Édouard Lalo

1823 1892

Édouard Lalo



Édouard Lalo was a 19th century French composer. Although he trained in Paris, he chose a different path than most of his contemporaries and focused primarily on chamber music, such as piano trios and string quartets in his early years. Despite much frustration and disappointment, he was raised from obscurity towards the end of his life.

Édouard Lalo was born in 1823 in Lille, France. Encouraged by his parents at a young age to learn music, Lalo enrolled in violin and cello lessons at the Lille Conservatoire. His parents, while supportive of his deep interest in music, did not support his desire to study music seriously. Arguments with his father finally led to him leaving the house at the age of 16 to study in Paris. At the conservatory in Paris, he studied violin with Hubeneck and composition with pianist Julius Schulhoff and composer J.E. Crévecoeur.

Throughout much of his life, Lalo worked in anonymity and made a substantial part of his living teaching and playing violin. Lalo played in various orchestras, including the orchestras ofHector Berlioz. Lalo also occupied his time with composition; however, two of his early works – both symphonies – were destroyed. Lalo’s other early works include various romances and violin pieces. He also composed two piano trios, a genre that was unfashionable at the time in France. His chamber music compositions and ensembles, however, did spark a renewal of interest in chamber music in the 1950s. He was a founding member of the Armingaud Quartet, which aimed to promote the quartets ofHaydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. In this group he played the viola and later the second violin part. He wrote his own string quartet in 1859.  The direction he took in the genre of instrumental composition simultaneously follows the path ofCésar Franck and Saint-Saëns . Although his second piano trio is a very convincing work, it is not played often.

Lalo’s compositional output slumped after 1859; he was discouraged and did not want to compose. It was not until 1866 that he began to compose again seriously. This was prompted by a competition at the Théâtre-Lyrique. For the competition, he wrote the grand opera,Fiesque (1866-68), based on Schiller’s playFiesco and with a libretto by Charles Beauquier. This three-act opera did not win any prizes despite the fact that it drew the interest of the Paris Opéra and the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Discouraged and embittered because, not only did he not win, but his work was never even performed, Lalo had the vocal score published at his own expense. He was very proud of his opera and would draw upon it in many of his future compositions. Several of his compositions that can be connected to this opera are theDivertissement (1872), Néron(1891), both Aubades (1872), and the scherzo of his Symphony in G minor (1886). His opera had many positive qualities such as its variety and intrigue. It also features several very successful numbers, such as the orchestral Divertissement. Though he was very proud of his opera, it was also full of “absurdities and awkward stage maneuvers, belonging in spirit to the age of Scribe.”

By the 1870s, Lalo’s popularity had begun to increase as a result of the performance of a series of instrumental works. He was also granted the opportunity to pursue composition in orchestral music in the German tradition with the support of the Société Nationale, Pasdeloup, Lamoureux, Colonne, and Sarasate. Works from this period include theViolin Concerto in F major (1873) and theSymphonie espagnole (1874) performed by the violinist Pablo Sarasate in 1874 and 1875, respectively.Symphonie espagnole, despite its misleading title, is a violin concerto and became and remains to this day one of his most popular pieces. It features five movements full of Spanish whimsy. HisCello Concerto in D minor (1877) and Fantaisie norvégienne (1878) were performed by the Parisian cellist Adolphe Fischer in 1877 and 1879, respectively. His cello concerto is one of his stronger instrumental works, and is very searching in nature. Another piece for violin, theConcerto russe  (1879), was premiered by Marsick in 1879. Despite his success during this period, he remained unsatisfied and still longed to compose for the theatre.

In 1881, Lalo had more-or-less completed the opera, Le roi d’Ys, but it was not accepted by any theaters. The Paris Opéra, however, did ask him for a ballet, which was an unfamiliar genre for Lalo. He accepted the offer, and provided the Opéra withNamouna (1881-82), which was completed within four months. During the compositional process, Lalo suffered from a bout of hemiplegia andCharles Gounod was able to help him complete the orchestration. The production did not run long, although it was full of intrigue. Many critics accused him of being a symphonist and/or a Wagnerian. Other critics were appreciative of his originality and fresh approach. The score was later released as part of an orchestral suite series, made popular by Debussy, who was then a student the Conservatory, and an avid admirer of the work.

In the following period, Lalo continued working on the production of his opera, Le roi d’Ys, while also composing orchestral works. Lalo’s dedication to his opera eventually paid off, and in 1888 the Opéra-comique premiered the work, which was very well-received by both the public and critics. After a life of near obscurity, he finally was able to enjoy the fame he had been seeking.

After Le roi d’Ys, Lalo wrote two more works for the stage, the pantomime Néron (1891), which was premiered in 1891 at the Hippodrome and the opera,La jacquerie (1891-92), of which he was only able to finish one act. Both productions consisted almost entirely of material from earlier compositions.

Throughout his life he also composed various songs, most of which were written with his wife’s contralto voice in mind. These works are in great contrast with his instrumental work, as they are very sentimental and lyrical. One example of his song compositions isSix romances populaires (1849). A later example includes the Hugo settings (1856).

A feature found prominently in Lalo’s music is the use of the French 6th, which gives his harmonies a specific colour. His music has little in common with that ofWagner, though he was constantly compared with him. His music more closely resembles that ofMendelssohn or Schumann than that of Wagner. Lalo’s influence can be seen in later composers such asDukas, Debussy, and Roussel.

Lalo died in Paris in 1892 at the age of 69, after finally receiving the recognition he deserved.