Composed in 1896, Istar is d'Indy at his most masterly and his most immediately attractive; the work manages to be at once a ravishing tone poem and a set of superbly proportioned symphonic variations. In the late 1880s, a viewing of the Assyrian sculptures in the British Museum had sparked d'Indy's enthusiasm, and when he came across a translation from an Assyrian epic, detailing Istar's progressive divestment as she descends to the underworld, his imagination was fired. In the fragment as it has come down to us, Istar's denudation is but the beginning of her trials, but the musical conceit it suggested -- variations first with the theme revealed only at the end -- proved irresistible, and d'Indy deftly transforms this terrifying goddess of love into a vulnerable yet seductive parisienne.
Undertaken in search of her dead lover, Dumuzi (or Tammuz), her adventure begins with a drooping horn call which hints at her own theme and represents Istar summoning the gatekeeper of the netherworld, followed immediately by a knocking motif slipping closely around a central insistent tone. The first variation, in which she is required to part with her tiara, offers a blaze of orchestral effects playing over the harmonization absent the theme. A more anxious version of the knocking motif leads to the second variation in which arabesques merely hint at her theme as Istar turns coquettish, removing her earrings. Indeed, the knocking motif at the third gate seems flirtatious, though the variation pleads effusively at the removal of her necklace. Briefly, anxiously, she knocks at the fourth gate, yet the divestment of her charmed breastplate is accomplished in a burst of Corybantic scintillations leading directly in an aggressive march to an assault on the fifth gate. As she removes her belt, the variation suggests a rising anxiety with the first firm outline of her theme. Suddenly, the knocking motif becomes an impassioned outburst -- radiant, ecstatic -- before the sixth gate opens and she casts aside her ankle bracelets in a moving imploration. Abrupt and apprehensive, the knocking motif opens the seventh gate to a variation of eerie skittishness punctuated by an enormous orchestral tutti as Istar's veil falls; naked, her theme is revealed in a great, long-breathed string unison. This breathtaking moment yields to a coda with the knocking motif now a triumphal cortège heralded by (in Léon Vallas' phrase) "une fanfare carillonnante."
Despite the program's suggestion of a 'dance of the seven veils' or striptease, it should be said that Istar is not sensual but sensuous, graced with the brilliant, transparent, and uniquely luminous scoring of d'Indy's maturity. The longueurs almost inevitably besetting d'Indy's more ambitious designs are forestalled here by an admirable concision in which the variations, nevertheless, comprise both a compelling psychological portrait and an eminently satisfying musical design.
The work was heard first at Brussels on January 10, 1897, given by the Concerts Ysaÿe, to whom it is dedicated. D'Indy himself conducted the first Paris performance with the Colonne Orchestra on January 16, 1898. It was successfully given as a ballet, with the composer conducting, by Natasha Trukhanova on April 22, 1912, and has been revived in that form a number of times since.