Two years ago, when I had just started this blog, I presented Felix Mendelssohn incidental music to William Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Since I first read this play some 20 years ago on a bus stop in Scotland, my vision for the setting of this play has remained the same: a forest with mysterious colored lights twinkling in the darkness, the heavy sweet of smell of flowers in the air, meteorite showers illuminating the nocturnal sky and – music! At that time I was not aware of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, but once I had heard it my reaction was: Oh yes, this is it, very much so! Mendelssohn set my vision to music.
A German ballad set to music
A magical forest then. An enchanted forest? Probably every child has dreamed once in a while to explore such a forest, to meet strange creatures like Alice did and to live through a series of adventures. The French composer Vincent d’Indy takes us to such a place. In 1878 he wrote “La Forêt Enchantée”, Op. 8. It is a symphonic ballad inspired by the poem “Harald” written by the German poet Ludwig Uhland.
Uhland describes in this Romantic ballad how a knight called Harald and his companions enter a forest at night. The moon casts a mysterious light on the marching men, strange sounds are in the air – elves! They surround Harald’s companions and one by one they succumb to their charm. The fairies disarm the warriors and take them away to their wonderland, only Harald resists. The departure of his companions makes him melancholic, he approaches a spring, drinks the cool water and falls to sleep for many centuries. In his sleep he grows older and in his dreams he clutches his sword whenever he hears the thunder of a storm.
French echoes of Richard Wagner
By the time d’Indy wrote “La Forêt Enchantée” he had already decided to become a composer and to abandon the idea of a career as an army officer. From early age on he had received piano lessons and as a young man he had attended Franz Liszt’s piano masterclasses in Weimar. Two years prior to the composition of the ballad, d’Indy had been at the premiere of Richard Wagner’s “Ring der Nibelungen” at Bayreuth, and came back to Paris emotionally overwhelmed by “Die Walküre” and “Götterdämmerung”.
The dramatic adagio echoes Wagner’s late-Romantic musical language, illustrated by the prominent part of the brass and their subtle use in the first movement in a march-like theme: Harald and his companions enter forest. A mysterious sustained string theme and a chant-like theme for the flute announces the elves mesmerizing the knights, disarming and luring them into their kingdom. The third movement starts vigorously with an emphasis on the timpani and the brass at first and a calm theme for the woods – the knights’ useless resistance and Harald’s loneliness and melancholy – a little later. And the composer embeds it all in that whizzing sound of the strings – musical fairy dust!
What a treat! What a precious little piece of music! I truly love it! The Iceland Symphony Orchestra has recorded it.
© Charles Thibo