Vincent d’Indy, Fervaal

By Vincent Giroud, Professor, Université de Franche-Comté

Written for the concert Vincent d’Indy Fervaal, performed on Oct 14, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Born in 1851, Vincent d’Indy was 20 when France, having rashly declared war on Prussia, suffered one of the most humiliating defeats of its history. An ardent patriot and a fervent Roman Catholic, he came from a family of officers and nearly embraced a military career himself before he decided to devote himself to music. He thoroughly despised the kind of cosmopolitan eclecticism represented by Massenet, his senior by nine years and the most successful opera composer of his generation. Yet, paradoxically, it was towards German models – especially Beethoven and Wagner – that he turned to rescue French music, and, especially, the lyric theater, which he saw as frivolous and meretricious. Having attended the premiere of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, he soon afterward embarked on an operatic adaptation of Esias Tegnér’s poem Axel. The broad outlines of Fervaal were already present: an honor-bound hero falling in love with the woman who nurses him after he was wounded in battle, his escape, her joining the army of his enemies, and the lovers’ reconciliation in death. By the time d’Indy turned again to his projected opera in the late 1880s, he had made his reputation with Le chant de la cloche, a dramatic cantata after Schiller, and, especially, his Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français for piano and orchestra, based on a folk tune from the Cévennes, the beautiful mountainous region in the southeastern Massif Central from which his family came. By then he had also discovered Parsifal, having attended the 1882 Bayreuth premiere. The Axel libretto was recast from Sweden at the time of Charles XII to the Cévennes (given here the Celtic name Cravann) in a legendary medieval past. The name Fervaal echoes Perceval – in Chrétien de Troyes’s version of the Parsifal myth – while Guilhen, the Saracen princess who introduces him to love, is a cross between Brünnhilde and Kundry. The druid Arfagard, Fervaal’s implacable mentor, recalls Gurnemanz; even the serpent-goddess Kaito, whose apparition in Act 2 is one of the work’s most impressive moments, is an obvious reminiscence of the Erda of Das Rheingold and Siegfried. Like Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, which had so overwhelmed d’Indy at Bayreuth, Fervaal ends on a celebration of the redemptive power of love. As for the work’s Christian message – manifested musically in the citation of the Pange lingua hymn at the end, as Fervaal ascends the mountain with the body of Guilhen in his arms – it was in line with the then prevailing view of Parsifal as a deeply religious work. In other respects, Fervaal carried a message more obviously intended for home consumption. The defeat of Cravann by the enemy invaders, presented as a divine punishment caused by Fervaal’s failure to observe his vow of chastity, would have been equated by Third Republic audiences with the disaster of 1870 brought upon France by the lax moral standards of the Second Empire. By the same token, the religious references would have been understood as a call for a spiritual regeneration of the country through a return to its Catholic roots.

Fervaal was composed between 1889 and 1893. In another deliberate Wagnerian gesture, d’Indy based it on a strict leitmotiv system (twelve by his own reckoning), combined with a symbolic use of tonalities (G major for Cravann, B major for war, D major for love etc.). The orchestration, which he completed in 1895, is less indebted to Wagner and does not disdain picturesque effects of timbre. It calls for large forces, including four saxophones (used to great effect in Kaito’s apparition), eight saxhorns (the brass instruments invented by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s and 1850s), and even a mountain horn. The Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, which hosted the premieres of several major operas of the period (from Massenet’s Hérodiade to Chausson’s Le roi Arthus) staged it first in March 1897. The same principals – tenor Georges Imbart de La Tour and soprano Jeanne Raunay – repeated their roles at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in May the following year, by which time the Dreyfus Affair had become a national scandal, pitting the nationalist right, with which d’Indy wholeheartedly identified, against the partisans of the unjustly accused Jewish captain. It would, of course, be grossly unfair to see Fervaal as an anti-Semitic tract of the kind d’Indy, to his discredit, deliberately attempted with his fourth and last opera, La légende de saint Christophe. Yet it is true, as Steven Huebner has shown, that the composer clearly hoped it might become a great national opera, a sort of French answer to the Ring. If in these hopes he was cruelly disappointed, it may have had less to do, in the end, with the work’s musical beauties (praised by, among others, Paul Dukas, who was Jewish and yet profoundly admired d’Indy) than with the fact that its high-minded ideology placed it, so to speak, on the wrong side of history.