Sylvio Lazzari (his real first names were Josef Fortunat Silvester) was born in Bozen, Southern Tyrol, on 30 December 1857. His father was from Naples, his mother an Austrian. To give in to his parent's wishes he interrupted his training as a violinist to study in Innsbruck, Munich and Vienna, where in 1882 he obtained his doctor's degree. The same year, during a visit to Paris, following the advice of Ernest Chausson and Charles Gounod who both had recognized his gifts, Lazzari decided to devote himself entirely to music. At the Conservatoire he became a pupil of Ernest Guiraud and of Cesar Franck. Already in his Austrian period, a collection of songs by Lazzari had been published by Breitkopf & Hartel. During his Conservatoire period, a Trio (1886), a Quatuor (1887) and an Octuor (1889) were produced and performed with considerable success. It was Lazzari's magnificent Quatuor the first string quartet ever composed at the time of the so-called modern school, that whetted the appetite of French musicians and concertgoers for chamber music. Cesar Franck's own Quatuor followed two years later, most probably inspired by Lazzari's.
In 1894, two years before Lazzari was naturalized as a French citizen, Eugene Ysaye had given the first performance of the Sonate pour piano et violon, bringing this work to international renown. In 1922, his Rhapsodie pour violon et orchestre was to be launched by none other than Georges Enesco. Lazzari's most important symphonic works are Symphonie en mi bemol (1907), Tableaux Maritimes (1920), Effet de Nuit (1890), Marche pour une fete joyeuse (1903) and, to complete his works for solo instrument and orchestra, Concertstuck pour piano (1895). His vocal music includes over fifty works, either for solo voice (ten songs are available in orchestrated versions), for vocal duet or for chorus and his chamber music also includes some twenty works for solo piano.
Lazzari is occasionally remembered today as a composer of five operas: Armor (1889-94), La Lepreuse (1899-1902), Maelenis (1905-1912), Le Sauteriot (1913-17) and La Tour de Feu (1928), practically all of which had suffered unfortunate events before performance and now still await revival. The fate of La Lepreuse, considered Lazzari's masterwork, is one of the most eventful. The work remained blocked for almost twelve years, not because of the "terrifying subject" of its libretto, but mainly owing to contractual misunderstandings between the composer and the management of the Paris Opera, which ended in a painful court case. Armor, after having been accepted, but later rejected by the Brussels Opera in favour of Vincent d'Indy's Fervaal, was only produced at the Deutsches Theater of Prague under the composer's baton ten years later. Maelenis had to wait fifteen years before its first performance and La Tour de Feu was withdrawn after its third performance owing to some "matters of distribution". Only Le Sauteriot could be performed shortly after its completion, and this under the composer's baton at the Chicago Opera, with further guest performances in New York.
Lazzari, who for some time was president of the Paris Wagner-Verein and chorus-master at the Opera de Monte-Carlo, died of pulmonary embolism in his house at Suresnes on 10 June 1944, two weeks before he was due to attend a broadcast concert performance of extended selections from La Tour de Feu. This has survived in the archives and had to be interrupted because of an air-raid. Lazzari retired to the Paris suburbs for forty years and during his last decade suffered from deteriorating eyesight. In a vivid broadcast interview we can hear the 85-year-old composer telling us how he amused himself sometimes by "turning the tap on" to listen to some music from the Radio, and stumbling occasionally over one of his own pieces. In the same interview he reveals a "his love and admiration of the Bach of the Mass in B Minor, the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony and the string quartets, his tenderness for Schumann and his passion for Wagner".
Although Lazzari's music is influenced by Richard Wagner, Ernest Chausson and Cesar Franck, it is highly individual in style and of a decidedly more virile temper than those three he considered his masters. It always sounds uncompromising, well-constructed and mature. Lazzari had a way with absolute, programme and theatre music, and knew how to write for singers and for instrumental soloists. A predilection for Breton legends had brought him into contact with the folklore of that region and three of his operas (Armor, La Lepreuse and La Tour de Feu) deal with such subjects, either from the times of King Arthur, or from the Middle Ages, or from the seventeenth century. On La Tour de Feu it may be interesting to mention that it was Lazzari himself who wrote its libretto and that at its 1928 premiere and for the first time in the history of opera, a cinematic sequence was included.