96. Fervaal (Vincent D’Indy)

  • Action musicale in 3 acts and a prologue
  • Poem & music: Vincent d’Indy, after Esaias Tegnér’s Axel
  • First performed: Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, 12 March 1897

FERVAAL, Celtic chiefTenorGeorges Imbart de la Tour
ARFAGARD, druidBaritoneHenri Seguin
GUILHEN, Saracen womanMezzoJeanne Raunay
KAÏTOContraltoEugénie Armand
LENNSMORTenorPaul Isouard
GRYMPUIGBassHector Dufranne
Celtic chiefs  
EDWIGTenorLuc Disy
FERKEMNATTenorVictor Caisso
GWELLKINGUBARBassHenri Artus Blanchard
GEYWHIRBassVan Acker
HELWRIGBassCharles Danlée
MOUSSAHTenorLuc Disy
A ShepherdTenorJulia Milcamps
A MessengerBaritoneCadio
A BardTenor 
Five peasantsTwo tenors, three basses 
Two Saracen peasantsOne tenor, one bass 
Four ovatesTwo tenors, two basses 
Peasants, Saracens, priests and priestesses, bards, warriors and people of Cravann, voices of the clouds, mystic voicesChorus 

Fervaal, d’Indy’s Wagnerian mystical Celtic opera, was the best opera since Parsifal, and marked a new age in French music.  So thought the critics.

Fervaal badly needs a complete recording to show why d’Indy’s contemporaries admired it so much.  It could be a masterpiece, but we’re in no position to judge.

The only available recording (Pierre-Michel Leconte, Paris, 1962) is a heavily cut radio broadcast; it lacks the prologue, the first and last scenes of Act I, and the middle of Act II.  The prologue was recorded, in Bern, 2009 – with a Chilean Fervaal who can’t pronounce French.

What there is, isn’t convincing.  Some beautiful phrases.  Pierre Germain showing why French, properly sung, is the most attractive operatic language.  A heated love duet à la Tristan, where they sing abstractions. A noisy, bombastic Act II.  Like Reyer’s Sigurd, but nowhere near as good. 

It’s hard to judge the work, though, when we can’t hear it.

The composer

D’Indy is little remembered today.  Only two works – the Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français / Symphonie cévenole (1886) and the symphonic poem Istar (1896) – are relatively familiar.

Léon Vallas, however, hailed d’Indy as the undeniable master of the French school, and the first musician of his time, while Louis Laloy (Révue musicale, 15 December 1903) thought he, and he alone, made abstract music (both chamber music and symphony) come to life again in France.

A disciple of César Franck, d’ Indy believed opera had a sacred mission to educate and elevate humanity.

The true goal of art is to teach, to gradually raise the spirit of humanity, to serve, in a word, in the sublime sense: dienen, which Wagner put in the mouth of the repentant Kundry in the third act of Parsifal.

He himself set up the Schola Cantorum de Paris in 1894 to create a school of French national music, studying Baroque and early Classical works, Gregorian chant, and Renaissance polyphony, in contrast to the Conservatoire’s emphasis on opera.  His students included Magnard, Roussel, and Séverac.

His reactionary views may explain why his music has disappeared.  The aristocratic d’Indy was a conservative Catholic, a monarchist, and an anti-Dreyfusard – hardly positions likely to win him much sympathy today. 

He believed Wagner had rescued French opera from the decadent Judaic age of Meyerbeer, Halévy, and Offenbach, with their superficial, commercially successful, crowd-pleasing works.  (He also detested Rossini, Auber, and Massenet.)  One of his operas, La légende de St Christophe (1920), is expressly a drame anti-Juif.

To do him justice, he did not let his anti-Semitic views affect his relations with individuals, such as Dukas.

Musically, Brian Hart (Oxford Bibliographies) writes, d’Indy’s opposition to modernist trends unfairly earned him the reputation of “a reactionary pedant teaching and practicing outdated dogmas”.

The opera

Fervaal is, like all d’Indy’s mature operas, a spiritual epic.

The opera takes place in the Midi and in Cravann, high in the Cévennes mountains, in a legendary time of Saracen invasions.  (A strange time, Pierre Lalo observed, when the religion of Druids and that of Mohammed both thrived!)

