By Leon Botstein

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

This concert performance of Vincent D’Indy’s Fervaal is probably the work’s first North American performance. Yet Fervaal is an opera that occupies a significant place in the history of French music. Indeed, this presentation continues the American Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing project to bring back into the repertory the great examples of nineteenth-and twentieth-century French opera. We hope to follow in future years with neglected works by Chabrier, Massenet, Saint Saens, and Magnard.

The career and the posthumous reputation of D’Indy (1851–1931) are both fascinating and contradictory. Few composers have done themselves so much damage through their own writings. In 1930, late in his career, D’Indy published a notorious anti-Semitic tract on Wagner’s influence on French music that explicitly pursued the line of thought pioneered by Wagner in his mid-nineteenth-century essay “Judaism in Music.” D’Indy followed a familiar turn-of-the-century ideological strain by identifying a specific Jewish style and attitude in music and the arts, signaling not only the deleterious influence of Jews but a Jewish approach toward the making of art, not necessarily pursued only by those racially identified with Judaism, that was fundamentally inartistic. With this late book D’Indy erased many associations and alliances he had cultivated earlier in his life. For most of his career, particularly before the completion of Fervaal, he enthusiastically praised the work of Giacomo Meyerbeer. There are in fact distinctly Meyerbeer-like moments in Fervaal. But D’Indy’s anti-Semitism and ties to the political right in France isolated him. Ironically, among the most ardent admirers of Fervaal was none other than Paul Dukas, a Jew. By assuming a stance of determined advocacy for the anti-Dreyfus camp, D’Indy damaged his relationship with Alberic Magnard and other musicians who sympathized with D’Indy’s music and aesthetic ideals but supported the cause of Dreyfus.

The writings of his later years solidified the reputation of D’Indy as a crotchety, unattractive conservative. Posterity has had little reason to doubt this description, despite the pioneering work of recent scholars, including Andrew Thomson and Jann Pasler. If D’Indy is remembered at all, it is for a very few works, including the 1886 Symphony on a French Mountain Air and the symphonic variations Istar. D’Indy’s place in the history of French music has been secured as much by his founding a conservatory to rival the Paris Conservatory, the Schola Cantorum, as it has by his music. D’Indy’s course in composition taught at the Schola was published in several editions. It was historically organized and integrated philosophy, history, and music. Following Ruskin, D’Indy stressed structure and form. Harmonic change could be understood as a path toward light and dark. The history of music revealed a progressive evolution that privileged modernity’s capacity to evoke “radiant beauty…unity in variety, expressing grandeur and order.”

The reputation of the Schola was that it was at one and the same time highly influenced by Wagnerian aesthetics and yet devoted to premodern traditions of composition privileging counterpoint over harmony and structure over taste for sentimental melody and lavish sonority. No doubt the key influences on D’Indy were Wagner and Cesar Franck (on whom D’Indy wrote a book marked by admiration and devotion). Those French composers against whom he has been said to place himself included Massenet and later Debussy. D’Indy had little use for Massenet but his music shares more in common with Debussy than standard textbooks might lead one to believe. When D’Indy turned pages for Debussy at one of the first private readings of Pelleas, he was neither shocked nor critical. In fact the contrast between the Conservatoire and the Schola, in curriculum and aesthetics, was in retrospect more rhetorical than substantive.

This was also partly the case in politics as well. What set D’Indy apart was his sense of himself as an aristocrat. He was a monarchist. If one lines up his allegiances with his presumed aesthetic prejudices and anti-Semitism, he seems to have placed all of his bets on the wrong side of history. It comes as no surprise that leading figures in French musical life in the later twentieth century have shown little interest or regard for D’Indy or his life, including Messiaen (Dukas’s pupil) and Pierre Boulez. But early in his career, up to the writing and premiere of Fervaal, D’Indy shared colleagues and friends who were staunch republicans, and he himself took on roles explicitly supportive of the Third Republic.

On closer inspection, D’Indy was more central to and important in French musical and cultural life and his music more characteristic and compelling than has been acknowledged. This suggests that performers and listeners need to take a new look at D’Indy’s career as a composer and force in the history of French music. There is no better place to start than his operatic masterpiece Fervaal.

The opera was the fruit of a long compositional process. It is often said to be Wagnerian, but this is a misleading description. The score is built on a series of formal structural episodes that constitute an organic arch, both musical and dramatic. Although the music contains a great deal of chromaticism, the modulation is what carried a spiritual meaning for D’Indy. Modulation, in turn, called for maintaining reminders of a stable tonality. His own analysis of Wagnerian harmony was geared to stressing its allegiance to a fundamentally diatonic system of tonality. Like others of his generation, D’Indy placed Wagner in a historical context that allied him with Palestrina, rendering him more of a classical than a revolutionary composer. Furthermore, D’Indy’s orchestration is distinctly different from Wagner’s. Because D’Indy was obsessed with the idea that one should hear every word, he pared down the orchestration so that clarity could be achieved. In this sense, his attitude toward orchestration is more reminiscent of Richard Strauss than Wagner. Both Strauss and D’Indy used massive forces to achieve intimacy and to underscore clarity. Not surprisingly, both composers carefully studied Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration.

