Composing against all odds

nmzuijdnjk © Charles Thibo
Lalo’s Trio No. 3 – autumn music. © Charles Thibo

Past and present: This composer had the bad luck to play always the second fiddle. Paris choose to ignore him during his lifetime, the 19th century, and glorify Hector Berlioz, Camille de Saint-Saëns, Frédéric Chopin and Maurice Ravel. Today, you will find him mostly as an add-on to a recording of a more famous composer like Felix Mendelssohn. Which isn’t fair. Time to set the record straight then. A piece that you may come to consider as reflecting the composer’s struggle for recognition at the same time as his dexterity at the violin: The Piano Trio No. 3 in A minor, Op. 26, composed by Edouard Lalo.

Surviving as a violinist

Lalo was born in 1823 in Lille (Northern France) into a military family and while his parents initially encouraged his interest in music and allowed him to learn both the violin and the cello, any serious studies met the opposition of his father. Lalo was kicked out of the house at the age of 16 and moved to Paris where he attended violin and composition classes at the Conservatoire de Paris. He survived as a violinist, playing in some of Berlioz’ concerts, and composed unnoticed by anyone. By 1853 he had composed two piano trios, this at a time when chamber music was virtually absent from French repertoires. He tried to revive the interest in chamber music by founding his own quartet in 1855 and performing the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven as well as later composer like Mendelssohn and Schumann. He attracted some attention through this efforts, but competition in Paris was murderous.

Two destroyed symphonies

In his early days as a composer he wrote two symphonies… and destroyed them. A third symphony, written in 1874 and reflecting the Spanish origin of his family, is one of the few pieces still performed today. In 1866, he set out to write an opera in response to a competition set up by the Théâtre-Lyrique: “Fiesque” after Schiller’s play “Fiesco’s Conspiracy at Genoa”. He did not win the prize and his opera was never performed. A second opera “Le Roi d’Ys” after a Breton legend, met the same fate.

A second chance

Understandably, Lalo was embittered by these refusals, but the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871, gave him a second chance. This artistic association founded by Saint-Saëns was to support French musicians and composers; it allowed Lalo in the 1870s to perform a number of his instrumental works and “to pursue his ambitions as a composer of orchestral music in an essentially German tradition”, as Oxford Music Online notes. Critics blamed him to copy Wagner’s style, a reproach he counter with the following words: “It’s hard enough doing my own kind of music and making sure that it’s good enough. If I started to do someone else’s I’m sure it would be appalling.”

Emotional ups and downs

The Piano Trio No. 3 saw the light in 1880, towards the end of his career. I do like this piece, I really do. And each time I listen to it, I like it better. It is a good piece to listen to in autumn! It has the right mix of melancholy, emotional ups and downs and lovely melodies to ease any pain. Very expressive, very captivating, very moving. The Canadian Gryphon Trio has released a recording with the trio in 2002 back to back with… a more famous composer as you would expect.

© Charles Thibo

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