Edouard Lalo - Symphonie Espagnole: The symphony that set Paris alight

Tonight on the Full Works Concert enjoy French flair and Spanish seduction - a perfect musical match, says Jane Jones.

Imagine a life spent quietly teaching violin and playing chamber music with friends, not making an impact on the vibrant music scene in Paris and perhaps wondering if you’d missed out on life’s opportunities. I find myself full of sympathy for the French composer Edouard Lalo, who had to fight against his father’s disapproval to become a musician in the first place, because for years he must have wondered if he’d made the right decision.  

The talented young violinist rebelled against his father and left home for Paris in 1839 when he was just 16 – and that’s where he stayed! During the early part of his career, his attempts at composition were overlooked because they weren't fashionable; opera was all the rage in Paris in the early part of the 19th century and a champion of chamber music just didn’t cut it. Lalo even gave up composition altogether at one stage, but became thoroughly downhearted when at the ripe old age of 43 he did write an opera, submitted it for a competition, and then failed to win. He was so angered by the whole affair, he went to the expense of publishing his opera Fiesque himself.  It was never performed.

If anyone had told Lalo that ‘life begins at 50’, he’d have probably laughed out loud. But in the 1870s, the musical mood changed in Paris, and with it a new influx of soloists and virtuosos descended on the French capital, including the extraordinary Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate.  When Sarasate and Lalo met the chemistry must have been special, because the frustrated French composer was quickly inspired to get back to writing music to match the phenomenal skill of Sarasate. It might have helped that way back in Lalo’s family history there was a Spanish connection and a dormant passion for the exotic was awoken by this newfound friendship. In 1874, Lalo’s Violin Concerto was premièred by Sarasate, quickly followed by the thrilling, colourful Symphonie Espagnole in February 1875. Lalo was 52.

The music itself is a bit of a hybrid, more concerto than symphony with some wonderful virtuosic writing for the violin - for which read Sarasate, and as a character piece to demonstrate his spirit and personality, Lalo’s Spanish Symphony is unsurpassed. It’s a five movement work, and from the off, the rhythms introduce the distinctive Spanish quality which is the hallmark of the piece. Although Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole was premièred a month before Bizet’s Carmen, the second movement is based around the same seguidilla dance rhythm that you’ll hear in Carmen’s arias, but here the dance is driven by the soaring sound of the violin.

The third movement intermezzo is the one which seems to go all out to declare it’s Spanish heritage, yet for reasons I haven’t discovered yet, it was routinely missed out of concert performances until Yehudi Menuhin became the first violinist to restore it. Folk songs and a little seduction feature in the fourth until the full virtuosic flair of the finale is unleashed – slowly at first, Lalo really builds the atmosphere until the thrill of the final fireworks.  Its imaginative, spirited brilliance and vitality made sure the Symphonie Espagnole was instant success.

Lalo had set Paris alight with his Symphonie Espagnole and within months the French capital had become the new centre for the promotion of all things Spanish. In no time Chabrier, Ravel and Bizet had turned to Spain for inspiration, but without Lalo and his friendship with Pablo de Sarasate, Spanish passion might have been left to smoulder alone. Lalo finally received the acknowledgment his career deserved, and in 1880 he received the coveted Legion of Honour award. It was the culmination of the most remarkable decade in the composer’s life.