Eug?¿ne Ysa??e (1858-1931)
Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27
The Belgian violinist Eug?¿ne-Auguste Ysa??e was among theleading virtuosi of his day, inspiring admiration rather than jealous rivalryfrom other great contemporary performers. Born in Li?¿ge in 1858, he was taughtby his father, Nicolas-Joseph Isaye, a violinist and opera conductor, andentered the Li?¿ge Conservatoire in 1865, studying there with D. Heynberg. Atthe death of his mother in 1868 and after disagreement with his teacher, heleft, accompanying his father on concert tours and playing in the orchestrasthe latter conducted. In 1872 he returned to Li?¿ge to study with Rodolphe andLeon Massart, completing his training there with distinction in 1874. Hecontinued his studies with Wienawski in Brussels and later, from 1876 to 1879,with Vieuxtemps in Paris.
After leaving Paris, Ysa??e took a position as leader of theBilse orchestra in Berlin, where he continued until 1882. The period broughtconcert tours through Scandinavia and Russia with Anton Rubinstein, acollaboration that he found helped his own musical development. In 1883 hereturned to Paris, associating there with leading composers, including CesarFranck and Camille Saint-Sa?½ns, and, from the younger generation, ErnestChausson, Gabriel Faure, Vincent d'Indy and Claude Debussy, exercising animportant influence on French violin music of the time. Franck's Violin Sonatawas dedicated to him as a wedding present, and Ysa??e gave the firstperformances in Brussels in 1886, and then in Paris. Other dedications includedChausson's Po?¿me and Violin Concerto and Debussy's String Quartet.
In 1886 Ysa??e returned to Brussels as a professor at theRoyal Conservatoire, holding the position there until 1898. In addition to hiscontinuing international career as a performer, he conducted concerts at home,giving exposure in particular to new works by French and Belgian composers. In1888 he established the Ysa??e Quartet, with the violinist Mathieu Crickboom,Leon Van Hout and Joseph Jacob, and started the Concerts Ysa??e, which, with abreak during the 1914-18 war, when he was in England and then America,continued until 1940. By 1922 he was in Brussels again, but directed hisattention more particularly to conducting, after trouble with his bowing arm.He had suffered for some time from diabetes and in 1929 his right foot wasamputated. This did not prevent him from conducting his last concert inBrussels in 1930 and in March the following year his opera Pi?¿re li hou?»eu(Peter the Miner) was staged in Li?¿ge and then in Brussels. His health allowedhim to attend the second of these, three weeks before his death on 12th May1931.
Ysa??e had considerable influence on the development ofviolin-playing after Wienawski and Vieuxtemps, and there are many reminiscencesof his playing and teaching. Yehudi Menuhin recalls a visit to Brussels to seeYsa??e, the mentor of his own teacher, Louis Persinger, when he was, quiterightly, told to practise scales and arpeggios, advice that other greatteachers have been heard to give. Joseph Szigeti recalled Ysa??e's father'searly prohibition of premature use of vibrato, finding here the reason forYsa??e's own disciplined use of this technique, while Carl Flesch declaredYsa??e's influence the most vital and continuing. In 1937 the Eug?¿ne Ysa??eInternational Competition was established, an event that later became the QueenElisabeth of Belgium Competition. As a composer Ysa??e lacked formal trainingbut wrote a number of works for violin and orchestra, orchestral compositionsand chamber music.
Ysa??e's best known compositions, at least among violinists,to whom they present a constant technical and musical challenge, are the verydemanding Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27, published in 1924, each of themdedicated to a distinguished contemporary player, whose style of performancethey reflect. Sonata No. 1 is for the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti,who comments briefly in his A Violinist's Notebook on the use of sixths in thewhole tone scale in double-stopping that involves smooth changes of positionand string in the first movement, a feature that he finds characteristic ofYsa??e's own playing, while elsewhere commenting on Ysa??e's tendency to livedangerously in matters of fingering. It was Szigeti's playing of the Bach soloviolin Sonatas and Partitas that seems to have inspired the whole set. The openingmovement of the first of Ysa??e's sonatas reflects the first movement of Bach'sSonata No. 1 in G minor. As in Bach's sonata, the second movement is in fugalform, the whole worked out with echoes of Bach solo violin figuration. The Bflat major third movement, Allegretto poco scherzoso, carries the appropriateinstruction amabile, an apt description of what follows. The last movement hasthe direction Allegro fermo. It is in the compound rhythm once conventional forsuch conclusions.
Sonata No. 2 in A minor is dedicated to the French violinistJacques Thibaud, who died in a plane crash in 1953. A pupil of Marsick at theParis Conservatoire he established a leading position for himself among Frenchviolinists and is still remembered for his chamber music performances withCasals and Cortot, preserved on record. The Obsession of the first movement isimmediately apparent in the quotations from the Prelude of Bach's Partita in Emajor, mingled with references to the opening of the Dies irae of the RequiemMass, which assumes final prominence. The muted E minor Malinconia leads gentlyforward to a free statement of the Dies irae motif. The third movement, Dansedes ombres (Dance of the Shades), starts with the plucked notes of a G majorSarabande. A first variation is bowed, followed by a Musette over a sustainedopen G, with reminiscences of the Dies irae ever more apparent. The thirdvariation is in G minor, while the fourth has a running accompaniment in theupper part to the now familiar motif below. The fifth variation is in tripletrhythm and the sixth in still rapider figuration. The movement ends with abowed return to the opening. The Dies irae soon returns in Les furies, with itsuse of sinister sul ponticello effects and final climax.
The single-movement Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Ballade, isdedicated to the great Romanian violinist and composer George Enescu, theprincipal later teacher of Yehudi Menuhin in Paris. It opens in the manner of arecitative, leading to a passage in 5/4 and then a 3/8 Allegro giusto withdotted rhythms, as the tale unfolds, followed by rapid triplet figuration and abrief relaxation, before the dotted rhythms return, leading to the excitementof the ending.
Ysa??e dedicated Sonata No. 4 in E minor to Fritz Kreisler, aviolinist whom he held in particularly high regard. There is inevitablysomething of Bach about the opening Allemanda. The Sarabande opens with pluckednotes, moulded round an inner four-note descending motif that is heard in thebowed section that follows, leading eventually to more elaborate arpeggiation.The figuration of the brilliant finale inevitably suggests some of Kreisler'sown writing. It is interrupted by a contrasting section, before resuming itsoriginal impetus.
Sonata No. 5 in G major is dedicated to Ysa??e's pupilMathieu Crickboom, a member of the Ysa??e Quartet, and then founder of his ownquartet, an important performer and teacher in the Belgian tradition. L'aurore(The Dawn) breaks gently and imperceptibly in terms familiar in French music ofthe period, gradually growing in power. A rhythmic Danse rustique follows, itsasymmetric and marked rhythms forgotten in the central section, before thedance proper returns, now varied.
Sonata No. 6 in