About this Recording
8.223140 - INDY: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Vincent d’Indy (1851–1931)
String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 35 • String Quartet No. 2 in E Major, Op. 45


One cannot fail to be perplexed by the mass of contradictions that surround Vincent d’Indy. The composer of the Symphony on a French Mountain Air was a paradoxical figure, and the task of evaluating the man, his life’s work and his music is fraught with irreconcilables that are easier accepted than explained.

Paul Marie Théodore Vincent d’Indy was born in Paris on 27 March 1851. The family traced its descent from nobility in the mountainous Vivarais region of the Ardèche in Languedoc. Born an aristocrat, d’Indy preferred in adulthood to live in humbler circumstances. He was brought up by his grandmother, the tyrannical Countess Rézia d’Indy, in an atmosphere of the strictest moral and intellectual discipline. The countess was a cultured woman. who had known Grétry and who had admired Beethoven’s music during the composer’s lifetime, and it was she who first oversaw her grandson’s musical education. At the age of eleven d’Indy began piano studies with Louis Diémer and Antoine François Marmontel; later he received instruction in harmony from Albert Lavignac. Despite the selection of prestigious music teachers, the family’s unequivocal intention was that d’Indy should become a lawyer. In his sixteenth year Vincent was introduced to Berlioz’s Traité d’instrumentation by his uncle Wilfred d’Indy, Rézia’s elder son and an amateur composer of chamber and theatrical music. Seduced by the splendours of the orchestra, the young d’Indy decided then and there on a musical career. Upon his return from voluntary service in the Franco-Prussian War, in which he took active part in the defence of Paris, he defied his family’s wishes, forsook his legal studies and immersed himself in Parisian musical life. The young aristocrat joined the orchestra of the Concerts Colonne as a timpanist to learn music from the ground up.

His friend Henri Duparc was responsible for the two pivotal events that shaped d’Indy’s musical character. The first was a suggestion that he show some of his compositions to César Franck. To a neophyte who had already won Bizet’s and Massenet’s approval with an overblown Symphonie Italienne, heard at a rehearsal of Pasdeloup’s orchestra, Franck’s criticism must have been devastating: “You have ideas, but you cannot do anything!” Still, Franck recognized d’Indy’s talent and accepted him as a pupil, proving to be a dedicated teacher—one who managed to imprint his ideas indelibly on his young disciple.

The second event of consequence was the journey that d’Indy and Duparc undertook in 1876 to Bayreuth for the first performance of the Ring. There is no question that d’Indy fell under Wagner’s spell, but unlike many a weaker personality that succumbed totally to the intoxicating magic, he was able to absorb and assimilate what he deemed useful while maintaining his individuality. It can be claimed with justification that d’Indy’s opera Fervaal (1889–95), with its rich orchestration and imposing Christian mysticism, is indeed the French Parsifal, but it must be remembered that during the same period of Wagnerian enthusiasm d’Indy consciously applied Franckian principals to a folk melody from his ancestral home in the Ardèche to create a masterpiece of Gallic nationalism, the Symphony on a French Mountain Air (1886).

In his personal life d’Indy observed a strict, inflexible schedule and paid great attention to the smallest of details. His innate dignity created an impression of aloofness and frigidity, but in truth he was a sensitive, gregarious man who made friends easily. He was a forbidding intellectual but a man of warm simplicity. He rarely allowed his sense of humour to surface; when it did, it was often tempered with cynicism. He was a devout Roman Catholic with an austerity that bordered on Calvinism; at the same time he felt the potent allure of pagan sensuality, embodied in nature and legend. He approached music with a keenly analytic mind but was emotionally dedicated to his art.

