Traditionalism, le Wagnerisme, and Vincent d’Indy

Vincent d'Indy, Composer.

Vincent d’Indy (1851 – 1931), an almost exact contemporary of Sir Edward Elgar (1857 – 1934), studied under César Franck (1822 – 1890) at the Paris Conservatory and, on Franck’s death, became the acknowledged guardian and continuator of his teacher’s achievement.  Like Elgar although less conspicuously in his national context, d’Indy upheld the fervent Catholic faith into which he had been born; like Elgar, d’Indy believed in the monarchic principle, and found himself increasingly alienated from the national-democratic dispensation of the Twentieth Century.  As in the case of Elgar, d’Indy’s reputation rides on his mastery of two genres – the symphony and the oratorio; and like Elgar’s music, d’Indy’s has struggled without much success to export itself beyond its native frontiers.  Like Elgar, finally, d’Indy stands out as something of a paradox: Deliberately modern in the early phases of his creativity but later on a reactionary who tended to codify the assumptions of his own earlier achievement.

Vincent d'Indy, Composer.
Vincent d’Indy, Wagnerian Composer.

Unlike Elgar, however, d’Indy belonged from birth to the metropolitan capital of his country and, able to boast of aristocratic ancestry, never had to struggle to achieve full integration in his society.  Also unlike Elgar, d’Indy flourished in a pedagogical environment.  He founded the Schola Cantorum and served as its chief administrator until his death, at which time, however, his music seemed old-fashioned and stodgy to the current generation.

One further parallelism that assimilates d’Indy and Elgar is that while both managed to position themselves as national composers, distinctively French on the one hand and English on the other, each evolved for himself a musical idiom that absorbed a decidedly foreign influence – that namely of the Franz Liszt-Richard Wagner School, with the emphasis heavily on Wagner.  D’Indy attended the 1876 premiere of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth when he had not yet celebrated his thirtieth birthday; later he would receive a redoubled impression from the ritual magnificence of Wagner’s last music-drama Parsifal (1882).

Concerning d’Indy, and in reference to Parsifal, René Dumesnil writes in his Histoire de la musique illustrée (1934) how, “Il aurait pu prendre pour devise le mot Kundry: dienen, server – mais c’est la musique française qu’il a toujours et partout servie, même contre ceux qui prétendaient, avec Saint-Saëns, effacer d’un trait de plume, á l’occasion de la guerre, jusqu’au nom de Wagner.”  [“He could have taken for his motto the word of Kundry: dienen, to serve – but it was French music that he always and everywhere served, even against those who claimed to want, on the occasion of the war, as did Saint-Saëns, to delete the very name of Wagner.”]

Laurence Davies writes in Paths to Modern Music (1971) that “d’Indy was easily the most learned and uncompromising of the French Wagnerians, an irritatingly perverse man who insisted upon attacking what he called ‘Boche Art’ at the same time as he was propagandizing madly for his idol.”  Davies remarks that d’Indy’s “lyric drama” Le Chant de la Cloche (1885) strongly resembles Wagner’s Meistersinger because in it d’Indy “fell back on a guild of craftsmen and a rigged competition” just as in Fervaal (1885) he had “employed an oath of chastity and a magic garden” right out of Parsifal.  D’Indy’s purely orchestral works owe a debt to Wagner, too, in their conceptions of harmony and orchestration, but in these scores astute listeners will detect also the formal inspiration of Liszt, who had already exercised his spirit on Franck.  Even the works that d’Indy called symphonies behave formally like large-scale symphonic poems in the manner of Liszt.  But what exactly is le Wagnerisme – French Wagnerism?