The young Celtic hero Fervaal will save Cravann from barbarian invaders – so long as he remains pure from a woman’s love.  Her name is Guilhen, and she’s a Saracen princess.  To reach her, Fervaal kills his mentor, the druid Arfagard – only for Guilhen to die in his arms, from the cold north wind.  Surrounded by the corpses of those he loves, Fervaal has a vision of a new age, a softer law, a kinder god.  Carrying Guilhen’s body, he climbs the sacred mountain, singing a triumphal hymn.  They disappear into the fog, to the sound of the Gregorian hymn Pange lingua; mysterious voices announce: “Young love is victor over death.”

It was, Adolphe Jullien thought, about the ruin of paganism, the decline of druidism, and the shining dawn of Christianity; Paul Le Flem called it the apotheosis of the new religion.

Performance history

D’Indy composed the opera from 1889 to 1895, publishing the piano-vocal score at his own expense a couple of years before its première at Brussels’ Monnaie in 1897.

(Many adventurous French operas were first staged here, including Massenet’s Hérodiade, Reyer’s Sigurd and Salammbô, and Chausson’s Roi Arthus.)

The performance lasted five hours – but was a lively success, and d’Indy was called to the stage at the end.

The extremely complex score, Alfred Bruneau (Figaro, 13 March 1897) noted, demanded an enormous personnel ofartists, extras, choristers and musicians; it was written with such harmonicand symphonic liberty, a carelessness for vulgar conventions, disdain for vocaland instrumental customs that it took real courage, unshakeable confidence forthe management of the Monnaie to mount it.

Maurice Kufferath (Guide musical) called it the greatest, noblest, highest work since Parsifal.  La Belgique musicale thought it surpassed (!) the Ring and Parsifal, and that Wagner’s ghost must tremble in his tomb.  P. D. in La chronique des arts (20 March 1897) thought it was the first time since Wagner that a musician-poet had composed a true music drama; it marked a date in the history of French dramatic music.  Pierre Lalo, 16 years later (Le Temps, 14 January 1913) considered it one of the most beautiful and noblest works ever created by French art.

Other critics were less enthusiastic about its Wagnerian influence, and obscure libretto.  (See below.)

Performances at Paris’ Opéra-Comique (May 10 1898, conducted by André Messager; 13 performances) and Opéra (8 January 1913; 10 performances, with d’Indy conducting on 10 June) followed.

The 1913 performance “was a beautiful night to the glory of a marvellous music and poetry, to the glory in consequence of our Académie nationale de musique,” Paul Milliet wrote.

While the critics acclaimed Fervaal, this ambitious and vain work,
Arthur Pougin (Dictionnaire des opéras) wrote, left the public cold.

The music

The most praised pieces in the work were:

  • The Act I prelude.  Alfred Bruneau (Figaro, 13 March 1897) called it a true instrumental delight.  Paul Le Flem (Le Ménestrel, 29 July 1921) said it was a sunny piece, quivering with exquisite southern light.
  • Fervaal’s couplets to Joy
  • The love scene between Fervaal and Guilhen, “warm and recalling Tristan” (Le Flem)
  • The Act II prelude.  Le Flem thought it truly described an autumnal countryside.
  • The evocation of supernatural beings. It counts among the most robust scenes by its accent and colour (Le Flem).
  • Act III finale: Fervaal’s mystical exaltation in the middle of a concert of invisible voices gave the last scene a noble grandeur (Le Flem).  “Nothing, since Berlioz in France, and Wagner in Germany, is comparable to the last scene, as much by its power as by the nobility of its expression,” Kufferath wrote in Rivista Musicale Italiana.  Bruneau agreed the last scene seemed superior to the rest; it would be simply sublime if Wagner hadn’t directly inspired d’Indy.


D’Indy was a great admirer of Wagner, and, like the German composer, he wrote both the poem and the score for the opera, using leitmotivs.  Many critics drew parallels between Fervaal and Parsifal (note the similar names) or Siegfried; between the Celtic snake goddess Kaito, mother of the world, and Erda, or even Fafner; and between the aged druid Arfagard and Kurwenal, Wotan, and Gurnemanz.  The heated love duets echoed the Liebsnacht in Tristan: “Transport sans but, désir sans bornes, Joie amère, Douleur charmante”

But was it a Wagnerian pastiche?

Yes, said Alfred Bruneau.  He admired the score’s ingenuity, and thought d’Indy had never written with such strength and sureness –but was astonished that, rather than taking the route of the unexplored and unforeseen, he should write a Wagnerian opera; “Wagnerism, which already belongs to ancient history, is a barricade destined to stop art on its glorious march”.  How could d’Indy not realize he was fighting the wrong battle?  Nothing could be less French than the Tristan-ian themes of infertile love and happiness in death; would these fogs now veil our sun, mist up our art, depress our hearts, and fall on our heads in a heavy, icy rain?

