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Cello Concerto in D minor

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Edouardo Lalo
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Claudio Bohórquez, cello, plays Lalo Jun. 7 - 9, 2012
© Thomas May

Édouard Lalo pursued music as a profession against the wishes of his father, a Napoleonic veteran. Lalo was born and raised in Lille in northernmost France (just across the border from present-day Belgium). There he was allowed to study violin and cello, but, desiring to make music the center of his life rather than a mere hobby, he broke out on his own while still a teenager to forge a career in the musical capital that was Paris. Among his early mentors was François Antoine Habeneck, who played an important role in Parisian musical culture and had the foresight to introduce French audiences to Beethoven's symphonies. Through his work with the highly regarded string quartet, which he cofounded (he alternately played viola and second violin), Lalo in a sense continued in this direction by advocating for the Beethoven quartets along with other classics of the Austro-German repertoire.

As a composer, Lalo's career is a testament to the virtue of persistence. He toiled for decades trying to establish his name by writing chamber music, songs, and-the normal route to success for a French composer of that period-opera. Yet his great breakthrough to public acclaim came late, when he was already in his fifties, and it was in orchestral music: the Symphonie espagnole, a de facto violin concerto premiered by the celebrity violinist Pablo de Sarasate in 1875. Lalo's gifts as an opera composer had to wait even longer to be acknowledged: in 1888 came the belated though successful premiere of Le roi d'Ys (The King of Ys), a major work based on a legend about the mythical city on the coast of Brittany that is swallowed by the sea. (Debussy, an admirer of his compatriot's ballet Namouna, also turned to this legend for La cathédrale engloutie in the first volume of his piano Préludes.)

Nowadays the Symphonie espagnole tends to overshadow everything else Lalo composed, but his Cello Concerto in D minor-written just a few years after the former, by which time Lalo had enjoyed his first real taste of success-also ranks among his finest achievements. At the time, aside from Schumann's Cello Concerto and the first of Saint-Saëns's two concertos for the instrument, there were few contemporary models by major composers. Violinists and pianists had long enjoyed star status as soloists, but the cello was still considered a dubious platform for a solo career. Even Dvorák, whose mature Cello Concerto in B minor (premiered in 1896) would become the cornerstone of this repertoire, harbored doubts about the instrument's soloistic possibilities. Lalo composed the work for Parisian cellist Adolf Fischer (1847-1891). In general, the Cello Concerto is remarkable for the assuredness with which Lalo keeps the soloist in the foreground as protagonist. The Spanish flavor suggested by aspects of his material-its rhythms and textural treatment-has been widely observed. With the earlier Symphonie espagnole, Lalo, like his contemporary Bizet in the opera Carmen, had already anticipated the vogue for evoking Spanish atmosphere that attracted French composers at the end of the century.

But some traces of Lalo's understanding of German masters such as Beethoven can also be heard-particularly in the stern rhetorical pose of the slow introduction. After just a few bars of the orchestra's exhortation, the cello enters with its own lyrical musings, not unlike the search for the "joy" theme at the beginning of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth. The cello is then given the honor of declaring the first theme of the Allegro maestoso, which ranges widely in its impassioned lyricism and is soon decorated with cadenza-like flourishes. The movement's structure is easy to follow, playing these declamatory and lyrical elements off each other and featuring limpid orchestration (note especially the flutes), with generous solo spotlights for the cello.

The second movement (alternating between G minor and major) unfolds as a dreamy slow interlude in which fast music is nested, that has the air of a Scherzo-a strategy Tchaikovsky likewise uses in the middle of his First Piano Concerto, written shortly before. (The Russian composer was in fact a keen admirer of Lalo's Symphonie espagnole, which was a discovery as fresh as spring water and left its mark on his own Violin Concerto.) Lalo's Spanish stylings are especially apparent in the dancing mirth of the fast "dream-within-a-dream" passage that occurs twice; the second time, it brings the movement to a sprightly close. Lalo prefaces the finale with a slow introduction as well, this time with an engrossingly eloquent soliloquy for the cello. Its Spanish tinge provides a perfect entrée into the Latin accents and fiery rhythms of the ensuing rondo.