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Program Notes – Nov. 1, 2008

Symphony on a French Mountain Air, op. 25

Vincent D’Indy (1851 – 1931) 

Vincent D’Indy, son of a French nobleman, might have been more important as a teacher and music theorist than as a composer. He completed more than a hundred works which he considered good enough to assign an opus number, but only a few of them are played frequently today.

Like many aristocratic gentlemen, he initially embarked on a career in law, and also served in the military. He was even decorated as a hero in the Franco-Prussian war. However, his first love was for music, and he picked up most of his earliest training quite informally, not entering the Paris Conservatory until the rather late age of 21. He was precocious, but erratic. A famous remark at the time by Cesar Franck spurred him towards formal training: “You have ideas, but you cannot do anything.” Stung, he actually elected to study composition with Franck, and later became one of Franck’s greatest champions.

Erudite, cultivated and personally reserved, his musical goal was to “elevate the ordinary into the beautiful.” He was devoted to absolute music and the German symphonic ideal, and for a time sided with Saint-Saëns in criticizing the Impressionist tendencies in new musical compositions that were growing under Debussy’s influence. His own music mostly reflects this style Nevertheless, as a teacher and musical scholar he eventually became a champion of both Wagner and Debussy, who completely departed from his own style. When the directions being taken by musical composition splintered in the early Twentieth Century, other approaches to composition gained ascendancy and D’Indy (along with most of his conservative colleagues) began to lose influence.

D’Indy composed in a wide variety of musical forms, including symphonies, operas, tone poems, vocal, keyboard and chamber works. None of his three operas had much success, but his instrumental compositions fared a bit better. Nevertheless, none have become staples of the repertory. This is unfortunate, because his music is well-crafted and beautiful – it was merely losing touch with the new directions that composition was taking at the time.

The Symphony on a French Mountain Air is a hybrid work. It is based on folk songs collected in the mountainous Ardeche region of southern France. Its structure is more related to a Romantic-era symphony than a traditional concerto. The piano part is showy and virtuosic, but thoroughly integrated into the complete work, rather than the clear focal element.

The main theme, announced immediately by the English horn, reappears periodically throughout the work, both as a complete statement of the song as well as in fragmentary forms resembling Wagnerian leit-motivs. Two other melodies also play prominent roles, both individually and in combination. The exposition, development and recapitulation of these themes reveal an almost Brahmsian ability to mold musical materials to a desired form – rather than adjust the formal structure to accommodate the ideas. In this regard, D’Indy was one of the last of a disappearing breed, but his music was still full of life. This brilliant showpiece is probably his masterwork.  

Symphony no. 6 in A-major

Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) 

For many listeners, the music of Anton Bruckner is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, twisted around a conundrum. For others, he is the quintessential transcendentalist, the epitome of spiritualism in music. However one views his position in the hierarchy of composers, few react to his music with indifference.

Bruckner, the man, was the exact opposite of the cosmopolitan gentleman. He was sensitive and introverted. He lacked social graces. He was naïve, with very little experience of the world beyond his own small sphere. Yet he never failed in his belief of what music – especially his own music – was meant to be. It was the ultimate homage to the highest imaginable being, his own personal vision of God.

His early training as an organist eventually earned him a position as organist and choir director of a cathedral near Linz, where he became renowned as a gifted improviser on the organ. His compositional style was so different form the standards of the time that he polarized the musical world. Some who heard it became his supporters, who loved his works and considered him a genius. Others, more often, considered his compositions incomprehensible, the outpourings of an untrained and unsophisticated “country bumpkin”, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. He wrote many pieces in his early years, many of them choral works (sometimes with orchestra) as befitting his position as choirmaster of a major cathedral. Strangely, he wrote almost nothing for his own instrument – the organ. However, it is his late symphonic output that has eventually earned his musical genius the recognition it has only recently received.

A truly self-critical man, he doubted his compositional skills for most of his life. He frequently revised and altered his works in response to well-meaning friends who couldn’t relate to his unique musical idiom. (As a result, almost all of his symphonies are available in several versions, edited by various musical scholars.) In fact, at around age thirty he abandoned composing altogether for several years in order to study counterpoint and refine one of his skills that he himself thought to be weakest. It was only after this fallow period that he truly emerged as a major symphonic composer, at age forty.

During his inactive period, he heard for the first time the music of Wagner, and was thoroughly captivated. He was impressed by two elements in particular: the colors possible in the orchestra, and the idea that a single piece of music could encompass such a gigantic scope. For Bruckner, the content and story-lines of Wagner’s stage dramas were secondary to what the music itself conveyed as musical expression. Long, slow transformations and repeated evocation of tension and release became the substance of his own music.

Bruckner’s style is easily recognizable. In all his works, there is a unity of the sounds being reproduced. The music centers upon instrumental colors and unusual transformations of harmonic relationships, rather than development of themes. The Sixth Symphony contains all the elements of his mature style: fragmentary themes, unexpected modulations of key, frequent episodes of tension and release, gradual buildups to an impending false climax followed by relaxation, sudden bursts of fortissimo as surprising interruptions of placid serenity. In all of this he uses conventional harmonies – very approachable to most listeners – but in unexpected sequences.

His works have been likened to the massive and uplifting architecture of a Gothic cathedral. Since he was a deeply religious man, who intended for his symphonies to glorify God, he would have been (humbly) proud of this description. It has been said that Bruckner composed only a single life-long symphony, but divided it into parts numbered one through nine, like the chapters of a book. (Like so many other major composers, he lived only long enough to complete nine symphonies … a fact that has contributed to superstition about this number in many successors.) If so, chapter 6 (this symphony!) represents one of the most imaginative and unusual embodiments of his unique and personal musical genius. It deserves to be heard and appreciated.

Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly

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