Yes, said Arthur Pougin.  He writes his own poems; he chooses legendary, symbolic and mystical subjects; he bases his music on a series of leitmotifs; he introduces the symphony into the theatre and deploys all the resources of an exuberant instrumentation, under which the voices are stifled without remission; he carefully avoids any sort of formal number, and uses only a continuous declamation, without shape or personality.  One only wishes d’Indy had some of Wagner’s inspiration.

Yes, said composer and Gil Blas critic Gaston Salvayre, who had read the score of this “insipid but very pretentious Wagnerian pastiche”, and didn’t bother attending the performance.

Paul Le Flem (Le Ménestrel, 29 July 1921) thought the opera’s legendary subject was Wagnerian – but the Cévenol setting and the warm collaboration of the music were very much French.

No, said Paul Dukas and Ernest Chausson.  They admitted the influence of Wagner, but found not the least trace of copy; d’Indy had assimilated, not imitated, Wagner.

Other critics – among them Pierre Lalo and the Revue musicale de Lyon (3 March 1907) – thought d’Indy’s musical technique was unWagnerian.  True, Lalo said, d’Indy used leitmotivs; these had become a general artistic principle; besides, unlike other Wagnerites, d’Indy used them intelligently, rather than as imitative procedures or formulae.

They pointed to the harmonic system, with its linking tonal mode; the folkloric savour of the melody; the predominance of rhythm; the precise, concise, “French” declamation; and the way each instrument remained individual and distinct, rather than Wagner’s compact sonorities.

Jean Chantavoine (La Revue hebdomadaire, 22 February 1913) thought d’Indy didn’t want to write (“de”) Wagner – but to write like (“comme”) Wagner: to create a great epic opera for his country.  d’Indy’s message, he thought, was the opposite of Wagner’s: Wagner’s operas are about the renunciation of life, the triumph of death (the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer); Fervaal ends with the triumph of life in the middle of death, and over death.

An obscure libretto

Wagnerian music or not, many critics believed the libretto showed the worst tendencies of Wagner’s: obscurantism.

Chausson, for instance, struggled to reconcile the symbolic, mysterious poem with the music, fundamentally French by its taste, clarity, measure, and precision.

Chantavoine agreed; the music said vague things cleanly, obscure things clearly, and amorphous things with impeccable form.  The drama and characters lacked reality. The music is only a commentary, a gloss on the text; the unclear poem, with its confused symbols, artificial characters, and clumsy language, suffered cruelly.

J. Mantenay (L’Univers,15 Jan 1913) also admired the ripely, robustly beautiful score – not loveable, but as rude and vigorous as a Cévenol shepherd – but objected to the incomparably obscure libretto.  Shouldn’t one write music on clear subjects, easily intelligible to an honest majority, rather than these “mystico-socio-psychological enigmas”?

And Le Patriote complained that the opera suffered from a confused, abstruse mythology, and a puerile symbolism which sometimes disconcerted. 

Suggested recording

Paris, 1962: Jean Mollien (Fervaal), Micheline Grancher (Guilhen), and Pierre Germain (Arfagard), with the Choeurs & Orchestre Radio-Lyrique, conducted by Pierre-Michel Leconte.  Malibran.


René Ponthière, L’Art pour tous,
December 1895 Download

Alfred Bruneau, review, Figaro, 13 March 1897

P.D., review, La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 20 March 1897

Dom Blasius, L’Intransigeant, 12 May 1898

« Vincent d’Indy », Revue française de musique, 3 March 1907

Julien Torchet, « Autour de Fervaal », Les Hommes du jour, 1 January 1913

Jean Mouleng, « Vincent d’Indy et ‘Fervaal’ », Revue française de musique, 1 January 1913

Pierre Lalo, Le Temps, 14 January 1913

J. Mantenay, L’Univers, 15 January 1913

Jean Chantavoine, chronique musicale, La Revue hebdomadaire, 22 February 1913

Maurice Lefèvre, « Après Fervaal », Le monde artiste, n.d. [after 1913]

Paul le Flem, “Vincent d’Indy: Conférence lue aux Concerts historiques Pasdeloup », Le Ménestrel, 29 July to 4 August 1921

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