Nicky Gluch reflects on Édouard Lalo

This article was posed to me as a question: to what extent should we celebrate Édouard Lalo’s bicentenary? More and more, this question is being asked as one of appropriateness as we look back upon European history with a mind to understanding the stories which may have been obscured by the prevailing narrative. As regards Lalo, however, there appears little in his biography to suggest that he’d be better consigned to history. (Even his theatrical works are relatively non-controversial. His opera, Le Roi d’Ys is based on a Breton mythological tale, while his ballet, Namouna, is based on a story by Giacomo Casanova. While the Corfu setting does tend towards ‘exoticism’, the slave-women are the heroines, which I find charming in the context of ballet’s many femme fatales.)

Therefore, in asking this question about Lalo, the context is one of considered worth: namely, is Lalo sufficiently ‘canon’ to deserve such dedicated programming? It is a question on which I’ve enjoyed musing, and while there can be no definitive answer, I’d like to share a few ideas in support.

Lalo was born on 27 January 1873 in Lille, northern France. At 16, he moved to Paris to study at the conservatoire, later establishing himself as a string player and teacher. Lalo’s earliest compositions were songs and chamber music, several of which will be heard across Fine Music’s anniversary programs. These include his Piano Trio no 2 in B minor (1852) and the Sonata in A minor for cello and piano (1856). As a radio station, we are the fortunate beneficiaries of such compositions. While an ensemble is limited to playing music written (or arranged) for its instrumentation, our chamber music programs can sample from across the genre. That Lalo’s music has not been forgotten thus provides us with fascinating French Romantic repertoire to juxtapose with the better-known German Classical or Italian Baroque.

Whether or not Lalo’s chamber music speaks to his enduring relevance, it does put into better context his more famous works. To know that Lalo had a penchant for the more intimate style (he played as violist, and later second violin, in the Armingaud Quartet) is to make the grandeur of his Symphonie espagnole all the more remarkable. Lalo is almost synonymous with the composition. Written in 1874, the piece is contemporaneous with George Bizet’s Carmen and evidences a fascination with Spanish idiom in French composition circles at this time.

What has always appealed to me about the piece is the simple power of the opening gesture. Like the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony no 5, the piece starts with a unison statement that relies on the pull between notes in a chordal triad (so-mi-do) but which provides a tonal ambiguity in the initial absence of harmony. The opening of both of these works speaks to the underlying simplicity of Western music (built, as it is, on these chordal properties, and a relatively small palette of twelve notes) and therefore (to me, at least) the utter wonder that is the variety that has been produced.

To elaborate, Symphonie espagnole relies on principles of accompaniment consistent with those used in Mozart’s recitatives, and yet the works sound worlds apart. This, then, is my reason for celebrating Lalo. Rather than thinking of him as a ‘one-hit wonder’ (as great a hit as Symphonie espagnole might be) I suggest that a deep dive into his work allows us to better recognise the commonalities across music and therefore to stand in greater awe at the subtleties that make pieces sound so different.

I do hope you will enjoy our Lalo celebration. It’s a rare chance to explore the oeuvre of a less famous, though no less fascinating, contributor to the wonderful genre we call Classical music.

Bicentenary of Édouard Lalo:
2.00pm Friday 20 January
At the ballet, 2.30pm Saturday 21 January
2.00pm Friday 27 January
Sunday Special, 3.00pm Sunday 29 January