D'Indy (1851-1931) - Symphony on a French Mountain
I listed some well-known “one-work” composers. Amazingly, I missed this
one! Vincent D'Indy, a pupil and prominent disciple of César
Franck, wrote orchestral music (including concertos and three numbered
symphonies), a stack of chamber, piano and vocal music, and no fewer
than five operas, yet is remembered by only this one work of 1886. That
it is both attractive and bold, innovative music makes me wonder why.
innovative? Yes, indeed! For a start, in D'Indy's day to use a piano (even
obbligato) as a “mere” orchestral instrument, as opposed to concerto
soloist, was really quite daring. Then, rather than a single set
of variations, he fashioned a three-movement work. The theme is a folk
tune from the Cervennes mountains, hence the work's alternative (and charming)
title of Symphonie Cevenole. Apparently, these “mountain airs”
have a character all their own. According to Julien Tiersnot, musical
historian: "The high mountains give to folk [tunes] that become acclimated
to their altitude something of the purity of their atmosphere. It seems
as though there were in these mountain songs - they were generally songs
of shepherds - something fluid, ethereal, a gentleness that is not
found in folk songs of the plains".
Lambert in 1934 pronounced dismissively, “The whole trouble with
a folk song is that once you have played it through there is nothing
much you can do, except play it over again and play it rather louder”.
To be fair, Lambert was really referring to what became known as English
pastoralist “cow-pat” music, but such is the sheer, fluid inventiveness
with which D'Indy treats the theme, that his “goat-pat” music stands
as a peerless “pre-emptive riposte” to Lambert's claim.
D'Indy called his work a “symphony”, presumably because it isn't
a concerto. Yet the form is hardly symphonic, so I suspect that the
word implies the same sense as in Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind
Instruments - the ancient one of “sounding together”. Although collateral
themes are not excluded, they take relatively “walk-on” parts, and each
movement is effectively a variation form. While the variations
in each movement are fused into continuous, if necessarily episodic
arguments, their separate existence is justified through a sort of thematic
“character re-alignment”, almost as if we are following the theme down
from the mountain tracks and into the city streets:
Assez Lent: sets off with the open, diatonic “mountain air” itself.
That it also sounds vaguely Scottish makes me wonder if there is
something in M. Tiersnot's “mountain air” theory.
Assez modere mais sans lenteur: by way of contrast takes a distinctly
chromatic-sounding, rather more urbane view, while
Anime: presents a far more vigorous perspective - what happened to
that gentleness? Here it becomes, rather appositely, reminiscent
of certain traditional Yorkshire “song of the high hills” (or at
least it does if you’re a Yorkshireman, like me!).
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.