By David Templeton | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
In July of 1923, at the age of 65, Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe wrote six sonatas for the solo violin, one for each of six famous younger violinists of the time. The first was dedicated to Hungarian musician Joseph Szigeti, then 31 years old, and the second to Jacques Thibaud, 43, of France. The remaining four, in order, were composed for George Enescu, 42, of Romania; Austrian-American Fritz Kreisler, 48; Belgian Mathieu Crickboom, 52; and Manuel Quiroga, 31, of Spain. The sextet of compositions was intended, in part, to capture that moment in the evolution of violin playing and expertly incorporated elements of each player’s style.
One hundred years later, Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Violin Solo, Op. 27, have been performed thousands of times by violinists from around the world. Generally, they are performed as separate compositions, but on occasion, a player tackles all six together, either as a special concert event or recording project. When so many violinists turned to solo Bach during the pandemic lockdowns, Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes found an apt pairing for the Sonatas and Partitas in Ysaÿe’s six sonatas when he launched his “Recitals from Home” series. Referring to them on his website as ranking among “the most important cornerstones in the solo violin repertoire,” Ehnes said, “I’ve felt tremendously lucky during this time of musical isolation to have this music in my life.” The recording turned out so well, the entire set was released to critical raves as an album in 2021 on the Onyx label.
To date, the full set of Ysaÿe sonatas has been recorded at least 49 times. Most recently, the challenge was taken up by three-time Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn, whose critically acclaimed double album of the sonatas was released by Deutsche Grammophon in July of 2023, appropriately marking the 100th anniversary of their composition. “To me, as a violinist, they capture a time in violin playing that’s often romanticized in retrospect,” says Hahn, noting that the era during which Ysaÿe wrote these sonatas, the turn of the 20th century, is now generally considered a golden age of violin playing. “Many historical recordings of famous violinists were made at that time or shortly thereafter, and Ysaÿe himself was captured in some of the earliest recordings available. These sonatas are a window into the experience of playing during those times, as well as the ideas that were compositionally interesting to a violinist who could do anything.”
To Hahn—along with the vast number of violinists who adore these pieces and any true historian of music and the composers who create it—the sonatas represent “an autobiography in musical form.” In these six sonatas, Ysaÿe does more than just document his personal feelings about the violinists to whom they are dedicated. He explores and interprets his own historical position and stature within the context of these half dozen players’ contributions. Reading them and performing them, you get a sense of what it was like to be Eugène Ysaÿe.
“What you infer from looking at the score is highly personal, but when I look at it, I see inside jokes, references to musical experiences, portraits of the artists, technical profiles, and so many different personalities that bring so many different moods,” Hahn says. “Playing these pieces, you inhabit all of those worlds. You internalize Ysaÿe’s knowledge, whether you can articulate it or not.”
For listeners, these works are equally visceral and immersive, Hahn observes. “They don’t shy away from drama, vulnerability, tension, and beauty,” she says. “New structures are starting to emerge in which the violin is both simple and gigantic.” Acknowledging the way Ysaÿe clearly but subtly references Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, Hahn believes that a listener’s familiarity with those works creates a powerful effect whenever he diverges into something original. “It feels like listening to someone talk about concepts in a way you’ve never considered before, in a language you know, using some words you don’t recognize. It’s intriguing and absorbing.”
Kerson Leong, the acclaimed Canadian violinist who recorded his own interpretation of the six Ysaÿe sonatas in 2021, has given these pieces a great deal of thought throughout his career. “Two things stand out to me immediately about these sonatas,” he says. “The first is how naturally these pieces seem to fit the instrument for which they were written—even if the difficulty of these sonatas is incredible, there’s still a certain ‘inevitability’ in the way the fingers lie that fits the violin like a glove.”
Ysaÿe was a greatly accomplished violinists himself, Leong adds, and was able to make use of the ins and outs of the instrument, giving the impression that the violin is just as comfortable in a polyphonic role as a purely melodic one. “Which it normally isn’t,” he notes. The second thing that stands out is that, despite their emphasis on “technical virtuosity and innovation,” such elements serve as a means to an even deeper and richer musical end. “These sonatas contain simply beautiful and moving music with an often dark and probing nature,” Leong says, “which I find, and I hope, encourages the player to look inward rather than only embracing an external display of skill.”
Hahn has discovered something similar.
What she has come to realize about the six sonatas is that they are even richer for having been written by someone who fully understood the experience of performing on the violin. “The way Ysaÿe plays with resonance in the instrument is unique,” she says. “He stays inside of certain tonalities without being tonal. Only someone who has spent thousands of hours playing the instrument, with the vibrations going through his jaw into his brain, could write into that sound world. He communicates to the listener the magic a violinist hears under their ear.”
The six musicians to whom Ysaÿe dedicated the pieces are themselves fascinating, starting with Joseph Szigeti, whose concert hall performance of several Bach pieces Ysaÿe himself attended. The experience inspired Ysaÿe to write a cycle of solo pieces similar to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. It makes sense that the first of his own sonatas would be dedicated to Szigeti.
