Vincent D’Indy: Symphonie Cévenole


The French composer and pedagogue Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) composed and published many works over his lifetime, although sadly now many of his works are seldom heard in concerts. One of the only works that does receive performances is Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français (‘Symphony on a French Mountain Air’), also known by its alternative title Symphonie cévenole. Composed in 1886, d’Indy originally conceived the work as a fantasie for piano and orchestra.

The symphony sees the unusual orchestration of having a piano as well as the orchestra, with neither being soloists. The piano part is prominent in the scoring, but it is not the dominant party within the music. As suggested by the alternative title, the work was conceived through inspiration that d’Indy found whilst at Périer overlooking the Cévennes mountains.

The principal theme is taken from a folk song that the composer heard whilst visiting this scenic place. Symphonie Cévenole was dedicated to Marie-Léontine Bordes-Péne, who was the pianist at the Paris premiere in March 1887. It’s notable that d’Indy’s work was composed one year after César Franck’s Symphonic Variations, to which Symphonie Cévenole is indebted for its conception and fusion between symphonic and concerto forms. D’Indy studied under Franck and he became very disciplined in the art of variations, which is a highlight of this work.

The Music

Similarly to other late Romantic French symphonies, Symphonie Cévenole is set in three movements:

  1. Assze lent – Modérément animé
  2. Assez modéreé, mais sans lenteur
  3. Animé

I. Assze lent – Modérément animé

Opening with an evocative melody played on the cor anglais and this melody becomes the single most important kernel of music for the whole work. Sounding like the distant and gentle piping of a shepherd lad watching over his flock in the French mountains. The texture is one of the highlights of this movement, with the fluid musical relationship between the piano and orchestra highlighting the changes in tonality, harmony and melody.

The changes between full orchestrations and small solo parts keeps the interest high throughout the music, with each section oozing sweetness. d’Indy utilizes the strong communication between the instruments and consequently writes convincing counter subjects which offer a type of theme and variations to this opening movement. d’Indy’s woodwind writing is also a pertinent feature of this movement, with the melodic runs and embellishments adding a sense of magic and excitement to the atmosphere. The upper winds work hand in hand with the harp and piano, creating a strong, but sweet, answer to the bold strings and brass.

II. Assez modéreé, mais sans lenteur

The somewhat slower middle movement is opened with a call and response figure between the piano. The clarinet takes a solo countermelody, which shines above the call and response figures below. Throughout this movement the music emphasizes d’Indy’s spectacular lyrical writing, dramatic tension building and textural writing.

The uneasy atmosphere is led through the trials and tribulations of this movement until the ultimate climax, which soon disperses into a sweet and angelic piano interlude. As aforementioned, all movements of Symphonie Cévenole are tied together with the opening melodic figure from the first movement. This emotionally-driven second movement creates more variations, each one more similar to the original than the other.

III. Animé

The fresh mountain views shimmer in the form of the opening piano proclamation. The peppy woodwind parts embellish this further, creating the most upbeat section of music in the whole work thus far. The animated ostinato that opens this movement provides the supporting accompaniment for the new themes developed. The vivacious character of the movement seeps through each and every part of the orchestra, which makes the quick changes in tempo dramatic and exciting.

The music builds up and the grandiose conclusion bursts into colour. The jaunty movement in the tutti playing leads to a quick conversation between the piano and orchestra before the quick snap ending.


Final Thoughts

Symphonie Cévenole is full of musical colour, life and sonority. The vivacious handling of themes from d’Indy is what makes this work so thrilling. The keen development of themes and the consistent communication between the parts makes it one of the composer’s stand out works. It is certainly a shame that this work, amongst others by this brilliant French composer are now seldom played. Symphonie Cévenole would light up any concert hall and consistently impress and wow audiences across the globe.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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