Monday, May 30, 2011

d'Indy: High on Mountain Air


I've been listening to Vincent d'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air over and over lately. Here is the classic 1958 RCA recording of the first movement with Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer at the piano and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch.

What an adorable work it is! And it's not just pretty -- it has some depths to it!

I'm prejudiced, here, I must admit, because this work is about something that's dear to my heart: mountains, life in the mountains, and mountain-people.

All three movements are based on a single mountain folk song, though the first movement, roughly in sonata allegro form, has a secondary theme as well -- listen for it at 3:10, above. Liner notes sometimes quote music historian Julien Tiersnot concerning this body of traditional music:
The high mountains give to folk that become acclimated to their altitude something of the purity of their atmosphere. It seems as though there were in these mountain songs - they were generally songs of shepherds - something fluid, ethereal, a gentleness that is not found in folk songs of the plains.
I think I hear these qualities in this music. There is a another quality that d'Indy captures brilliantly: mountain life is tremendously stimulating. This comes out especially in the third and last movement (see below).

There are probably several reasons for this. The accelerated heartbeat caused by the thin air might be one. The spicy resinous tang in the air from coniferous trees is clearly another. And the air itself! It is thinner, and like the man said, is more pure: it holds less moisture and dust. There is less in it to filter out the sun's rays, so more of them hit you. On the other hand, water evaporates faster in the thin dry air. That is why mountain plants often have leaves that have evolved into thick pads or dwindled into needles -- like desert plants, and for the same reason: the plant is trying to avoid evaporation. On you, the effect of greater evaporation is a bracing feeling of coolness, at least on the parts of your skin that are shielded from the sun. Those that are not, are roasted with radiant energy. As you move about in the mountain light and air you experience a tingling barrage of sharp, shifting contrasts, so different from the muffling, lulling air of the plains. It wakes you up and raises your consciousness.

Is it a coincidence that the great drug producing regions of the world, whether the opium fields of Afghanistan or the marijuana patches of the Sierra Madre Occidental, are typically in the mountains? My friends the Tarahumara, famous for their use of peyote, are mountain folk. Mountains are naturally high, in both senses.

Here are the other two movements of the symphony:





Photos of d'Indy suggest, by the way, that, like Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, and this man, he was mildly acromegalic.
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