Nineteenth-Century Music
Fervaal, Parsifal, and French National Identity
Anya Suschitzky

Abstract

This article is a discussion of Vincent d'Indy's opera Fervaal, which famously borrowed musical and dramatic ideas from Wagner's Parsifal. My purpose is, first, to provide a thick description of the nationalist contexts——cultural, intellectual, religious and ethnic——within which d'Indy's opera was composed and performed in the late 1890s; and, second, to show how these contexts contribute to a broader understanding of Wagner's influence in France.

I begin by tracing connections between Fervaal and Parsifal, and by arguing that d'Indy's use of the Gregorian melody "Pange lingua" at several prominent moments in his opera suggests an alternative to Parsifal and a specifically Catholic identity for France. d'Indy's theoretical account of Gregorian chant as the basis of French music past, present and future offers support for this reading. Another contemporary perspective comes from the early critical reception of Fervaal, which drew the opera into a wider intellectual debate about foreign influence and national identity. Many critics celebrated Fervaal as an answer to Bayreuth and the Wagnerian legacy as well as an example of France's renewed ties to Catholicism and other national traditions. D'Indy eagerly contributed to this interpretation. Thus, I end with an examination of his views on Wagner, anti-Semitism and French identity as expressed in early letters of the 1870s and 80s, pedagogical works associated with the Schola Cantorum in the 1890s and 1900s, and historical and theoretical studies written in the last years of his life (1930-31). This discussion highlights the importance of d'Indy's borrowing from Parsifal: as Fervaal and its immediate contexts can tell us much about d'Indy's nationalist ideals and about his self-understanding as a French Wagnerian, so his last interpretation of the work points, arguably, to fundamental and unresolved tensions between Wagner's legacy and French national identity in opera.

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