Lalo studied the violin and cello at the conservatory in Lille, and in 1839 he enrolled at the Paris Conservatory. He made his early living as a violinist and teacher, while making his first attempts at composition, with an inclination towards chamber music. In 1855 he helped to found the Armingaud Quartet, in which he played the viola or second violin. It was not until later life, with the success of some of his larger-scale stage and instrumental works, that he gained fame as a composer.
Tchaikovsky and Lalo
The first work by Lalo which Tchaikovsky became acquainted with seems to have been the famous Symphonie Espagnole, which he played through together with the violinist Iosif Kotek while staying in Clarens in March 1878. He discussed the Symphonie in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck quoted below (Letter 777), which shows that he liked it very much for its "freshness and lightness", as well as its original rhythms and beautiful harmony. These were all qualities which Tchaikovsky associated with the new French school of music, whose leading representatives for him were Bizet and Delibes, and which he frequently juxtaposed with contemporary German music, arguing that the latter had reached a dead end. Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole inspired Tchaikovsky to write his Violin Concerto, which in fact he started to work on that very month in Clarens.
The original rhythms and bold harmonies of Lalo's music also appealed to Nadezhda von Meck greatly, and when she was staying in Florence at the end of 1878, at the same time as Tchaikovsky (though they took great pains to avoid meeting one another), she sent him a copy of Lalo's Violin Concerto in F major. Tchaikovsky studied this work and criticized it harshly, in particular the harmonies, which struck him as "strange and wild". Indeed, such wilful and unjustified violation of the rules of harmony, as he saw it, could only be compared to the "musical filth" of Musorgsky, whose manner he so detested (see Letter 987 below). Tchaikovsky's benefactress, who was very fond of this Violin Concerto and even rated its author higher than Bizet, seeing in Lalo a truly original composer who was, moreover, not so much a Frenchman as a Spaniard in her eyes, was dismayed at this parallel with Musorgsky. She wrote to Tchaikovsky soon afterwards: "Your comparison of Lalo with Musorgsky so distressed me that it almost made me cry. Musorgsky is simply loathsome to me: he isn't even a charlatan, but a musical clown, an acrobat, whereas Lalo is such an elegant composer, even if he is wild — however, I like this wildness in him because it is original and natural, yet at the same time wholly civilized" . She also emphasized that the concerto really had to be played through on a violin, as the piano couldn't convey the beauty and plasticity of its melodies. Tchaikovsky immediately apologized for the harshness of his criticisms, although it is clear that he still preferred the Symphonie Espagnole by far. Moreover, in his reply to Nadezhda von Meck he retracted the earlier comparison of Lalo to Musorgsky, observing ironically that the French could never go as far in reckless defiance of all rules and conventions as the Russians did.
Lalo, together with several other leading figures of the French music world, attended the funeral service for Nikolay Rubinstein at the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris on 26 March 1881 [N.S.] (see TH 315), but it seems that Tchaikovsky did not speak to him on this sad occasion. Five years later, though, at a soirée given in Tchaikovsky's honour by a Russian lady living in Paris (on 19 June 1886 [N.S.]), he did meet Lalo and his wife, the contralto Julie Bernier de Maligny. They invited Tchaikovsky to their house, but since he was due to leave for Russia a few days later he was unable to pay this visit. Once he had reached Maydanovo, Tchaikovsky sent a letter of apology to Lalo:
Dear maître and friend!
I am so tormented by the thought that you are perhaps annoyed with me because I did not call on you in Paris — you, for whom I feel the most cordial sympathy and who have been so kind and affectionate to me [...] Be assured that I am and will always be a sincere admirer of your great talent and profoundly grateful for the tokens of friendship which you have lavished upon me each time that I have had the good fortune to meet you. If God grants me life, I am sure to return to Paris very soon and it will be a delight for me to go and shake hands with you and pay my respect to Madame Lalo, of whom I have the most sympathetic recollection [...] .
It is not clear whether Tchaikovsky actually met Lalo again during his subsequent visits to Paris, but he did go to a performance of the latter's opera Le Roi d'Ys at the Opéra-Comique on 22 March 1889 [N.S.] and was highly impressed.
Reflections on Specific Works by Lalo
In Tchaikovsky's Letters
- Le Roi d'Ys, opera (1888)
- Letter 3831 to Vladimir Davydov, 29 March/10 April 1889, from London, in which Tchaikovsky shares his impressions of Paris a few days earlier:
I liked Lalo's opera Le Roi d'Ys very much. Tell Modya that he should definitely try to acquire a copy of the score. He will enjoy it greatly.
