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String Quartet No 1 in D major, Op 35
first performed by the Ysaÿe Quartet in Brussels on 24 February 1891

'Chausson & Indy: String Quartets' (CDH55457)
Chausson & Indy: String Quartets
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Movement 1: Lent et soutenu – Un peu plus vite
Track 4 on CDH55457 [10'58] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: Lent et calme
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Movement 3: Assez modéré
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Track 6 on HYP201302 [6'27] Download-only monthly sampler
Movement 4: Assez lent
Track 7 on CDH55457 [9'56] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

String Quartet No 1 in D major, Op 35
Paul Marie Théodore Vincent d’Indy was born in Paris on 27 March 1851 into a Roman Catholic, aristocratic family whose men-folk had been soldiers for three centuries. To adapt the words of Bernard Shaw, patriotism, religion and discipline were mother’s milk to him. Who can say for sure what he suffered from the death of his mother in giving birth to him, or to what extent the severe regime of his grandmother, the formidable Comtesse Rézia d’Indy, inclined him to regard rules as the best way of getting through life?

Compared with Fauré, who did not dare venture on a string quartet until he was in his late seventies, d’Indy could be called an early starter. But in 1890, at the age of thirty-nine, he already had an impressive body of work to his name. From 1873 he had been one of Franck’s pupils and was to be the most assiduous of them all in promoting his teacher’s principles, but it would be grossly unfair to see him as any kind of Franckian clone. His three orchestral overtures collectively called Wallenstein (1881) display a martial energy more Wagnerian than Franckian, while his Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (1886) celebrates the great outdoors of the Cévennes mountains in a way that would probably have been beyond the reach of the ‘pater seraphicus’.

Some idea of how d’Indy approached quartet-writing can be gained from the notes later taken by students from his composition courses at the Schola Cantorum, a conservatoire he helped found in 1894. Although his Second String Quartet of 1897 was the one he himself chose as an example, the parallels with the First Quartet are close: in particular, he stayed with the traditional forms of sonata structure, lied, dance form and rondo for the four movements and with traditional emphases on rhythmic development and key contrasts, but followed Franckian, so-called ‘cyclic’ techniques of melodic transformation, designed to unify the work as a whole. Not only that, but the universality of the cyclic motifs for each of these two Quartets proves that d’Indy was concerned to place both works very much within the hallowed Germanic tradition. For the Second Quartet the motif is the one Bach took for the E major fugue of Book II of ‘the 48’ (which S S Wesley called ‘Saints in Glory’) and which Mozart re-used for the fugal miracles in the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, while this First Quartet is based around another four-note motif (descending fourth–rising tone/semitone–descending fourth/fifth), found in Mahler’s First Symphony, which d’Indy would almost certainly not have known, and as the Bell motif in the first act of Parsifal, which he certainly did, having travelled to Bayreuth for the premiere in July 1882. We know that he was annoyed by Delibes saying he liked the Flower Maidens ‘because il y avait des petites femmes and that’s always fun’; it is also possible that he resented Debussy’s borrowing of the Bell motif for his song about fair roundabouts, Chevaux de bois, and determined to make more respectful use of it.

Before the sonata structure proper of the first movement, the Bell motif ushers in a slow introduction. If this represents the sublime, with its rugged octaves and chromatic bending of the interval of a fourth, the soft, high answer can be taken as representing the beautiful (d’Indy, writing at a time when such things were still permitted, would identify such contrasts as masculine versus feminine). The sonata structure proper, based in D minor, tries to some extent to reconcile these two elements. The falling fourth can still be heard in the first theme, but the smooth second theme has shaken free of it—an almost operatic melody over a pedal bass and with that long note in the middle of the bar which was a fingerprint of Franck pupils. From here the progress of the sonata structure is easily followed, with the development section signalled by a return of the Bell motif now ‘correctly’ in perfect fourths. After a premature flirtation with D major (the Rondo will continue from this aborted premise), the bells end the movement in gritty, sublime fashion.

In the second movement, in the traditionally ‘relaxed’ flattened submediant B flat major, d’Indy takes this sublime motif and beautifies it: in the fifth bar the first violin is even marked ‘solo’, an unusual occurrence in the chamber music of a composer who disliked display above all things. This solo continues through a quicker section in G minor to a simultaneous sounding of these two ideas on first violin and cello in which d’Indy’s masterly control of counterpoint conjures up sublimity with no hint of ruggedness or excess. The movement ends with a longer exploration of the Bell motif in which attempts to undermine the tonic note B flat are ultimately resisted.

The structure of the third movement is an intriguing mixture of lied and rondo forms, most conveniently expressed as: A–B–C–A'–A'+B–A. At the risk of imposing an unduly personal view on this movement, I hear ‘A’ as the reassuring, modal song of a Russian nurse (d’Indy does mark it ‘with the feeling of a popular song’ and all things Russian were popular in Paris in the nineties) and ‘B’ and ‘C’ as the antics of her young charges (a number of rude G sharps in the context of D minor represent the apogee of their wild behaviour), until they are finally brought to heel with a cadence on the dominant.

The start of the last movement shows d’Indy bidding for the sublime by the inclusion of opposites, in the manner of Shakespeare or the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony. The first violin begins the movement with a recitative (thus indicated) which burgeons into a mini-development taking in not only the Bell motif but other material from the introduction and the first movement. For some moments the nature of the ensuing finale is called into doubt: will it be heroic, tragic, intellectual, or a light-hearted throwaway? In fact no single adjective could suffice. In choosing to develop the aborted flirtation with D major from the end of the first movement, d’Indy seems at first to be opting for throwaway, but judicious reminders of the Bell motif together with false climaxes and two successive accelerations from quaver through triplet quavers to semiquavers. These all serve to keep us on our toes right to the end. As a personal judgment on the work as a whole I would venture that there is very little that is merely ‘joli’, rather more that is ‘sublime’ and a great deal that is ‘beau’.

The Ysaÿe Quartet gave the first performance of this work in Brussels on 24 February 1891.

from notes by Roger Nichols © 2000

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