My ongoing exploration of form and meaning in music now has me a bit obsessed with “reverse variations” form. Thinking more about this, and wondering how well it has succeeded in practice, led me to the piece Istar, op. 42, for orchestra, by Vincent D’Indy. The score is available here from wonderful IMSLP, and I thank my lucky stars for library subscriptions to the Naxos Music Library which of course offers recording of the piece. The piece got my attention because of Don Robertson’s description of the form:
“The program for the work came from the sixth canto of an ancient Assyrian epic poem called Izdubar that was probably written about 2000 B.C. In the poem, the beautiful Goddess Istar’s lover was being held captive in the underworld. To obtain his release, Istar traveled to the underworld, accessible only through a series of seven gates…the gates of Hell. Before entering each one of the seven gates, the beautiful Goddess was required to remove one of her garments, starting with her crown. Finally, when she had reached the seventh gate, the one that opened into the prison chamber, she removed the last piece of clothing, then emerged completely nude into to the dark place where her lover was imprisoned. Using this story as his script, D’Indy composed a brilliant set of variations that ran in reverse order, the theme appearing only once, after all its variations had already taken place. This reverse set of theme and variations was well adapted to d’Indy’s choice of program, with its gradual process of unfolding while stripping away outer elements to reveal an inner core. “In these seven variations,” the composer stated, “we proceed from the complex to the simple, causing the melody to be born little by little, as if emerging from the special harmony presented in the first variation.”
It would seem like an evocative and emotive inspiration for an orchestral work, and a very clever form with great expressive potential. This type of form fascinates me, because the process of gradual and inevitable unfolding leading to climactic realization seems like the perfect emulation of the some of the most intense experiences of life itself. But what is the actual effect of D’Indy’s piece, in practice?
I invited another musician to listen with me, not telling him about the supposed form, and I read no further, nor looked at the score. In the first listening, I did not perceive what I expected in the form, and I assumed my listening lacked focus. After a few notes at the beginning, I heard something that seemed clearly thematic, in the violas and bass clarinet. I heard snatches and developments of this theme throughout, quite sparingly. Then right near the end, that theme seemed to have a triumphant recap, tweaked a bit, in full strings accompanied by an exultant horn line. If this was his theme that he was “disrobing”, then why did he expose the theme in full at the beginning–wouldn’t that “let the cat out of the bag” and miss out on the unique potential of reverse variations? And why didn’t the process of revealing the theme seem more progressive and inevitable?
For the second listening, we read the rest of the Robertson’s programmatic description and afterwards glanced at the score. It turned out that what I thought was the main theme, was only part of an introduction, which Robertson says was to symbolize “the nature of the place where Istar must journey.” What I thought was a triumphant recap of the theme was really only a coda using this introductory material. The theme that D’Indy intended to be his main theme, was in fact exposed little by little: in the first three notes of the piece, then in bits through the variations, then in stark tutti octaves near the end. Why didn’t I hear it this way, even with having this knowledge on the second listening?
The “main” theme is actually quite disjunct and abstruse. As melodies go, it us pretty weak in terms of singability, distinctiveness, memorability, and structural tightness, but a skilled composer could certainly write a piece with it. But at least in D’Indy’s case, I don’t think it was adequate to make his form work as intended. The initial variations supposedly reveal only the harmony of the theme, but because the theme is so complicated and undistinctive, the harmony and theme aren’t “made for each” other at all, and the harmony does not suggest that theme in particular. Some motives of the theme are gradually presented, but that’s all it sounds like; rather than being teasers towards the exposure of a long awaited theme. And because the introductory material is so much catchier than the “main” theme, or any fragments of it, then it easily overshadows. The revelation of the “main” theme sounds related to previous material, but sounds developmental, neither like a restatement of something implied all along, nor like the exposure of a strong theme. The coda that follows easily outshines it.
This is not to disparage the work or D’Indy’s music, with which I’m not terribly familiar! One can judge the work separately from his intentions and still find much value in it. I think D’Indy had a great idea and made very noble efforts. It would be a challenging form to pull off even with a the best of themes. And obviously everyone’s listening experiences are different, and another listener may hear something else entirely in Istar (tell me about it, in the comments!). But it all just reminds me that the greatest challenge for a composer is not to create clever ideas on paper, but to actually realize those intentions in sound and living ears.