Symphonie espagnole, op. 21

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            French instrumental music during the nineteenth century generally was the poor sister of opera in that country, despite American familiarity nowadays with the instrumental works of Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, and Franck.  It is to Edouard Lalo’s relentless pursuit of the composition and performance of chamber music that much of its renewed strength was achieved during the middle of the century.  Today, Lalo’s fame in France is primarily based upon his masterpiece, the opera, Le roi d’Ys (1888), based upon the Breton legend of the sunken city in Douarnenez Bay, near Brest.  Nevertheless, his world wide reputation is largely founded on his ever-popular violin concerto, somewhat misleadingly entitled a “Spanish symphony,” but almost universally referred to as “the Lalo.”  Lalo was a fine violist and violinist, and composed a number of concertos for both violin and orchestra, as well as a piano concerto and other orchestral works.  But, the Symphonie espagnole is the one.

            It was given its première in 1875 by the famous virtuoso, Sarasate, the year after its composition, and it has since not left the repertoire.  It exhibits most of the composer’s signature characteristics:  deft and attractive orchestration, bold harmonic color, shifting dynamic accents, and a fondness for vivacious jig-like rhythms.   The work, so infused with Spanish elements, is simply filled with an ingratiating swagger and élan that never fails to appeal.  It consists somewhat unusually of five movements, rather than the conventional three.

            The first movement is dynamic, dark and forceful in the minor mode. But, the second is a light dance in a more upbeat mood that entertains with a characteristic Spanish alternation between a two and a three-beat feel.  Lalo originally wrote only four movements—in the typically form of a “symphony,” but before the première, at his friend, Sarasate’s request, he added an intermezzo in between movements two and three.  It’s based upon the familiar habanero rhythm, and much of the appeal of the movement occurs when the main theme is passionately “dug” out of the low g-string of the violin.  The fourth (slow) movement begins with an introduction that evokes Mendelssohn or Schumann, followed by both dark and light introspective materials for the soloist to explore, before ending gently.  The fireworks now arrive in the last movement.  It begins with an airy and skipping theme in Lalo’s characteristic triple time and syncopated accents.  The form of the movement is our old friend, the rondo, so expect familiar sections interspersed with new and contrasting ones, all filled with virtuoso “tricks”—pizzicatos, quick alternation between high and low registers, and glissandos, among others.  A slower middle section is reminiscent of the traditional Spanish dance, the malagueña.  It’s all immensely entertaining--no wonder that audiences have never failed to respond to this scintillating composition.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan