Edouard Lalo: meet the French composer who gave Romanticism a Spanish tang

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Lalo’s best works for the opera stage and concert hall reveal a distinctive composer who by no means deserves his present neglect, says Roger Nichols

Édouard Lalo (1823-1892) is now one of the more neglected composers of the Romantic era.

Apart from occasional performances and recordings of his Symphonie espagnole and opera Le roi d’Ys, Lalo’s often atmospheric music is now relatively little heard.

But is this neglect justified? Not altogether. The Symphonie espagnole is a delightfully evocative Romantic symphony with a prominent and captivating solo violin part, and the colourful opera Le roi d’Ys is one of the late-19th-century French operas most deserving of revival. And there’s more besides, including three very fine piano trios.

Read on as we delve into the life and distinctive soundworld of this unjustly neglected French Romantic.

When was Lalo born?

Édouard Lalo (or Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo, to give his full name) was born on 27 January, 1823 in Lille. His family name is Spanish, but the Lalos had been settled in France since the 16th century.

When did he move to Paris?

In 1839, against his father’s wishes, the young Lalo left home to pursue musical studies. Studying violin at the Paris Conservatoire, he had composition lessons with Julius Schulhoff and JE Crèvecoeur.

Whether with paternal blessings or not (accounts differ), in Paris he continued having violin lessons, first with Pierre Baillot, then with François Habeneck.

We know almost nothing of his life and habits at this time – maybe Papa was subsidising him, and almost certainly he was giving violin lessons, as he would for a long time, but he first rises above the parapet in that crucial year 1848, when most of Europe was either in revolution or on the brink of it.

In France, according to one historian, ‘the days of June 1848 were to see a bitterer social war than ever the first Revolution knew.’ Having escaped the army once, Lalo preferred to mark the occasion artistically by founding with a cousin a republican association of musicians.

Its principal aim was to ‘raise works of art that are worthy of that title to the rank they would of necessity occupy if public taste had not been corrupted by airs with variations and fantasies on operatic themes’. A noble aim, no doubt, and he received no fewer than 500 applications. But tradition and what the French call the ‘ronron habituel’ of life proved too strong and in October the association folded.

What was Lalo’s first major work?

Although Lalo never took any such steps again, his enmity towards the facile remained firmly in place: while composing songs and short violin pieces, in 1849 he wrote his first Piano Trio, clearly influenced by Schumann and Mendelssohn.

Another push away from the facile no doubt came in February 1850 when he played in the second violins in the orchestra of the Philharmonic Society founded and conducted by Berlioz, probably for a performance of The Damnation of Faust.

But the most important event of the 1850s was the formation in 1856, with Lalo on viola, of the Armingaud String Quartet, whose mission was primarily to play Mendelssohn’s music for strings, still unknown in Paris. Lalo wrote a first version of his own String Quartet in the same year.

How good a composer was Lalo?

At this point it’s as well to be honest about Lalo’s limitations as a composer himself. Not that he lacked technique or imagination, let alone determination. But his output is extremely variable. Did playing the wonderful Mendelssohn quartets inspire his own? Not really.

Here, as at times throughout his works, the gift of melody is somewhat lacking. He himself may have realised this, because he admitted that ‘what makes a good tune is something no one can explain’. It makes sense, therefore, to concentrate on those works where the tunes are indeed good.

Who did Lalo marry?

After a brief first marriage which he described as ‘a washout’ (the poor lady had the delicacy to pass away in 1864), the following year he married Julie Bernier, not only a fine contralto but someone who believed strongly in Lalo’s composing gifts.

Did he compose opera?

In 1866 he began an opera, Fiesque, which occupied him for the next two years and, over possible productions, well beyond that. It’s a sorry series, too long to relate here, of disappointments and broken promises, though one not unknown in the opera world.

The piece was placed third in a competition, but never performed, and Lalo eventually used it as a quarry for other works. One of the finest passages is ‘Fiesque’s Dream’ where strong tunes are allied to vivid orchestration and striking rhythms, as Fiesque imagines what it would be like to be Doge of Genoa.

Lalo used part of it again in his second and final completed opera, Le roi d’Ys. In the meantime, the ballet he wrote for a projected Brussels performance of Fiesque became the Divertissement, including an ‘Andantino’ that is a miracle of delicate orchestration.

What songs did Lalo compose?

Lalo’s lyrical gifts are abundantly displayed in his 32 songs, sometimes plainly Schumannesque (as in Viens!), sometimes in arioso style (as in Chant breton with its oboe obbligato), but mostly in the traditions of his time and place (as in the pseudo-Spanish La Zuecca and the sparkling Ballade à la lune).

An exception is the dramatic A celle qui part, where he seems to be trying to outdo the Duparc of La vague et la cloche, premiered a decade earlier. Among his chamber works, the three Piano Trios stand out for their confidence and sweep, their wide variation in texture and, in the Third of 1879-80, their more adventurous harmonies.

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Quite frequently, the public of the time found Lalo’s music difficult, and certainly he fought shy of anything banal or academic.

What was Lalo like as a person?

Although he was in general a kind and generous person, faced with the problems of making it in the Parisian bearpit he could be sharp about his fellow composers. He grumbled that the publisher Durand was willing to bring out any old thing if it had the name ‘Saint-Saëns’ on it, wrote off Ambroise Thomas’s efforts as ‘musique de pion’ (‘apprentice stuff’) and – not without a hint of jealousy perhaps – taxed Massenet with being ‘le chouchou des dames’ (the ladies’ poppet).

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It’s no surprise then to find he was a member of a dining club for those composers who had not won the Prix de Rome, including Fauré, Messager, d’Indy, Duparc and, of course, Chabrier. This club was called, splendidly, ‘Le Dîner des pris de rhum’ (‘the club for those out of their heads on rum’). But difficult or not, Lalo was finally to achieve wide success with three works: the Symphonie espagnole, the ballet Namouna, and the opera Le roi d’Ys.

What is Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole?

Lalo never considered himself as a violin soloist, admitting to Jules Armingaud, the leader of his quartet, ‘as a composer I’m ahead of a whole host of others, but as a fiddler, I’m not worth a bean.’ So he was more than happy to write works for Pablo de Sarasate, the ‘diableries’ of whose playing he much enjoyed, and who gave the first public performance of Symphonie espagnole in February 1875.

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Lalo’s original intention was simply to write a work that would allow the Spanish virtuoso to show off with some Spanish tunes. In the event, as one of his biographers says, ‘this aim was singularly exceeded’; and in any case, no one so far has succeeded in tracking down the themes in the work as being folk songs.

The first movement begins with Lalo being noisy, but (pseudo-)Spanish lyricism soon intervenes together with fireworks for soloist, and the whole movement is a masterly combination of the three types of material. Unusually, the work is in five rather than three or four movements, and for many years performers left out the lovely ‘Intermezzo’: the 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin’s 1933 recording was only the second to include it.

The most Spanish movement is the last, sometimes called a saltarello, but in fact more of a Cuban guajira, with its alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4, as in the first of Ravel’s Don Quichotte songs. Here, Lalo’s violinistic expertise and mastery of orchestral nuance come into their own.

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But whatever the work’s Spanish orientation, Lalo was as ever determined that its form should be beyond reproach: Brahms received a smart slap on wrist for his First Piano Concerto – ‘a fine orchestral work, and when the piano interrupts, it infuriates me’. The Symphonie espagnole expressed Lalo’s basic idea, ‘a violin solo soaring above the rigid form of an old-fashioned symphony’.

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As for the title, he chose it as being un-banal and took the trouble to run it past the pianist, conductor and polymath Hans von Bülow, who approved it and liked the fact that it was unique – a source of great pleasure for Lalo who in 1862 (before that tiresome Prussian invasion) had declared that ‘Germany is my true musical homeland’.

What were Lalo’s other major works?

Orchestral nuances also permeate his ballet Namouna, booed and whistled at on its 1882 Opéra première, but applauded later in the concert hall: Lalo made two suites from the work and said he’d put into them all the bits the Opéra audience had objected to, such as the ‘Fête foraine’, with its noisy outbursts and slippery harmonies.

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Working to a ferociously tight deadline, Lalo had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and Gounod nobly stepped in to help with the orchestration. The result, in Debussy’s mature opinion, was a masterpiece – a judgment according with his earlier view as a Conservatoire student, when he had made such a racket applauding and shouting ‘Bravo!’ that he was expelled from the Opéra box reserved for students, and they were all banned from the house for several months.

Chabrier for his part claimed that ‘without Namouna, [his own work] España would not have existed’. But astonishingly (or shamefully?) no complete recording of this wonderful work has ever been made…

What is Lalo’s opera Le roi d’Ys about?

It’s good to be able to report that in 1888, at the age of 65 and with only four years of life left to him, Lalo finally scored an out-and-out hit with his opera Le roi d’Ys. Based on the Breton legend of the submerged cathedral whose bells can still sometimes be heard ringing (another Debussyan connection), it has a strong storyline of a princess scorned and the catastrophic results of her fury.

It was in connection with this work that Lalo defended his regard for noise: ‘I love Wagner’s excessive sonorities; I love the six pairs of drums in Berlioz’s superb Requiem.’ But there are many gentle moments too, notably the famous tenor romance ‘Vainement, ma bien-aimée’, based on the simplest melodic and harmonic elements, but eternally memorable.

Elsewhere, notably in the choruses, Lalo obeys Wagner’s suggestion that French opera composers should make more use of their own folksongs. He called it a ‘simple opera’ using ‘very short forms’, in order to ‘accelerate the dramatic action in such a way as not to exhaust the attention of the spectator’.

Surely, Le roi d’Ys is one of the late-19th-century French operas most deserving of revival. Duparc noted that ‘Lalo had the great honour of being underestimated by his contemporaries’. It should be our duty, privilege and pleasure to set the record straight.

When did Lalo die?

Lalo died in 1892 at the age of 69 in Paris and is buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Pic: Av Pierre Petit/Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France ????.

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