Wagner danced a kind of tango with Paris, attracted to it because it represented in its theaters and resident composers of the mid-century the pinnacle of opera.  If he could make it there, Wagner must have reasoned to himself, he could make it anywhere.  For its part the City of Light only seemed to rebuff and humiliate him.  Wagner lived in Paris, and in poverty, twice – once with his first wife Minna from 1839 to 1842 and again as a bachelor from 1859 to 1862.  During the first sojourn, which ended in the usual flight from creditors, he composed Rienzi, which with the help of Giacomo Meyerbeer he managed to get produced at Dresden, and Der Fliegende Hollander, but he made no impression on the local scene.

During the second sojourn, Wagner succeeded in staging Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera.  In a fit of absurd petulance, the members of the Jockey Club, objecting to the placement of the ballet at the conclusion of the first rather than the second act, disrupted the proceedings.  After two more performances, Wagner withdrew the work and decamped for Prussia.

While Tannhäuser might have proven a disaster, a concert of extracts under Wagner’s own baton at the Salle des Italiens struck deeply into the rising Symbolist sensibility among French artists.  The poet Charles Baudelaire left a notable account of the occasion remarking, as he says, how “Je me sentis délivré des liens de la pesanteur, et je retrouvai par le souvenir l’extraordinaire volupté qui circule ans les lieux hauts.”  [“I felt myself delivered from the ties of gravity, and I remembered the extraordinary voluptuousness that circulates in remote altitudes.”]  Baudelaire experienced “une clarté plus vive,” “l’idée d’une âme se mouvant dans un milieu lumineux,” and “une extase faite de volupté et de connaissance, et planant au-dessus et bien loin du monde naturel.”  [“A vital brilliance”; “the idea of a soul moving in a luminous space”; “an ecstasy, melded of happiness and insight and voyaging beyond this natural world.”]

But for Baudelaire the experience entailed much more than a psychedelic vision, no matter how powerful.  The poet had read Wagner’s pamphlets and understood that the new idol’s art implied a cultural, even a political, as well as an artistic agenda – nothing less than the revival of the sacred.  Of Wagner’s verbal aspect, Baudelaire writes: “De même, les poëmes de Wagner, bien qu’ils révèlent un goût sincère et une parfaite intelligence de la beauté classique, participent aussi, dans une forte dose, de l’esprit romantique. S’ils font rêver à la majesté de Sophocle et d’Eschyle, ils contraignent en même temps l’esprit à se souvenir des Mystères de l’époque la plus plastiquement catholique.”  [“The libretti of Wagner, no matter that they reveal a sincere taste for and a perfect comprehension of classical beauty, also incorporate a strong draught of the romantic spirit.  However much they remind us of Sophocles and Aeschylus, they also force our memory back to the Mysteries of Catholicism in its formative era.”]

The Wagner who appealed so strongly to Baudelaire’s younger countryman, d’Indy, was the very Wagner of Baudelaire, the Wagner deeply aware, as the composer wrote in his pamphlets, of the degeneracy of the modern age and of the contrasting intactness of the traditional societies either of ancient Greece or Gothic-Christian Europe.  Baudelaire would have been aware of an irony in Wagner’s passionate interest in the knightly sagas and the legends of the Holy Grail.  These bore a distinctly French imprint, even when Wagner bypassed the literary original to make use of a later, German-language source, as in Tristan und Isolde or Parsifal.  The irony somewhat mitigates Davies’ interpretation of d’Indy as shaking one fist at “Boche Art” while extending an open hand to Bayreuth.

Another irony undoubtedly supervenes.  Wagner embraced far-left, republican, and even communistic politics whereas d’Indy remained steadfastly on the reactionary right-wing end of the political spectrum.  D’Indy shared with Wagner, however, the conviction that the present lacked character and made way for vulgarity and corruption.  D’Indy thought with Wagner that the resurrection of art, particularly musical art, at a high level of seriousness would have actual, social consequences.