The Wagnerian in Fervaal rests in the conception of the operatic experience. Here was music drama as a spiritual and political undertaking. It was informed by the beliefs that music was a function of inspiration and the transcendence of the everyday and that the public should be transported, not merely amused or astonished. D’Indy’s Wagner, particularly the Wagner of Parsifal, was a kind of neo-Catholic, a convert to Catholicism along the lines of John Cardinal Henry Newman. This view of Wagner, particularly as understood through the prism provided by Parsifal, was not uncommon in the 1890s. We no longer share D’Indy’s confidence that Parsifal was, in the end, a Christian work. For D’Indy, Parsifal was the greatest work Wagner ever produced, and D’Indy’s attendance at its 1882 premiere left a lasting impression, not only on the composer but also on Fervaal.

There are, however, very crucial differences between Parsifal and Fervaal. One needs to remember that for all the Wagnerian influence in France, which was considerable, (particularly after the composer’s death—despite the fact that there were few, if any, stage productions of his works in France), French Wagnerians such as D’Indy and Chabrier were (in often quite different ways) fierce patriots. Wagner’s influence outside Germany lay in inspiring other groups and nations to match through music, art, and architecture what he had contributed to a definition of Germany and the German. D’Indy deeply admired Chabrier (whose Le roi malgré lui was performed by the American Symphony Orchestra in New York City a few years ago). Chabrier was a true Wagnerian; Gwendoline was his most Wagnerian work, clearly imitative of Tristan und Isolde. But beyond that surface imitation, the scale and musical character of Gwendoline are distinctive, not imitative. Chausson’s Le roi arthus, which was certainly influenced by Wagner, is something quite different in sonority and in the character of the melody and harmony.

Of all of the French Wagnerians, D’Indy was the most patriotic in a conservative sense. He invented the story of Fervaal as an antidote to any lingering sense of defeat and lowered expectations in the France of the Third Republic. For all his elitism and love of Wagner, D’Indy was a fervent French chauvinist. Also unlike Wagner, he had gifts as a visual artist. His drawings and sketches show talent exhibited by only a few composers, Mendelssohn and Schoenberg among them. The visual element gave D’Indy’s music a distinctive character, but even more important was his appropriation of a French version of the Oriental. Germany was a relative newcomer to imperialism, but France was an old hand, rivaling England. All French operas near the end of the nineteenth century seem to flirt with the Oriental, and D’Indy’s opera is no exception. The enemies, the people of the heroine, are from the Islamic world. The task of conjuring up a visual image of this Oriental world D’Indy accomplishes primarily through sonority and color. The tale is shamelessly assertive of the superiority of the French race. D’Indy bought into the pseudo-scientific theory, popular at the time, that the French descended from the Celtic race, supplying the French people a superior provenance. The presumed historical location of the story of Fervaal is a complete fiction. Its factual basis rests only in the symbolism of a new nation arising from an old, great nation. That nation, led by Fervaal, will be marked by the attributes of Christian love and charity inspired by the figure of Christ. However, the new nation that Fervaal initiates out of the tragedy of the loss of his beloved requires no sacrifice of the old virtues of Celtic culture. In this sense, Fervaal is a mythic equivalent to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, where the glories of a nation are extolled, in this case in the future. The story has other clear debts to Wagner, but D’Indy used many other models, particularly in the large choral scenes of the Second Act.

Ultimately, the music of Fervaal is hard to characterize. It is a particular synthesis and variation on many parallel themes in the history of music regarding structure, harmony, narrative, orchestration, and form. D’Indy believed that inspiration was indispensable and could not be supplanted by mere craftsmanship. Whatever one may think about the opera’s dramatic theatrical possibilities, its music is elegant and beautifully crafted. It is not the music but rather the libretto and story that have helped keep Fervaal out of the public eye and ear. The story is complicated, although complexity has not been known to prevent operas from success and popularity. Love and death are treated a bit too piously, albeit beautifully, for contemporary taste. There is something wooden about both the storyline and the psychological characterization. Finally, the circumstances of the opera seem to us today both fictional and marginal, if not wildly politically incorrect on many obvious grounds. Nevertheless, Fervaal contains an exquisite and refined score that deserves to be heard.