Vincent d’Indy: Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français

performed by Catherine Collard (piano), and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Marek Janowski

(cover image by Paul Morris)

In spite of [d’Indy’s] conscious professionalism, one side of him remained a patriarchal countryman, with something of the air of a visitor to Paris and a background of health and earthiness.

 Martin Cooper

Piano concerto? Symphonic poem? Symphony? Well, today we’re counting it as a symphony, even though it does have a prominent piano part and clearly at least something of a programmatic nature, as evidenced from the title.

Paul Marie Théodore Vincent d’Indy was born on March 27, 1851 in Paris “into an aristocratic family of royalist and Catholic persuasion.” He studied piano with his paternal grandmother, and later with:

  • Antoine François Mormontel, who also taught Bizet, Dubois (we’ll get to him), Pierné, Debussy, etc.
  • Louis-Joseph Diémer, also a student of the above Mormontel, and teacher of Cortot, Lazare Lévy, Casella, and Casadesus
  • Albert Lavignac, with whom d’Indy studied harmony. He was also a student of Mormontel, as well as teacher of Casadesus, Debussy, Pierné, and Florent Schmitt (we’ll get to him too)

D’Indy was a member of France’s National Guard during the Franco-Prussian War, but returned to music once this was over. After hearing an early piece of his performed, it seems his career as a musician was solidified, having made connections with such men as Jules Massenet, and more importantly César Franck, with whom he studied at the Conservatoire de Paris, eventually acquiring from him a taste for “what he considered the standards of German symphonism.”

In 1873, d’Indy went to Germany, where he met both Liszt and Brahms, and three years later was in attendance for the first Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. Wikipedia says that “This made a great impression on him and he became a fervent Wagnerite.”

The man had been around the block enough times that he was able to make some pretty big moves. Wikipedia says:

Inspired by his own studies with Franck and dissatisfied with the standard of teaching at the Conservatoire de Paris, 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.

At the Paris Conservatoire (or elsewhere?) he eventually became teacher of such people as Albeniz, Honegger, Madetoja, Magnard, Milhaud, Cole Porter, Roussel (who we’ll get to), Satie, and Ahmet Adnan Saygun. Despite this fine resume, however, his work, aside from today’s piece and maybe a few others, is surprisingly little played today.

In fact, Wikipedia says that today’s piece is “virtually the only work by the composer that still receives regular performances today,” which is surprising considering the stature of his pedagogy. It was written in 1886. The French title tells us more clearly what this piece is based on, as the English ‘air’ may be confusing. It refers to a song, not the gaseous atmosphere.

The piece is based on a folk song the composer heard in Périer, and the work began as a fantasie for piano and orchestra. It strikes me as a tricky, even daring thing to base an entire half-hour piece on a folk song. Of folk music, the conductor, composer and critic Constant Lambert says:

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…

It was given the symphony label, some suggest, to make the distinction that it is most definitely not a concerto, but it is certainly more non-concerto than it is symphony. It’s really neither of those two things. D’Indy actually did write three symphonies, but as already discussed, those works, along with basically everything else he wrote save this piece, have generally been ignored. This work is in three movements:

  1. Assez lent- moderement animé
  2. Assez modéré- mais sans lenteur
  3. Animé

The piece begins and ends as if it is, indeed, the middle movement of a concerto. There’s a bellowing, echoing sound, like it’s reverberating off the expansive space in the mountains, before a pastoral English horn solo. You really would be forgiven for thinking this is a piano concerto of some kind, but the focus is on the musical material rather than any soloist.

The work is essentially a set of variations that all orbit around this initial theme. The sheer force of the low voices moving together in these sweeping gestures gives the very feeling, the looming, awe-inspiring impression of being in the mountains, of a glorious mountain view, and the piano and upper woodwinds soar and flutter above it all. You can practically feelsmell the vivid, crisp blue sky, and the first movement, with a lush second theme, is positively majestic. Is this lush color and richness just quintessentially French? Not sure, but so much of the piano-heavy passages here sound like they took pages right out of Rachmaninoff’s book, even though none of his concertos had yet been written at this point.

In the second movement, we continue the general trajectory of a symphony or concerto with a slightly more subdued movement. It’s now as if the roar and thunder and grandness we heard in the first movement is a little farther off, at a distance, perhaps through clouds, but there is a central climax that still calls Rachmaninoff to mind. Overall, this movement is a bit more intimate. It’s not chamber music, obviously, but the sound space isn’t like that of the grand expanse of a mountain range as much as actually in the forest, among the sounds.

The third movement bounces jovially, like skipping through the fields with the mountains still in frame, but now from afar. The buoyancy of this movement has a march-like tendency to it, but you really can’t tell me this isn’t akin to a Rachmaninoff concerto with its lush sound and shimmering piano with the finale.

The work, focusing almost wholly on the ‘chant montagnard français’ doesn’t have the structural elements of a symphony or concerto, but the programmatic nature, if you’re inclined to read into it, sounds to me like moving away from the mountain, so it’s a variation musically, but also in perspective, as our vantage point changes. At the end of the piece, a horn, as if calling from afar, reminds us of the opening theme in burnished colors of the sunset before an ebullient coda of sorts, again sounding like it could be from The Russian’s pen.

Despite being truly exciting, with really breathtaking passages and an overall sumptuous sound, I don’t know that for me it would have much staying power beyond those straightforward charms. This is more a statement about my own tastes rather than a criticism on the piece, but I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I listened to any of Rachmaninoff’s concertos, recordings or otherwise, and I’m more than okay with that. As impressive a composition as this piece is, I just don’t think I see myself wanting to come back to it and experience what it offers too terribly often. That being said, it’s worth at least a few run-throughs as a wonderful journey.

On Wednesday, we’ll see another piece from 1886, which also prominently features keyboard music. That’s a big hint, and I’m far more enthusiastic about the the magnificently musical accomplishment of that piece than I am this one. Stay tuned, and thank you so much for reading.


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