Vincent d’Indy, Heavenly Saxes

Vincent d’Indy, circa 1895

A close friend of Paul Dukas, Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) grew up on Wagner’s operas, Gregorian chant, and the music of Palestrina.[1]  A scholar of Beethoven and Franck, d’Indy’s theories and ideas on music were radical and a great departure from the musical conservatism represented by the Paris Conservatorie, where he studied under César Franck.  D’Indy’s masterpiece, Fervaal (premiered in 1897), demonstrates a new French sound. D’Indy wrote Fervaal as the French response to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In Act 2, the earth goddess Kaito gives the following prophecy “If the oath is violated, if the ancient law is broken, if love reigns over the world, the cycle of Esus is closed. Only death, injurious death, will call forth life.  From death, new life will be born.”  During this prophecy, Kaito is accompanied by a wordless female choir with saxophone doubling the choir (1:45.02-1:49:15 in the video below.

In the score (page 326), the saxophones are embedded in the choir, “each of the four saxophone must be placed next to the parts of the choir which it is intended to double.” Since the saxophones are doubling a female choir, d’Indy chooses the quartet of SAAT to mimic the wordless choir.  A review of a performance at Avery Fisher Hall in 2009 comments on the instrumentation that “four saxophones to accompany the apparition of the cloud-goddess Kaito and her cumulonimbus attendants — an answer for those who have doubted the spiritual qualities of the saxophone sound.” This use of the saxophone is a radical departure from the operas of performed at the Paris Opera. D’Indy pushes the harmonic boundaries to the point of atonality.  The voices are close—sometimes only a half step apart with clashing overtones and multiple voice crossings.  It’s understandable why the saxophones are in the choir rather than together as a quartet, as the saxophone can ground the vocalists to one voice.  Listening to this style of writing, it’s clear that d’Indy influenced a new style of quartet writing, as this voicing takes hold in saxophone quartet arrangements in French music of the 1930s.  The wordless vocals, where the choral writing is closer to instrumental line than a traditional chorale, is also used by fellow impressionist Debussy and most famously, Ravel in Dafnis and Chloe

Fervaal was the first of a handful of works for the saxophone by d’Indy. His most well-known work for the saxophone, Choral Varié was written in 1903 for saxophone Elise Boyer Hall.[2]  D’Indy’s use of the saxophone in Fervaal, written from 1889-1895, predates Choral Varié by a decade. D’Indy also uses a quartet of saxophones, this time ATTB in his symphonic suite, Poème des rivages, published in 1922.   

Fervaal received it’s premiere in Brussels in 1897. The center of the operatic saxophone was no longer isolated at the Paris Opera, and the use of the saxophone expanded to opera houses throughout Europe. This trend continues throughout the twentieth century, as the saxophone took hold in Germany, Austria, England, and even Italy.

[1] Robert Orledge and Andrew Thomson, “Indy, (Paul Marie Théodore) Vincent d'” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, date retrieved 10/5/2020

[2] Stephen Cottrell, The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) pg. 244. 

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