“Istar;” Symphonic Variations, Opus 42
Towards the immutable land, Istar daughter of Sin, bent her steps, towards the abode of the dead, towards the seven-gated abode where He entered, towards the abode whence there is no return.
At the first gate, the warder stripped her; lie took the high tiara from her head.
At the second gate, the warder stripped her; he took the pendants from her ears.
At the third gate, the warder stripped her; he took off the precious stones that adorn her neck.
At the fourth gate, the warder stripped her; he took off the jewels that adorn her breast.
At the fifth gate, the warder stripped her; he took off the girdle that encompasses her waist.
At the sixth gate, the warder stripped her; he took the rings from her feet, the rings from her hands.
At the seventh gate, the warder stripped her; he took off the last veil that covers her body.
These lines, translated by William Foster Apthorp from a French version of the Babylonian poem of Istar’s descent into Hades, are printed in d’Indy’s score as preface to a remarkable series of variations.
Istar was goddess of fertility, hence sexual love, and also of love’s antithesis, war. When she descended to rescue her lover from the kingdom of Allatus, the Land of No Return, the earth ceased to create life. Istar was hated by the Queen of the Shades, who invoked disease and destruction upon her. But Istar found her lover. According to the last lines of the French translation of the poem, she “went into the immutable land, she took and received the Waters of Life. She gave the sublime Waters, and thus, in the presence of all, delivered the Son of Life, her young lover.” The fierce Queen Allatu was placated. She permitted Istar to return to the upper world. Her garmentswere they not those of Spring?were re-turned to her at each of the seven gates, and again the earth was fertile and beautiful.
But we need not concern ourselves here with interpretation of the Assyrian allegory. The unique characteristic of d’Indy’s score is its reversal of the composer’s customary procedure with a theme and variations, a reversal of order dictated by the lines of the poem. For this is not a theme and variations. It is a set of variations and theme. The most ornate variations come first and the theme, in its complete and glowing simplicity does not emerge until the last, when it is sung resplendently by the orchestra with the thought of Istar in her naked splendor.
The Orientalism of d’Indy is far from that of Rimsky-Korsakoff, yet there is in his introduction a certain languorousness which might well be associated with the East. First, the orchestra broods over fragments of the theme; then, like the spread of a peacock’s wing, the theme bursts forth, laden with trills and all sorts of instrumental decorations. One of.its metamorphoses in the following pages is a variation in an irregular rhythm of seven beats, with rapid glinting effects in the high registers of wind instruments. It has been said that the composer meant to hint of the glittering jewels of which the goddess is deprived. The variations are cunningly juxtaposed. The one just before the last is boldly outlined by the instruments playing in unison without any supporting harmony or variety of tone color. This throws into higher relief the final apotheosis of the theme, sung in octaves by the strings of the orchestra, with a counterpoint for the solo horn marching underneath. Each variation is a remarkable manifestation of the power of d’Indy’s musical mind and of the special type of his imagination.
D’Indy, a wholly individual figure in the history of French music, and one who stood apart from the somewhat decadent spirit of his times, had a passion for a beauty beyond the merely sensuous. He was an opponent of impressionism, and foe to that which was super-refined or defeatist in the niodern French musical art.