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Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (snare drum, triangle), harp, strings, and solo violin
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: April 9, 1922, with soloist Calmon Luboviski, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The latter part of the 19th century in France saw the blossoming of instrumental music. Until that time, a French composer’s worth was tested by the yardstick of opera. During the 1870s, following the death of Hector Berlioz in 1869, the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870, and the insurrection of the Paris Commune, musical activities were temporarily suspended. In the aftermath of the war, instrumental organizations had less difficulty resuming their activities than did the established opera companies.
Enter Édouard Lalo, who for nearly three decades had been waiting in the wings of the deserted theater of chamber music as both a violinist/violist and a composer. Lalo’s fame as a composer began to grow during the 1870s as a consequence of several unexpected factors that, happily for him, converged at the same time: the support of the newly formed Société National, support from private individuals, and, perhaps most importantly the support of the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, for whom the Symphonie espagnole was written, and who performed it in February of 1875. (Sarasate had given the premiere of Lalo’s Violin Concerto in F the year before.)
The Symphonie espagnole is a hybrid structure – part symphony, mostly concerto, and part German Romanze, especially in its lyrical sense. Spanish-type idioms permeate the melodic writing as one would expect, given the title. (Lalo himself was of Spanish descent.)
The first movement immediately unearths its Spanish roots with a gypsy/flamenco melodic gesture stated in the violin after a brief orchestral introduction. Both the orchestra and violin introduce a pattern of alternating rhythms of two and three that will dominate the melodies of each movement. The second theme is lighter and gives some contrast to the pathos of the first theme.
The second movement is brighter and somewhat evocative of the ambience of a public fiesta. The Intermezzo proceeds, after an ominous opening in the orchestra, with a pseudo tango melody weighted with the heaviness of the first movement.
A sense of melancholy, if not mournfulness, breathes throughout the first part of the fourth movement. A contrasting section in D major pierces the sadness, as the violin soars toward the brightness of the last movement. The finale carries forward the vibrancy of the concluding measures of the fourth movement with a gigue rhythm that sets the violin to dancing and leaping to the vigorous orchestral accompaniment. Remnants of previous movements reappear to alter the mood, but the gigue returns to end the Symphonie in the blazing rays of prolonged Iberian sunlight.
Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.