The lady likes strange and wild harmonies

The violin rules. © Charles Thibo

It felt a little like meeting an old friend after many years. I sat at my desk on a rainy Saturday afternoon and listened to a piano trio written by Edouard Lalo. I was writing letters and my thoughts drifted. “Lalo, Lalo…”, I wondered. “Have I written about him?” Actually I have, in a post in November 2016. So why had I forgotten about him? The trio is beautiful, and he surely has written other lovely pieces. A quick research yielded a wealth of pieces unknown to me, and my joy over these discoveries was such that I had to insert an unscheduled post about Lalo’s Violin Concerto in F major, Op. 20 in my publishing schedule.

1873 is the year that Lalo composed this intriguing piece in three movements. Like the “Symphonie Espagnole” and several of his other works for violin, the violin concerto was dedicated to the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Sarasate performed it a year later and the setting – the newly founded Société Nationale de Musique – helped to promote both the work and the composer. Though Lalo’s fame rested upon his popular opera “Le Roi d’Ys”, Hugh MacDoanld writes in an article for Oxford Music Online that “[Lalo’s] instrumental music must be accorded a more prominent historical importance, for it represents a decisively new direction in French music at that period, taken more or less simultaneously by César Franck and Saint-Saëns.”

Tchaikovsky vs. his patron

Curiously, once I started to listen Lalo’s Op. 20 consciously, it reminded me of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s musical language, the melodies, the balance between gentle, melancholic and brutally harsh parts. Could it be that…? As a matter of fact, Tchaikovsky was inspired to write his own violin concerto by  Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole”. According to the researchers from the project Tchaikovsky Research, Lalo’s music appealed to Tchaikovsky’s patron Nadezhda von Meck, and while the two were staying in Florence at the end of 1878, she sent him a copy of Lalo’s Violin Concerto in F major.

Tchaikovsky criticized Lalo’s piece harshly, in particular the harmonies, which struck him as “strange and wild”, the researchers write. He played the piano transcription several times and very much much prefered the “Symphonie Espagnole”. This judgment  greatly distressed von Meck who maintained that “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 further remarked that the original violin version is very different from what he possibly could take away from the transcription. Tchaikovsky realized that his harsh remarks had backfired and immediately apologized to the lady.

“I am a sincere admirer”

Years later, after the Russian composer had experimented himself with “strange and wild” harmonies, he saw Lalo in an unconditional benevolent light. After they failed to meet in Paris in 1886, he wrote in a letter to Lalo that he felt “the most cordial sympathy […] Be assured that I am and will always be a sincere admirer of your great talent and a friend 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.”  In 1889 Tchaikovsky attended a performance of “Le Roi d’Ys” and was greatly impressed.

It is precisely the harmonies of Lalo’s violin concerto that make it interesting, the drama they confer, the astonishing contrast to the lyrical parts. It will be interesting to see how Tchaikovsky went about to write his violin concerto and what influence Lalo’s musical language may have had. This of course means that I will have to somehow squeeze a post on this piece into the publication schedule, which I consider an excellent idea.

Lalo’s Violin Concerto in F amjor has been recorded by the Granada City Orchestra under kees Bakesl and the French violinist Jean-Jacques Kantorow.

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.