Indy broke down and wept while experiencing the death of Siegfied in Götterdamerung.
Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) is an important composer and educator who, unfortunately for contemporary ears, has fallen into near obscurity. A single work, the beautiful Symphonie Cévenole (Symphony on a French Mountain Air), identifies the composer today. He was born and raised in Paris, and at an early age began preparing for a career in music. In 1872, he enrolled in Cesar Franck’s organ class at the Conservatoire, and soon Franck, who taught a group of young French composers at his home, became d’Indy’s mentor and composition teacher. D’Indy recognized the genius of the man that many at the Conservatoire considered only an organ teacher.
During the great artistic revival that took place in Paris during the second half of the 19th century when “impressionist” painting, new music, and symbolist poetry came into the world, composers, painters, and poets alike gathered together to discuss and share art. It was at meetings such as the soirées that Chausson, Saint-Saens, and the poet Mallarmé held weekly in their homes, that some of the greatest creative minds of the time (such as Degas, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Franck, Gide, Fauré, Duparc, d’Indy, Debussy and Chabrier) discussed art and music.
In addition to his great admiration for Wagner, d’Indy had, as had Wagner himself, discovered and developed a tremendous love for the sacred music of the great composers of the 16th century--Gallus, Lassus, Palestrina, Josquin des Pres, and Victoria--and for Gregorian chant: a forgotten body of work that constitutes one of the greatest outpourings of music the world has produced. Beginning in 1890, d’Indy, realizing this, began working with fellow Franck student Charles Bordes, on what became the center of a powerful revival of sixteenth-century sacred music in Paris. In the following year, d’Indy helped form the Société des Chanteurs de Saint-Gervais to help restore this great music to what he felt was its rightful place in society. Members of Paris’s artistic community, including Debussy and Mallarmé who were regulars, frequented the Société’s concerts of the music of Gallus, Palestrina, and Victoria.
D’Indy’s musicial interests distanced him from the formal instruction that was being served at the Conservatoire, and in 1896, in conjunction with Bordes and Guilmant, he founded a new music school, the Schola Cantorum, becoming its first director. The mission of the Schola was to forge a return to the tradition of Gregorian chant and music in the style of Palestrina, with new music inspired by these traditions, and to reform the system of music education then in place in French schools. D’Indy wrote a complete course of composition that started with Gregorian chant and continued historically through to the music of the composers of his time, as d’Indy was in complete support of both Debussy and Ravel. D’Indy remained the director of the Schola Cantorum until his death in 1931. The Schola remains today a highly regarded institution and has trained many composers and musicians, beginning with d’Indy’s own students, Roussel and Satie, and including, among others, Albeniz, Canteloube, Célibidache, Duruflé, Gulmant, Landowska, Langlais, Messiaen, Milhaud, Turina, Varese and Vierne.
D’Indy composed a number of very beautiful programmatic orchestral works. One of these was Istar, Opus 42, from 1896. The program for the work came from the sixth canto of an ancient Assyrian epic poem called Izdubar that was probably written about 2000 B.C. In the poem, the beautiful Goddess Istar’s lover was being held captive in the underworld. To obtain his release, Istar traveled to the underworld, accessible only through a series of seven gates…the gates of Hell. Before entering each one of the seven gates, the beautiful Goddess was required to remove one of her garments, starting with her crown. Finally, when she had reached the seventh gate, the one that opened into the prison chamber, she removed the last piece of clothing, then emerged completely nude into to the dark place where her lover was imprisoned. Using this story as his script, d’Indy composed a brilliant set of variations that ran in reverse order, the theme appearing only once, after all its variations had already taken place. This reverse set of theme and variations was well adapted to d’Indy’s choice of program, with its gradual process of unfolding while stripping away outer elements to reveal an inner core. “In these seven variations,” the composer stated, “we proceed from the complex to the simple, causing the melody to be born little by little, as if emerging from the special harmony presented in the first variation.”
Istar opens with a horn call beginning with the first three notes of the main theme leading into an introduction in the key of F minor. A dark theme played by the violas and bass clarinet symbolizes the nature of the place where Istar must journey. Following the introduction is the first variation in F major. Here Istar, sparkling with jeweled ornament, first appears musically. D’Indy presents only the harmonic background for the main melody in the first variation, devoid of any melodic elements. It is instead based on the chords that would have harmonized the theme. A reoccurrence of the thematic material from the introduction leads into the second variation in the key of E major, where d’Indy uses the harmonies from the first variation, introducing motives that he has extracted from the main theme. The third variation in Bb minor works with more parts of the theme. The lively forth variation in F# major works its way into the fifth in C minor, where the theme, played by the violas and cellos, is more clearly defined than before, becoming increasingly recognizable. The beautiful, flowing development in the sixth variation in Ab major is followed by the last variation in D minor: short and simple, employing only flute, piccolo and first violins. Finally the theme itself appears in F major. Remembering that its harmony was the subject of the first variation, we now find only the theme, without harmonization, played by horns, trumpets, strings, and woodwinds in a unison-octave tutti (d’Indy never combines the theme, presented at the end, with its chords, presented at the beginning). The statement of the theme is followed by a coda that ends the work.
D’Indy conducted the first performance of Istar in Paris on January 16, 1898.
One can hope that the orchestral music of Vincent d’Indy will one day find a welcome home in the repertoires of the world’s orchestras.
Don Robertson (donrobertson.net)
For performance material please contact the publisher Durand, Paris. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchener Stadtbibliothek, München.