Written by Ronald Comber

Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21
Eduoard Lalo  (1823-1892)

Eduoard Lalo was born in Lille in 1823, the son of an ex-officer in the Napoleonic army. Of Spanish ancestry, the Lalos were historically a military family with artistic leanings. The young Eduoard was actively encouraged to study music throughout his childhood, but when he wanted to make it his profession his father showed violent opposition. Lalo ran away from home when he was sixteen to pursue his dream in Paris.

Many hard years were to follow. Years of study in the Conservatoire gave him a good training, but he was still penniless and obscure. He made a living teaching and as a freelance violist, gradually taking up composing in his spare time. By the late 1840’s some of his music was being published, but it was only later that he found his true metier as an artist with the composition of his two Piano Trios. Lalo’s first great hit was the Violin Concerto of 1873, written for and performed by the great virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. Their next collaboration, even more popular, was today’s Symphonie Espagnole, written the next year.

The work is in five movements, with the middle one usually omitted as it is for this performance. The first movement, in Sonata form, is made up of two wonderfully contrasting themes; the first stern and heroic, the second pensive and sensual. The second movement, marked Scherzando, has a playful cleverness made all the stronger by the interplay between two related rhythmical themes. The fourth movement is dark, funereal yet glamorous, with hints of dusky reds and golds in the orchestration. The last movement is in the form of a Rondo. A Spanish dance of great wit and vivacity, the Finale brings the work to a rousing close.

Symphony No. 5
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

By 1900, Gustav Mahler was regarded as one of the premiere conductors in the world. Music Director of the Vienna State Opera and principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, Mahler was in great demand as a guest artist as well. In his free time, every summer, he would immerse himself in composition, striving towards an ineffable goal, a new manner of expression through music.

In 1900, Mahler was inspired by the poems of Friedrich Rűckert, especially by the ones mourning the loss of the poet`s two young sons. Using those texts Mahler began to compose his achingly beautiful Kindertotenlieder. He found that the act of composing those songs opened up a new realm of possibilities, and began to envision a major new work, the Symphony No. 5.

In the summer of1901 Mahler moved to his new villa in Maiernigg and set to work. The Scherzo came first with relative ease. He then began to sketch out the rest of the work. Originally conceived to be in four movements, Mahler soon realized that he needed five to achieve his desired result. The next summer he worked day and night, and by fall it was complete.

The Symphony No. 5 was put into print by 1904. Its premiere by the Gűrzenich Orchestra in Cologne led to general consternation.  Audiences and critics alike found it too strange, too emotionally charged for them to comprehend. Mahler made some revisions and got the work re-published, but the work met with only a slightly better result at its next performance in Chicago. Mahler was philosophical, telling a friend that he wished that he could conduct the premiere again, only fifty years after he died!

As it turned out, he was being prophetic. The re-appraisal of Mahler`s oeuvre, championed especially by Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein, began in the late 1950s, but by the early 60s his works were finally appreciated fully for the first time.

The structure of Mahler`s Symphony No. 5 is fascinating, with the five movements comprising three sections. The first section is made up of the thematically-related first two movements, the second consists of the Scherzo alone, and the third section is made of the thematically-related last two movements. The first movement’s opening trumpet call leads to an heroic orchestra entrance followed by a sombre funeral march. Grief  is in turn decorous and violent as the music unfolds, with the tension relieved by the introduction of a gentle second subject. The mood is shattered by a wildly violent section which slowly subsides and transforms itself back into the funeral march again, with a sly quote from the first of the Kindertotenlieder songs in the woodwinds shortly before the movement’s conclusion.

The second movement erupts violently with passages filled with terror and a certain awe. Slower passages provide a certain respite, one of them marking the return of the solo trumpet of the first movement in its original funeral tempo. The short central section is more hopeful in tone, but the violence soon returns, the movement only finding a final peace in a closing brass chorale.

The Scherzo is altogether different in mood and tone, with joy runs through every twist and turn. It is mostly made up of a whole complex of Ländler (German peasant waltz-like dances). Trio two adds an enchanting air of mystery to the proceeding. The conclusion of the movement is hectically manic. Throughout the Scherzo, a virtuoso solo horn is prominent, often in counterpoint with the rest of the orchestra.

Probably the most well-known and most loved of Mahler`s works, the Adagietto has been used in everything from commercials to films. It is, in truth painfully beautiful, its poignancy only enhanced by the faintly hesitant harp accompanying the strings. Mahler said that he wrote it especially for his young wife.

The last movement, a Rondo, is a miracle of counterpoint. It uses themes evolved from all that went before, in one place even offering up a much faster version of the Adagietto theme. One theme is brought in from his Des Knaben Wunderhorn song Praise from a Lofty Intellectual as a sly dig at the critics. The grand peroration leads to a reiteration of the chorale theme, but the movement ends with a violent interruption in a jarring key, followed by a precipitate flight down the octaves to the end.