That quite plausible notion, stimulated by the sudden interest in Wagner’s art, articulated itself in diverse phenomena: Not only numerous items of journalism, including Baudelaire’s essay, but the wide circulation of Wagner’s operatic scores in piano reduction, and the appearance of French compositions imitating the extended harmonies and blended orchestrations of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, as well as operas on Gothic and medieval themes.  In French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré (1951), Martin Cooper notes that Emmanuel Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1886) is “a monumental essay in ‘Nordic’ poetry” and that Edouard Lalo’s Roi d’Ys (1888) draws on “a Breton legend which might well have commended itself to Wagner.”  Catulle Mendès, who supplied Chabrier with his libretto, published his study Richard Wagner in 1886.

The Revue Wagnérienne ran from February 1885 to July 1888, its roster of editors and contributors indicating the currency of its dedicated topic: Aside from Mendès and among others – Jacques-Émile Blanche (editor-in-chief), Charles Bonnier (writer), Pierre Bonnier (psychiatrist), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (English husband of Wagner’s step-daughter Eva), Édouard Dujardin (playwright), Joris-Karl Huysmans (novelist), Stéphane Mallarmé (poet), Stuart Merrill (poet), Pierre Quillard (poet), Algernon Swinburne (poet), Paul Verlaine (poet), Charles Vignier (poet), Villiers de l’Isle Adam (playwright), and Téodor de Wyzewa (aesthetician).  According to Davies, these things amounted to so much “ideological furor,” but Baudelaire’s astonishment was neither ideological nor only so much furor; it was the response of genuine sensitivity to a colossal phenomenon – and the same goes for d’Indy.

D’Indy met Liszt in 1873 and, as previously mentioned, attended the premiere of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth in 1876.  Two works, the symphonic poem La forêt enchantée (1878) and the symphonic triptych Wallenstein (1870 – 1881) record d’Indy’s vital reaction to the Lisztian-Wagnerian “music of the future.”  La forêt enchantée, after a ballad by Johann Ludwig Uhland, predates by two years Franck’s composition, Le chasseur maudit, also Uhland-inspired.  The panoply of New German School effects is in evidence: The intensely nocturnal atmosphere of Tristan Act II, the hunting horns of that opera and of the earlier Tannhäuser, aviary displays in the woodwinds, as in Siegfried, and the ever-present chromaticism of the harmonies.  The opening bars of La forêt enchantée indeed seem to echo those of Das Rheingold, if only briefly.  D’Indy’s “voice,” moreover, exceeds Liszt’s voice in fluency and elegance; where one of Liszt’s symphonic poems remains episodic, d’Indy knits the events of his program seamlessly.  [Note: Links appear at the end of the essay.]

Wallenstein, after Friedrich Schiller, consists of three panels, the first of which, “Le camp de Wallenstein,” much rewritten, goes back to an early “Piccolomini Overture.”  D’Indy added “Max et Thécla” and “La mort de Wallenstein” later.  Where La forêt enchantée takes root in Gothic folklore, Wallenstein taps the chronicles of the Religious Wars of the Seventeenth Century.  In Wallenstein, d’Indy incorporates music of the period, anticipating his subsequent use of French folksong and Gregorian chant.  It might justly be remarked that while Liszt incorporated chant and folksong, Wagner almost never did, the one exception being his use of the Dresden Amen in the last act of Parsifal.  Wallenstein reflects d’Indy’s conviction that music must avoid the merely decorative; that it should participate in the continuum of civilized life, whether by communicating with the realm of legend or that of history.

When in 1894 d’Indy with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant established the Schola Cantorum, a school for composers and performers that would concentrate on instrumental and orchestral music rather than opera, he began his project of realizing his ideals in a functioning institution that would compete with the other conservatories already in existence.  D’Indy believed in the absoluteness of counterpoint as the basis of compositional excellence; he believed that musician-composers should know not only music but also the history of music – and alongside all that be well grounded in the other arts and the humanities.  D’Indy believed that a truly French music, reflecting France’s Catholic civilization, would find its natural soil in the Gregorian repertory and in regional folk music.  He believed that music should participate in all the central institutions of a society, beginning with the Church and that in so doing it would contribute to the moral health of the nation.

