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D'Indy (1851-1931) - Symphony on a French Mountain Song

Recently, 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

Bold and 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". 

Constant 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. 

However, 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: 

1. 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. 

2. Assez modere mais sans lenteur: by way of contrast takes a distinctly chromatic-sounding,  rather more urbane view, while 

3. 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
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