Istar, Op. 42 (1896)

By Peter J. Rabinowitz, Hamilton College

Written for the concert Against the Grain: The German Influence in French Music at the Turn of the Century, performed on April 13, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

From the intensity with which he pursued military history to the rigor or his famous course in composition, Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) was an exacting man. Sometimes his perfectionism revealed itself in an admirable high-mindedness: when the faculty of the Conservatoire resisted his proposals for a more intellectually stringent curriculum, d’Indy co-founded a new institution, the Schola Cantorum, that would carry out his ideas. Sometimes, less pleasantly, his severity emerged in the form of narrow-mindedness, both political (he was an ardent anti-Semite) and musical (his intolerance for loose design made him unable to appreciate Debussy). But at all times, he seemed ruled by a passion for clarity. “There are,” Romain Rolland insisted, “no shadows about him.”

Given his inflexible asceticism, it might at first seem surprising that d’Indy was a devout Wagnerian, especially at a time when Wagner’s hyperemotional scores represented the avant-garde and when German music was scorned in France. But there’s no real contradiction, for his interest was not in the erotic excess or the rich scoring of Wagner’s operas but rather in their formal mastery and their artistic seriousness of purpose. As a result, d’Indy was able to reconcile his Wagnerianism with a pioneering revival of early music(including Palestrina and Monteverdi)as well as with a dedication to French musical nationalism both in his choice of subject-matter and in his lucid instrumental technique.

Istar (1896), his most familiar score after the Symphony on a French Mountain Air, is one of his works that does not center on French material; but it does embody d’Indy’s style both in its meticulous construction and in its limpid orchestration. The program, from Babylonian myth, tells the story of Istar, the goddess of love and fertility, who descends into the underworld to retrieve her dead lover. She passes through seven gates, and at each she has to discard one piece of jewelry or clothing; she only achieves her aim when she stands naked beyond the last gate. If you know the Salomes that Richard Strauss and Florent Schmitt composer a decade or so later, you can imagine the kind (if lurid music that such a situation might have drawn from them. But d’Indy typically, produced something loftier, displacing the story’s sensual potential by focusing on its invitations for structural ingenuity.

Specifically, Istar is a controlled exercise in the form of seven Variations–with a curious twist. Although the work makes considerable use of two themes that are presented at the outset–a brief descending horn call and a longer melody with dotted rhythms that represents Istar’s walk from gate to gate–it soon appears that there is a third theme generating the variations, too. Yet it is too difficult to grasp its precise outline, for in contrast to most traditional essays in the genre, Istar begins with the most complex of the variations, not with the simplest. The main theme becomes progressively more distinct as Istar discards her garments, but we only hear it clearly in the seventh variation, where its shape (and its motivic relationship to the other themes) is finally revealed in a striking unison statement. The walking theme, now radiant, crowns the coda, as the music dies away.