D’Indy’s emphasis on the regionality of folk-music sources indicates his appreciation that the French nation was forged by the union of distinct smaller polities and local dialects.  Although d’Indy’s own music would become progressively less Teutonic, his ideas about music as a moral and cultural force remain identifiably Wagnerian.

There were scoffers.  Camille Saint-Saëns issued a pamphlet (1919) on Les Idées de Monsieur D’Indy, in which he mocked what he portrayed as his subject’s benighted reactionism, as exemplified by the textbook Cours de composition (1912).  Saint-Saëns writes that d’Indy would “assimiler l’Art à la Foi religieuse” and he declares that “on pourrait lui observer que le Pérugin, que Berlioz, à qui manquait cette Foi, n’en furent pas moins d’admirables artistes même dans le genre religieux, mais passons.”  [“Assimilate art to religious faith”; “one might observe to (d’Indy) that neither Pérugin nor Berlioz, although both lacked faith, was for it a less admirable artist in the religious genre, but we let it pass.”]  Concerning Berlioz, anyway, one senses despite the conventional irreligion a sense for the psychic profundity of religious ceremony – for example, in the Grande Messe de Morts.

German Composer Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner (1818-1883)

Saint-Saëns shared Berlioz’s skepticism, but he lacked the elder composer’s sense of ritual.  Perhaps it is purely a coincidence that Saint-Saëns was not a deep, but merely a decorative, composer, no matter the gratifying brilliance and nuanced wit of his art.

D’Indy’s own Second Symphony in B-Flat (1904) illustrates its author’s notion of abstract music as an expression of civilization – the equivalent in tones of a Gothic cathedral – and as fully capable of inspiring in its auditors a spiritual response similar to that elicited by architecture or liturgy.  Cooper judges the score “one of d’Indy’s most solid and logically constructed”; and he detects in it “reminiscences of Götterdämmerung in the development of the first movement and of Parsifal in the slow movement.”  Davies, hewing to his stingy assessment of d’Indy, calls the same work as “stifling, intimidating.”  Both commentators were writing when opportunities to hear the symphony were few.  Now that the score enjoys three or four recordings, listeners in reassessing it will want to correct Davies.

D’Indy builds the Symphony in B-Flat on two germinal motifs heard at the outset of the First Movement, one chorale-like, the other song-like; indeed, the composer contrives that each of the remaining three movements should derive its thematic material from the two motifs, which return in complex counterpoint at the end of the Fourth Movement.  Thus all four movements join in unity, with development throughout – a symphonic condensation of Wagner’s plan in the Ring tetralogy.

Jour d’été à la montagne (1905) testifies again to d’Indy’s creative power at its height.  Like Wallenstein, Jour is a symphonic triptych, an orchestral nature-portrait akin to Claude Debussy’s Mer (1902) and to other roughly contemporaneous scores such as Frederick Delius’ Song of the High Hills (1911) and Richard Strauss’ Alpensinfonie (1916).  The three sections are: Aurore (“Dawn”), Jour (“Full Day”), and Soir (“Evening”).  The program, related to Victor Hugo’s poem “Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne” [“What one hears on the Mountain”] which had also inspired Liszt, presents a religio-metaphysical allegory setting the aspects of human existence, as seen and heard from the mountaintop, against a spiritual-universal backdrop.  Soir deftly incorporates one of the Gregorian chants for the Feast of the Assumption.

