La Belle Epoque (4) – D’Indy

D’Indy by name and dandy by nature one might say, always assuming we were more familiar with this, the least known of those figuring in this parade of French composers. Vincent D’Indy scarcely appears much in concert programmes on this side of the channel. One may come across an occasional performance of either his symphony, “Jour D’été Dans La Montagne” (Summers Day on the Mountain)  or his Symphonie Sur Un Chant Montagnard Français (Symphony on a French Mountain Air) for piano and orchestra but you will then have to wait a long time till the next occasion. I heard the former under Eugene Goosens round about 1954. So be patient and let’s get to know who Le Comte Vincent D’Indy was and what made him tick and let the music speak for itself.

The major difference there is between D’Indy and the other composers we encounter in this series, apart from the fact that most people haven’t heard of him anyway, is that D’Indy was born into an aristocrat family, a committed monarchist and of a strongly conservative Catholic persuasion. He was, not unsurprisingly, anti-Semitic. He claimed not to feel anything against Jewish colleagues amongst whom was his pupil Darius Milhaud who came from a long line of Provençal Sephardic Jews. As to the Dreyfus Affair, D’Indy, as you might imagine, was an anti-Dreyfussard and in the pro and anti campaign he joined the League for the French Fatherland. Not altogether the sort of person to be inviting to one of your dinner parties. Most of the other composers that Matthew is discussing display that 19th century appearance of wonderful whiskered bourgeois respectability. Here there is another difference, a physical one, which they have with D’Indy with his clean shaven aristocratic credentials. His support for the monarchy after the war of 1870 was not some evidence of being an eccentric variant. There was in fact, following the fall of the Second Empire, majority support in the country for the return of the monarchy. The Bonapartes were clearly done for and this left a clear choice between the return of a king or the re-establishment of a republic. The problem with the former was that monarchist support was equally divided between the Bourbons who had previously abdicated and their relatives from the Orléaniste line. They could not agree between them and the Republicans, many from the middle class right as well as the radical left, simply carried on until the two lineages could put their respective houses into order, which they never did. Still, if Vincent D’Indy were around to-day he might still be calling in the wilderness for the disbandment of the Fifth Republic and the return of the Bourbons or the Orleanistes as the case may be.

 D’Indy was born in Paris in 1851, a descendant of a noble family from the Ardèche. His mother was to die of a fever little more than a month after his birth and he was brought up by his paternal grandmother who helped him on the way with piano lessons. It was said that his strong beliefs coupled with a tendency toward narrow-mindedness were evident during his childhood and stemmed from his grandmother’s influence. He was frequently described “as stubborn to the point of fanaticism.” His religious beliefs ran deep. However, he clearly did display a musical talent although he did not begin formal music lessons until his early teenage years. In 1871, aged 19, he enlisted in the National Guard for the Franco-Prussian War. With the result of that war quickly decided he was soon to return to musical life. The first of his own works he heard was a Symphonie Italienne, performed, not publicly, but at an orchestral rehearsal and was admired by Georges Bizet and Jules Massenet, with whom he had already become acquainted. It was Henri Duparc who recommended him to Cesar Franck with whom he was eventually to become a devoted student at the Paris conservatoire. Through Franck, d’Indy came to admire the German school of music. His enthusiasm for Beethoven was inherited from Franck and D’Indy was to write an authoritative biography of Beehoven.

D’Indy would go on to be the most ardent of Franck’s followers, his champion, and biographer. His own musical education was further developed through playing percussion and keyboard and through conducting. He himself would go on to become a reputed teacher and theorist publishing his own Course On Composition.

In the summer of 1873 he visited Germany in what one can only conclude to have been a heavy drinking holiday because it was there that he met Brahms and Liszt.   In January 1874 his overture Les Piccolomini was included in a concert of works by Bach and Beethoven. Around this time he married one of his cousins. In 1875 he figured notably but unseen at the first performance of Bizet’s Carmen. He was the prompt!

 1876 saw D’Indy present at the first production of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth converting him into a fervent Wagnerian. In 1878 d’Indy’s symphonic ballad La Forêt Enchantée was performed. In 1882 he heard Wagner’s Parsifal. And thus he progressed between performances of his own works and performing Wagner or making the Bayreuth pilgrimage.

 Dissatisfied with the standard of teaching at the Conservatoire and inspired by his own studies with Franck who had died following a coach accident in 1890, d’Indy, together with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant, founded the Schola Cantorum de Paris in 1894. D’Indy taught there and later at the Paris Conservatoire until his death. Among his many students were Isaac Albéniz, Joseph Canteloube (who later wrote d’Indy’s biography), Arthur Honegger, Albéric Magnard, Darius Milhaud, Leevi Madetoja, a successor to Sibelius in Finland, Cole Porter, Albert Roussel, Erik Satie and Xian Xinghai who was one of the earliest Chinese composers of western classical music. Now what a motley group that is! It makes me wonder. What if Matthew were to do a series on pupils of Vincent D’Indy, what a variety of styles that would produce.

 It is hard to sum up D’Indy’s output on what I confess to be a limited knowledge of his works. He scored over a century in opus numbers which include a symphony in B♭, a symphonic poem, Souvenirs, written on the death of his first wife, chamber music, including what are said to be two of the finest string quartets of the latter 19th century, piano music, songs, and a number of operas, including Fervaal (1897) described as a kind of French Parsifal. Like many French composers of the period he depended on opera to make his name and all of this is lost to us because, as with many other composers – Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvorak and Smetana are examples – their operas just don’t get performances in the opera houses.

 Anyway I will not usurp Matthew’s role in this but just give you an inkling. One aspect of D’Indy I had expected was that as a devoted adherent of César Franck he was going to sound like him. Not a bit of it. Pupils are not always able to reproduce the sound of the master and it is better they develop their own persona anyway. If I could think of a colour to describe Franck it would be brown, something like Cherry Blossom shoe polish, dark rich and deep. D’Indy comes through to me as a light blue and on the whole rather airy. His Symphony on a French Mountain Air contains an important piano solo. It reminds one more of Bizet than Franck – not the Bizet of Carmen but the pre-Common Agricultural Policy Bizet of L’Arlesienne with its country rounds. D’Indy was obsessed by French mountains and his Summer Day on the Mountain written twenty years later in 1905 is different again. Debussy and D’Indy had little in common and yet there is a strange linkage between Summer’s Day and Debussy’s La Mer, both written in the same year. Each is a symphonic triptych and both works commence with dawn. One has dawn at sea and the other dawn on the mountain. Debussy gives us half lights and reflections. D’Indy gives us a pastoral painting of Central France, reminiscent in mood in some ways of the opening of Mahler’s first symphony without the cuckoo,

 I can only summarise by saying we know too little about this almost unknown composer. What Matthew will give us can only be a taster. Better that than nothing. We need to know more