Program Notes

Symphonie espagnole for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 21

Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo

BORN: January 27, 1823. Lille, France

DIED: April 22, 1892. Paris


WORLD PREMIERE: February 7, 1875. Pablo de Sarasate was soloist and Édouard Colonne conducted, at the Châtelet in Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1912. Edward Tak was soloist, Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2017. Joshua Bell was soloist, Vasily Petrenko conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: solo violin, 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, snare drum, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 30 mins


THE BACKSTORY  After mastering both violin and cello at the Lille Conservatory, Édouard Lalo moved to Paris, where he numbered the painter Eugène Delacroix among his friends and performed in orchestras under Hector Berlioz. His earliest compositions include a pair of symphonies; he apparently destroyed both, perhaps already sensing that his inclination led toward chamber music of the sort that Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann had lately produced in Austria and Germany. In 1855, he became a charter member of the Armingaud String Quartet, playing viola initially, and later second violin. Created expressly to make the masterpieces of German chamber music better known in France, the ensemble proved influential in re-establishing chamber music’s prestige in Parisian circles. While relentlessly championing the music of others, Lalo was growing increasingly frustrated by the rejection of his own works. In 1859, he founded his own quartet, and at about the same time he abandoned composition entirely for five years. Fortunately, it proved a temporary hiatus, and in his later years he would produce most of the pieces that have kept his name alive.

Chamber pieces outnumber large-ensemble works in Lalo’s modest catalogue of only forty-five works. He also produced a good many art songs, inspired in this direction by his second wife, who was an accomplished contralto. But his reputation chiefly rests on a single work: the Symphonie espagnole (Spanish Symphony) for Violin and Orchestra, composed in 1874. Of all his concerto works, the Symphonie espagnole receives the most performances more than 140 years after its composition.

In 1924, the American francophile composer and Harvard professor Edward Burlingame Hill (whose pupils at Harvard would include Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Randall Thompson, and Leonard Bernstein) published a book titled Modern French Music. He was unequivocal about his appreciation for Lalo: “Lalo brought to French music an ardent temperament . . . great rhythmical vitality, together with precision and finesse, the suppleness and clarity of expression which are among the essential French traits, an unconquerable leaning toward the exotic, and a strong vein of poetic imagination.”

In fact, the Symphonie espagnole has a good deal of authentic Iberia in its genes. The surname Lalo is itself Spanish, a testament to the fact that the composer descended from an ancient Spanish family, though the family had dispersed to Flanders and northern France already in the sixteenth century. What’s more, the piece was written with a Spanish violinist in mind: the esteemed virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, who brought his national insight to the interpretation to the score.

THE MUSIC  The Symphonie espagnole is not structured as one might expect a nineteenth-century concerto to be. Instead of the normal three, or maybe four, movements, we have five, each of which is within hailing distance of seven minutes in length except for the Scherzando, which is rather shorter. The first movement announces grandiose pretensions in its orchestral introduction, and prolongs this forbidding vein even after the violin’s entrance, notwithstanding a passage of airy, Iberian romance that briefly passes through.

Once Lalo has staked his bona fides as a “serious” composer, he seems content to operate on a lighter plane for the rest of the piece. The remaining four movements are ingratiating, recalling the style of violin concertos by Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps. Rhythms and melodic turns that we are sure to recognize as Spanish pepper the piece. The second movement is a seguidilla (think of the famous one from Bizet’s Carmen, which was premiered just a month after the Symphonie espagnole). Pizzicato strings and harp spend much of this movement imitating a guitar.

The Intermezzo has a sterner cast, although its flamenco-style melody is sultry and alluring. Again the mind strays to Carmen, in this case to its famous Habanera. We mentioned earlier about Lalo’s passion for the chamber music of Mendelssohn and Schumann, among other composers. The Andante summons up memories less of their chamber pieces than of their symphonic works—the introduction of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony or the slow movement of his Violin Concerto, for example, or the somber introductions of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 or his Symphony No. 2. It is also easy to hear that the Andante of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (a replacement movement penned in 1878) is a descendant of this Andante. In fact, it was specifically Lalo’s piece that inspired Tchaikovsky to compose his concerto. Tchaikovsky wrote of his enthusiasm for the Symphonie espagnole: “It has a lot of freshness, lightness of piquant rhythms, of beautiful and excellently harmonized melodies. . . He [Lalo], in the same way as Léo Delibes and Bizet, does not strive after profundity, but he carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans.” After this, Lalo’s very famous finale infuses the spirit of Iberia into a delightful, quick-paced Rondo filled with bravura figuration and with a punchy syncopation built into its theme.—James M. Keller

Symphonie espagnole is not Lalo’s only concerto work—in fact, he wrote quite a few. But of all his concertos, his Symphonie espagnole is the one that has by far received the most performances during the
140 years since it was written.

More About the Music

Recordings: 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)


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