- Symphonie Espagnole, for violin and orchestra, Op. 21 (1874)
"Today I have been playing the piano all day long, both four-handed with Kotek and with him playing the violin. It is such a long time since I last played and heard good music that this music-making now gives me indescribable joy. Are you familiar with the Symphonie Espagnole by Lalo, a French composer? This piece was made fashionable by the violinist Sarasate. It is scored for violin solo with orchestra and is made up of a sequence of five independent movements, which are based on Spanish folk tunes. I have received a lot of pleasure from this work. It has a lot of freshness, lightness, piquant rhythms, as well as beautifully and splendidly harmonized melodies. This Symphonie shows a great affinity with other works I am familiar with from the new French school (to which Lalo belongs). Like Léo Delibes, like Bizet, he, too, does not pursue depth, but carefully avoids routine, looking for new forms and paying more attention to musical beauty than to the observance of established traditions, in contrast to the Germans.
- Violin Concerto in F major, Op. 20 (1873)
Yesterday in the evening I studied a lot of music, that is I looked through both of the suites by [Franz] Ries and Lalo's concerto. I do not like the latter at all: it just cannot be compared with the Symphonie Espagnole.
"Allow me, my dear friend, to make a critical appraisal of Lalo's concerto, which I have played through several times and which I think I know quite well by now. First of all I want to say that Lalo is very talented — there is no question about that. But either he is still a very young man, because all his faults come down to a certain lack of stylistic refinement which is characteristic of youth, or he won't go very far, i.e. I mean that if he is already a mature person, then his faults are organic and incurable. I find the concerto much weaker than the Symphonie Espagnole. Everything in the latter that I ascribed to a deliberate striving to infuse the music with a somewhat wild and rhapsodic character, all those peculiarities which in the Symphonie I put down to the oriental and Moorish form of Spanish melodies, one also encounters in the concerto, but the latter isn't supposed to be Spanish, is it?! Let us proceed to analyze the first movement of the concerto. It consists not of two themes, as is normally the case, but of several — five in fact:
Now, first of all, that is far too many. Every musical dish must be easily digestible, and for that reason it must not contain too great a quantity of ingredients. Secondly, of these themes only the fifth is really completely successful. The other themes are either colourless as such, or, like the second for example, they are not fully presented: they are made up of organically disconnected fragments and are marred by a vagueness of design. Thirdly, in all these themes, again with the exception of the fifth, one encounters a repetitive trick which already in the Symphonie Espagnole is used excessively — namely, the alternation of 6/8 and 2/4 rhythms. Now if someone isn't capable of curbing his inspiration for the sake of balance of form, then at least he ought to try to make the themes more varied by means of rhythm. In Lalo's concerto, however, it is precisely from the point of view of rhythm that the themes are so monotonous. I shall not go into the deficiencies of form, the artificialness which one can sense in the way the individual episodes follow on from one another — that would take us too far. Instead, I'll move on to the harmony. The concerto is full of the strangest and wildest harmonies. Not to mention the fact that in a modest violin concerto such spicy effects are quite out of place, I cannot but observe that all these harmonies have a certain schoolboyish air about them, since they are not elicited by the essence of the musical thought, but, rather, foisted on by force, like a pupils show of bravado in front of a teacher. Some of them display a schoolboyish untidiness, so to speak. For example, what is the point of this musical filth à la Musorgsky, which appears twice?
I mean if this wild combination is played in eighth notes, the result is this:
This is horrendous and quite unnecessary, since it is not justified by anything, and at first I thought that it was a printing error. I hope, my friend, that you don't think I've started talking like a pedantic teacher of harmony. For I do very much like dissonant combinations which are justified and used opportunely. But there are specific limits which nobody is allowed to overstep. So as not to go into technical details, I just want to point out that any violation of the rules of harmony is only then beautiful (no matter how abrupt it may be) when it takes place due to the pressure of the melodic principle. In other words, a dissonance must be resolved either by harmonic or melodic means. If there is neither the one nor the other, what results is simply a monstrosity à la Musorgsky […]
But that's enough of my fault-finding — I would also like to say something positive. Although there is little coherence, the individual movements are written with warmth of feeling, and they contain many beautiful harmonic and melodic details. In the overall nature of his music there is that quality of graceful piquancy which is common to all contemporary French composers, but in Lalo it manifests itself by no means as elegantly as in Bizet, for example. Now the latter's music is replete with daring harmonies, but how much taste and charm there is in all this. If I had not been familiar with the Symphonie Espagnole, then I would have liked the concerto much more. But from Lalo I was expecting such a level of mastery as I did not find in the concerto, and this disappointment is the reason why I have spoken so disapprovingly of it.
Carried away as I was by my critical ardour, I really did express myself too harshly about Lalo, and yesterday my conscience tormented me all day long. A middle course should be staked out between your opinion and mine, i.e. Lalo's concerto is a very talented and lovely piece, but its technique is far from impeccable. And since there really is still lodged within me a professor of harmony who for twelve years has been correcting errors on a daily basis, I am more sensitive than anyone else to such faults. At any rate I shall never compare Lalo with Musorgsky; only in certain details can one say that he has almost gone as far as Musorgsky. A Frenchman by his very nature can never reach those Pillars of Hercules which are accessible to the expansive and reckless Russian character.
Correspondence with Tchaikovsky
One letter from Tchaikovsky to Édouard Lalo has survived, dating from 1886, and has been translated into English on this website: