Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 21

Édouard-Victor-Antoine Lalo was born at Lille in the Nord Department of France on January 27, 1823, and died in Paris on April 22, 1892. He wrote the Symphonie espagnole in 1874 for the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who introduced the work in Paris on February 7, 1875. The first North American performance was given in Boston on November 11, 1887; the soloist was the Alsatian composer Charles Martin Loeffler, then the Boston Symphony's associate concertmaster, and the conductor was Wilhelm Gericke. The work was first played at San Francisco Symphony concerts by Louis Persinger, with Henry Hadley conducting, in March 1922. In the most recent performances, in February 1998, Raymond Kobler was soloist, with Neeme Järvi conducting. The orchestra consists of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, snare drum, harp, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.

Lalo’s family had been military people ever since moving from Spain to Flanders in the sixteenth century, and Désiré-Joseph Lalo, who had been decorated for bravery at the battle of Lützen in 1813, was firmly against any such nonsense as having his first-born become a professional musician. Édouard was allowed violin and cello lessons at Lille Conservatory—his cello teacher, Peter Baumann, had often played under Beethoven in Vienna—but that was all. He was without means of support, but he was determined. He took himself to Paris, where he studied violin and composition, and he did well enough to take a second prize in the Prix de Rome competition of 1847. To support himself he played viola in the Arminguaud Quartet, an admired group that was joined from time to time by such eminent pianists as Camille Saint-Saëns, Clara Schumann, and Anton Rubinstein. Interestingly enough, Lalo married into a military family, his wife, who had been one of his students, being the daughter of a French brigadier-general. More important, Julie Victoire Besnier de Maligny was an excellent contralto, and it is to her presence in Lalo’s life that we owe the existence of his fine songs.

But public recognition of Lalo’s gifts stubbornly refused to come. He was in his fifties when he first got a large-scale work published (it was his unperformed opera Fiesque, based on Schiller) and when Pablo de Sarasate brought him fame by his eloquent championship of his Violin Concerto in F minor (introduced in January 1874) and of the Symphonie espagnole. Despite this, not even the support of Charles Gounod, undisputed monarch of the Parisian operatic world since Faust (1865) and Romeo et Juliette (1867), could get a hearing for Lalo’s opera Le Roi d’Ys. It took many more years of maneuvering before the Opéra-Comique took that work on, only to find itself with an enormous success on its hands. Within thirteen months of the premiere, the work had been performed a hundred times.

Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor (1877) is an admired work; but internationally, the composer’s reputation rests primarily on the charming Symphonie espagnole. Sarasate, who brought the work into being, was thirty at the time. He was a delicate player rather than a forceful one, intuitive more than intellectual, and he was an effortless, brilliant technician. A friend to many composers, he introduced important concertos by Bruch, Saint-Saëns, and Wieniawski, and he was himself a composer of pieces that still form an indispensable part of the bravura repertory for his instrument.

The first movement of the Symphonie espagnole has sternly forceful intentions as well as striking gestures of unmistakably Iberian coloration. The second movement is a scherzo with a middle section of considerable seriousness and fancy. The Andante opens with portentous proclamations by the brass, then finds its more authentic voice in the melancholy and impassioned song of the solo violin. The rondo makes a peppy, brilliant close.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Joshua Bell with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (Decca)  |  Itzhak Perlman with Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Isaac Stern with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony)  |  Vadim Repin with Kent Nagano and the London Symphony Orchestra (Erato) 

Reading: There is not much about Lalo in English, except for Sidelights on a Century of Music, by Gervase Hughes (St. Martin’s).