D’Indy’s many contradictory qualities came to pervade the Schola Cantorum, for that institution was in many ways the expression of his overwhelming personality. Since 1871 d’Indy had been a member of the Société Nationale de Musique, formed to promote contemporary symphonic and chamber music in France, and in 1890 he succeeded Franck as president. In 1894 together with Charles Bordes (primarily a composer of religious music) and Alexandre Guilmant (the founder of the modern French organ school) d’Indy established the Schola Cantorum. At first an association for the performance of sacred music, by 1900 it had become a general musical school. D’Indy thought of Franck as “the grandfather of the Schola Cantorum”, and he founded the curriculum on Franckist principles. The school soon rivalled the Conservatory as the pre-eminent musical centre in France, and with the influx of foreign students, d’Indy’s influence at its fullest reached from Chile to Turkey. During the Parisian artistic ferment of the 1920s, the Schola’s influence began to wane. Nevertheless, in France alone Magnard, Sévérac, Roussel, le Flem, Canteloube, Satie, Auric, Honegger and Varèse were among the many who had studied with d’Indy.

D’Indy’s own idiom embraced the diverse influences of Gregorian chant, Palestrina, the Netherlands masters, French folk song, Bach, late Beethoven and Wagner, but above all he is perceived as Franck’s heir and successor. Though he was a Frenchman whose patriotism bordered on chauvinism, his musical background was preponderantly Teutonic. Much of his rich idiom stems from Wagner, but he owed his lucid orchestral colours to Berlioz. He favoured a Germanic approach that emphasized continuity, thematic links and cellular development. He based everything on sound classical principles, but folk music was not excluded from his art. His scores are often of an intimidating intellectual complexity, yet clarity and a spirit of order reign. They may be calculated with mathematical precision but it is their poetry that one hears. Though devoted to absolute music, he needed the inspiration of extra-musical stimuli-literary, dramatic or emotional. Those among his symphonies, sonatas and chamber works that do not carry an explicit programme have an implicit one, such as the struggle between two musical elements representing good and evil. According to some commentators d’Indy, the enemy of programme music, wrote nothing but symphonic poems.

D’Indy regarded chamber music with utmost seriousness, and his endeavours in that field stand apart from the rest of his work. He attached special importance to the string quartet, which he felt was a medium that must await the composer’s maturity. True to his convictions he composed his first string quartet at the age of forty. Eventually he produced three string quartets, and the Third (1928–29) represents the relaxed, refined classicism of his last years. A fourth quartet was left unfinished at the time of his death on 2 December 1931.

Conceptually and idiomatically the first two quartets owe much to Beethoven, and even the all-powerful influence of Franck takes second place. Each work is based on a motto theme and makes extensive use of contrapuntal development in the first movement. The employment of short phrases, pregnant with dramatic possibilities, is reminiscent of Beethoven’s late quartets. For the most part Franck’s chromaticism is conspicuous by its absence and is strongly evident only in the slow movement of the second quartet. Both works show structural tendencies later codified in the Schola Cantorum’s curriculum, the Cours de Composition Musicale.

Typically d’Indy worked on more than one composition simultaneously, and the Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 35, was written in 1890 while he was occupied also with Fervaal. At the outset the motto theme is given out in several forms, and freely inverted, it becomes the first subject of the Allegro. In the development of this sonata movement, the second subject and the motto play important roles. A brief coda based on the motto rounds things off while allowing a last appearance of the first subject. The poetic slow movement is a five-part structure with a main theme (another variant of the motto) that contrasts with a somewhat Franckian subsidiary theme. The mood lightens in the sonata-rondo third movement, where three ideas predominate. The first is a moderately slow, folk-like melody. The second, in quicker tempo, is a further derivation of the motto and has a waltz-like subordinate element. The third, heard after a restatement of the initial theme, is a fast, rhythmically propulsive variant of it. Some brilliant development, involving the second and third theme, follows. Thereafter a reprise presents the dance-like second subject and slow first theme in reverse order. Without pause the slow introduction to the finale begins. In recitative the violin puts forth a derivation of the motto plus thematic reminiscences of the first and second movements, after which the rondo proper begins. The refrain is a joyous theme, filled with light and life, and the second subject is a sinuous melody, folk-like except for its wide compass. It is in fact yet another transformation of the motto. In a renewed rush of invention, an elaborate scheme of alternation and development of the two ideas ensues. The climax is reached with a peroration of the motto that manages to be both grand and ethereal, whereafter a final reappearance of the finale’s two themes in breathless developmental combination with the motto brings the quartet to a close.