The work’s literary associations extend to d’Indy’s own manifesto for serious composers: “Before all else the artist must have Faith – faith in God, faith in his art – because it is faith which spurs him on to knowledge and it is by means of this knowledge that he can mount ever higher in the scale of being, to the term of his whole nature, God.”  D’Indy would also insist that “the artist must be inspired by the sublime.”  (From the Cour de composition, as quoted by Cooper)

D’Indy’s vision is Romantic, Catholic, and thoroughly at odds with the Twentieth-Century Modern Age into which his life extended by three decades.  Once more, the parallelism with Elgar seems appropriate.  We have a better picture, indeed, of Elgar, than of d’Indy, for a good part of d’Indy’s creative effort went into the opera-oratorios that he launched regularly throughout his authorship, and these works have fallen into complete oblivion.  Elgar’s oratorios, on the other hand, retain a niche in the concert repertory – in the United Kingdom, at least – and on record.   Le chant de la cloche (1883), Fervaal (1893), L’Etranger (1906), and La légende de Saint Christophe (1915), the last a “sacred drama in three acts,” would make a fascinating comparative study put in place alongside The Light of Life (1896), The Dream of Gerontius (1900), The Apostles (1903), and The Kingdom (`1906).  Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-Flat uses the same structural devices as d’Indy’s Symphony No. 2 in B-Flat although Elgar’s score, full of marches and catchy tunes, hews closer to democratic art than d’Indy’s score.

D’Indy embarrassed himself in the Dreyfuss Case by siding with the anti-Dreyfussards.  He thereby tainted himself with anti-Semitism.  It should be entered into the ledger on d’Indy’s behalf, however, that despite his rhetoric he maintained perfectly cordial relations with his Jewish friends and students, even dedicating Symphony No. 2 to Paul Dukas (1865 – 1937), whose own Symphony in C-Major (1906) adheres to the compositional principles of the Schola Cantorum.  Students of d’Indy like Guy Ropartz (1864 – 1955), Albéric Magnard (1865 – 1914), Leevi Madetoja (1887 – 1947) and Albert Roussel (1869 – 1937) kept up the master’s dispensation well into the Twentieth Century.  Finnish, Romanian, and Latvian composers made use of the d’Indy Tradition.  Cole Porter (1891 – 1964) was a d’Indy student and a Schola graduate.  The Schola Cantorum exists today and has a global presence.

It might be useful to understand d’Indy as a “Practical Traditionalist,” someone whose attitude toward modernity resembled that of his countrymen René Guénon, on the one hand, and Henri de Lubac on the other, but who also enjoyed creative genius as a musician and possessed the vital energy to found a functioning institution for the embodiment of his ideals – just as Wagner was both a composer of music-dramas and the conjuror of a functioning institution at Bayreuth.  If d’Indy’s opera-oratorios remained inaccessible musically at present, as they do, it would remain possible nevertheless to consult their libretti, every one of which is concerned with religio-metaphysical problems such as transcendence and redemption.  Fervaal even seeks to synthesize Christianity, Paganism, and Islam – shades of Guénon.

Interested parties might begin with the Symphonie sur un chant montagnard Cévenole (1886), the work in which his melodic gift is most inspired.  The Poèmes des rivages (1921) and the Diptyque Méditerranéen (1926) are in d’Indy’s later rather more Gallic style – they make a rapprochement with Impressionism and are immediately attractive.  So are Istar (1897), based on the legend of the Babylonian goddess’s descent into hell, and Choral varié (1903), for either viola or saxophone and orchestra, which show d’Indy’s facility with variation-form.  Beyond those are the works discussed in this essay.

La mort de Wallenstein(1881)
Saugefleurie Part I (1884)
Saugefleurie Part II (1884)
Symphonie sur un chant montagnard Cévenole (1886)
Istar (1897)
Chorale varié (1903)
Symphony No. 2 in B-Flat (1904)
Jour d’été à la montagne (Aurore) (1905)
Jour d’été a la montagne (Jour) (1905)
Jour d’été à la montagne (Soir) (1905)
Souvenirs Part I (1906)
Souvenirs Part II (1906)
Poèmes des rivages Part I (1921)
Poèmes des rivages Part II (1921)
Poèmes des rivages Part III (1921)
Poèmes des rivages Part IV (1921)
Diptyque méditerranéen Part I (1926)
Diptyque méditerranéen Part II (1926)

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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