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Symphonie Espagnole

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Edouardo Lalo
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Four French Composers Inspired by Spain Mar. 12 - 14, 2015
© Thomas May

The son of a Napoleonic veteran and the oldest of the composers on our program, Édouard Lalo patiently forged ahead with his music for decades before at last having his major breakthrough with the public with the Symphonie espagnole-in his early fifties. The usual path to success for a French composer of the time was via the opera house, yet recognition of Lalo's efforts in that domain would take even longer.

The Symphonie espagnole continued Lalo's collaboration with Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), a Spanish super-virtuoso and former prodigy whose celebrity spread like wildfire across Europe and America. The violinist impressed hard-to-please critics like George Bernard Shaw and even inspired artists in other fields. One of the Sherlock Holmes stories includes a description of a concert given by Sarasate, while the painter James McNeill Whistler commemorated the violinist with an acclaimed portrait (and even decorated his lavish home).

Sarasate had premiered Lalo's first official violin concerto in 1874, helping to spread the composer's name, and he likewise inspired the Symphonie espagnole. It incorporates concerto thinking so as to showcase the star's jaw-dropping technique as well as the gorgeous tone he was famous for coaxing from his fabled Stradivarius. Lalo explained that he chose the unusual title of the piece, which puzzled some of his peers (who advised him to change it), "because it conveyed my thought-that is to say, a violin soaring above the rigid form of an old symphony-and then because the title was less banal than those that were suggested to me."

Lalo's use of Iberian-tinged thematic material and rhythms pays tribute to Sarasate's background-and even possibly to Lalo's own (his family had migrated from Spain in centuries past). Even more, it points to the public taste for pieces evoking local color of a familiar yet "exotic" sort-for a kind of musical "postcard." Certainly in the wake of the terrible losses of the Franco-Prussian War at the beginning of the 1870s (followed by the disastrous experiment of the Commune), Mediterranean-directed escapism exhibited its appeal. Bizet's opera Carmen, which is of course set in Seville, would have its premiere only a month after the Symphonie espagnole. (The opera initially bombed, but it soon established itself as a huge success-sadly, not before Bizet's premature death.)

The Symphonie espagnole is associated with no particular program beyond the freely associative, contrasting moods and slices of local color that imply Spanish travels. Perhaps Lalo also kept in mind an earlier model from a French master, likewise a hybrid concerto: Berlioz's Harold in Italy, which weds travels through another foreign country with a concerto for viola. Lalo dispenses with the standard three concerto movements. The work's five-movement structure (in essence a suite) alludes to symphonic forms, but there's never any serious doubt about the primary role of the violin soloist. The composer exploits a vast spectrum of the instrument's resources. And aside from his technical demands, Lalo imbues the solo part with a beguiling personality.

The opening motif establishes a striking pattern-and draws out attention to the central role played by rhythmic ideas in this piece. A scherzo-like second movement lightens the mood-here, again is the trope of the orchestra-as-guitar, instruments imitating an instrument, while the solo violin sings its arresting serenade. The ensuing Intermezzo was added as an afterthought. It recalls the habanera-type rhythmic pattern (three-plus-two) that occurs in the first movement.

A melancholy Andante turns to darker orchestral colors and focuses on the violin's eloquent low register. But this nocturnal moodiness is forgotten in the final movement, a rondo whose persistent bell-like sonorities and percussion suggest glints of the awakening sun.