The First Quartet was premiered in Brussels by the Quatuor Ysaÿe on 20 February 1891, and it was first heard in Paris on 4 April. On both occasions critical acclaim was all but unanimous. The Société Nationale considered it the work of a true master. Chausson summed up the sentiments in a letter, writing that he could not find enough to say and that not only d’Indy’s friends but all of France honoured him. This quartet of grand dimensions was applauded for its nobility, incomparably rich inspiration, irreproachable thought and great melodic beauty. Such encomia may have seemed excessive to d’Indy: though well organized by the cyclical principle, the quartet failed to evolve all its melodic elements from a single motif, and such a compromise came to diminish its value in his eyes. Only in the second quartet some four years later did d’Indy fully realise his ideas.

D’Indy saw his Quartet No. 2 in E Major as stemming from the lessons of Franck’s string quartet but attempting something of a different order. Here the motto is not a fully formed theme, as in the First Quartet, but a four-note germ that engenders virtually all of the material. The procedure has precedents in Franck’s Prélude, Aria et Finale and in his PréludeChoral et Fugue, and it resembles the organic process that Sibelius employed in his later symphonies.

The four-note motto appears at the head of the score, notated in semibreves. Its intervallic design is the same as one used repeatedly by Mozart, most significantly in the finale of the Jupiter Symphony. In view of d’Indy’s opinion of Mozart, borrowing from that source is doubtful. More likely the motto is a fragment, taken either deliberately or unconsciously, from Gregorian chant. In similar fashion to the first quartet, the second begins with a slow introduction that presents the motto in various aspects. A fugal treatment leads to the appearance of a manly, determined first subject. After the supple second theme is stated, development begins before the end of the exposition. The formal development is relatively short and favours the first subject. Throughout there are complex motivic relationships not readily discernible beneath the apparent spontaneity: in d’Indy’s music rigorous logic does not preclude inspiration. The remarkably free scherzo, occupying second position, is dominated by a rhythmically brisk theme in mostly quintuple metre: the trio, heard twice, provides contrast in 6/4 time. Based on three melodic elements, the serene slow movement has a Beethovenian eloquence. The finale is constructed with sovereign mastery, and its youthful ardour is entirely representative of d’Indy. After a brief introduction consisting solely of the motto, the first subject appears over an accompaniment in the viola; it is derived from an inverted form of the motto. A related, scurrying idea forms the second element of this first subject group. After the lyrical second theme is announced, what follows is a classical sonata-form development and recapitulation with one significant deviation. Before the reprise the motto theme in slow tempo heralds the return of the fugato subject from the opening movement’s introduction, but in inverted form. At the end of a rapid coda, the quartet concludes with a single, emphatic restatement of the motto.

On the occasion of its première on 5 March 1898 by the Quatuor Parent, d’Indy’s second quartet was judged a perfect success. The Guide Musicale reported that the science of the young master was “allied magnificently to an inspiration of the first order”, and went on to cite resemblances to Beethoven. Paul Dukas’s initial impression in the Revue Hébdomadaire praised the quartet’s perfect mastery. In a second article, written after a study of the score, he was glowing in his elucidation of its formal plan and thematic relationships. Across the Atlantic in 1905, the Bostonian critic Philip Hale described the quartet as one of transparency and passionate beauty, with a power and a life capable of touching the heart as well as the mind. Thanks to his infinite ingenuity, d’Indy created a marvel of the quartet genre worthy of a place among the best, a masterwork that has been neglected for too long.

David Nelson

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