D’Indy’s Religious Experience in the Mountains

In the Alps. © Charles Thibo

The sea has inspired many a composer, but how about mountains? Richard Strauss has composed his “Alpensinfonie” and Olivier Messiaen “Chronochromie”, both subject of an earlier post. And then there is Vincent d’Indy with a beautiful symphonic poem: “Jour d’été à la montagne” (Summer day in the mountains), op. 61. The piece is written in three pieces with the thematic ideas following the course of the day: Twilight – Day (Afternoon under the pines) – Evening and partly it takes up Strauss’ language. In a post about d’Indy’s earlier work “Tableaux de voyage” (op. 36) I explained how this French composer wanted to follow in the footsteps of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, and d’Indy’s proximity to Strauss should not come as a surprise.

Parallels to Richard Strauss

Strauss was born in the second half of the 19th century, so was d’Indy. While Strauss died in 1949, d’Indy passed away in 1931, but they witnessed both the evolution in classical music with many ideas they rejected: the so-called Second Vienna School and its atonal experiments, the break with the past expressed by the music of Igor Stravinsky, Dmitry Shostakovich and Maurice Ravel. They explicitly endorsed the aesthetic ideas of the “Neudeutsche Schule” represented by Liszt and Wagner, who saw itself as the guardian of Ludwig van Beethoven’s legacy and by extension of the legacy of  Johann Sebastian Bach.

D’Indy wrote his symphonic triptych in 1905. In 1890, he had taken over the chairmanship of the “Société Nationale de Musique” (SNM), an association founded by Camille de Saint-Saëns to promote French composers and performing artists. Under d’Indy’s leadership the SNM gradually opened up to the ideas advanced by German composers in the wake of Wagner. D’Indy was an amateur water-colour painter and the idea of contemporary Impressionist painters to render an instantaneous moment with the emphasis on light and colour, the impression of the fleeting moment was a great temptation.

Impressionist techniques

“Jour d’été à la montagne” follows these principles. The first part “Twilight” is described by the composer himself as “an impression from the mountains” when darkness slowly gives was to clarity. A string theme, almost inaudible at the beginning, growing louder and louder, at some winds and percussions set in, reaching its climax to depict the bright sun in a cloudless sky. The second part starts with a pastoral theme, very lyrical – a pleasant afternoon moments in the shadows of the pines.

D’Indy follows Strauss’ idea of a thunderstorm as the culminating point of the second movement that Oxford Music Online singles out as noteworthy with respect to the orchestration: “Piano and chromatic timpani graphically depict a brief clap of thunder…” The last movement “Evening” is introduced with a joyful march, illustrating the return of the hiker to the valley, a melancholic theme suggests the last rays of the sun. Finally the orchestra takes up the mood of the first part – night returns with its attributes of a cold serenity.

Elevating the human spirit

French poems written by Roger de Pampelonne (1850-1885) who described the mountains with an almost religious fervour and assimilated the experience of nature’s magnitude with religious faith. Though d’Indy does not follow the succession of themes in de Pampelonne’s poems, he preserves the religious background – in the third part he uses parts of the Gregorian chant “Virgo Prudentissima”. According to d’Indy’s conception, music had the mission to elevate the human spirit to the ideals set forward by the Christian faith – and with this conception he was not very far from Bach’s views on music.

I will close with a personal reflexion. Whether I am in the mountains or at the seashore, a singular serenity descends upon me. Being surrounded by nature, by the elements, at a safe distance of humanity’s vain dreams and busy lifestyle gives me relief – as do my escapes into the realm of music. It also gives me time and space to think about essentials: Who am I? Whom do I want to be? D’Indy’s “Jour d’été à la montagne” has been recorded by the Iceland Symphonic Orchestra.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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