A child prodigy, Szigeti became renowned for his unaccompanied performances of Bach’s solo pieces. The longest of Ysaÿe’s set, No. 1, was written to Szigeti’s skill set, providing plenty of opportunity for virtuosity emphasizing the player’s smooth signature position changes.
The second sonata, dedicated to Ysaÿe’s close friend Jacques Thibaud, is a bit spooky, teasing the famously hypochondriacal player with occasional insertions of the death-associated Gregorian chant Dies Irae melody. Sonata No. 3, a rollercoaster of dramatic shifts, was dedicated to George Enesco, renowned as a great composer and teacher in addition to being an acclaimed violinist praised for the warmth and intimacy of his tone. The two performed together on a number of occasions. In describing the sonata dedicated to Enesco, Ysaÿe once wrote, “I have let my imagination wander at will. The memory of my friendship and admiration for George Enesco and the performances we gave together has done the rest.”
Fritz Kreisler, to whom No. 4 was dedicated, was another child prodigy, entering the conservatory in Vienna at age seven and graduating at ten. As an in-demand performer, Kreisler had a habit of offering “lost treasures”—“forgotten” compositions by famous composers, which he actually wrote himself. Ysaÿe was especially fond of Kreisler’s “full and sweet” vibrato, for which he allowed plenty of room in his fourth sonata.
The fifth sonata, dedicated to Mathieu Crickboom, is the shortest of the six. Originally one of Ysaÿe’s own students, who for many years played second violin in the Ysaÿe Quartet, Crickboom held in common with Ysaÿe a longing for simple country life that nevertheless eluded them. Ysaÿe makes affectionate note of this in Sonata No. 5, with his inclusion of heart-gladdening, country folk dance melodies.
Sonata No. 6 was dedicated to Manuel Quiroga, considered at the time to be Spain’s greatest violinist, which explains the frequent Spanish references in the composition. Perhaps hinting that Ysaÿe hoped the full program of pieces would be performed as such, the sixth sonata concludes in grand fashion, with crowd-pleasing energy and stand-up-and-clap-now finality. Tragically, Quiroga—the youngest of the six dedicatees—was forced to retire from performing following an accident in 1937 in Times Square, New York, when he was struck by a truck after a recital, leading to the loss of feeling in his arm. He continued composing, however, and died in 1961 at the age of 69.
For a collection of pieces all composed at the same time, reportedly sketched out in less than 24 hours then developed over the next few weeks, it is remarkable how distinct each of the six sonatas is from the rest.
“There’s no mistaking the DNA of Ysaÿe’s writing throughout the six sonatas,” observes Leong, “but each of them naturally has a distinct character, and it can be interesting to look into the context behind the conception of each in order to help determine sound approach and colors and texture choices. For example, the direct inspiration of Szigeti’s Bach-playing in No. 1, leading to long and brooding lines; finding connections with the suavity and raw passion in a lot of Spanish music for No. 6; or just imagining how Ysaÿe would have had Kreisler’s big noble sound in mind when he penned the lyrical lines of No. 4. In that sense, I find it fulfilling when working on these sonatas to imagine and approach each one from the perspective and mindset of a different person.”
Hahn’s approach is similarly personal, emphasizing the individuality of each of the dedicatees. “If you read about the violinists—who they spent time with, the musicians they worked with, what they were known for, how Ysaÿe knew them, and the musical contexts from which they emerged—a lot of the differences between the sonatas are explained,” she says, adding that this is part of what makes them so much of a challenge—and such a satisfying feat—to perform as a set. “When you take the pieces in chronological order,” she says, “and, to the extent that you can imagine it, really put yourself into the zones both of the era and the way it might have felt to be that dedicatee playing your instrument at that time, so many interpretive options open up.”
Of course, as Leong suggests, the very fact that each piece was written with a different violinist in mind demands a bit of musical role-playing. “It’s a subtle thing for a performer to be able to recognize what it might feel like to play as a different player,” Hahn says. “That’s what I consider to be a highly advanced challenge, a sort of historical telepathy.” Such a practice is valuable for any artist who has been playing a long time, of course. “What you conclude from these flights of fancy is completely within your own identity as an artist,” she says, “so it’s a chance to become someone else in a way, while returning even more authentically to your own self.”
Ultimately, though each piece is dedicated to another violinist, they are all the result of Ysaÿe’s own compositional vision and imagination. What, then, might the Six Sonatas for Violin Solo, Op. 27, reveal about Eugène Ysaÿe the player? Hahn, who has become intimately familiar with them over the last few years, says it’s not an easy question, as these are the only Ysaÿe pieces she’s played. She does think they are very representative of Ysaÿe as a person. “He was highly creative, lived larger than life, had expansive opinions, and valued his musical community,” she says. “He had the respect of everyone I have read about. Audiences loved him. He was a very expressive player, and he knew how to work with the violin to achieve everything he wanted to convey.
“The fact that Ysaÿe wrote these pieces at the time that he did speaks to his sense of legacy and his sense of rebellion,” she continues. “He wanted to update the violin repertoire, to reflect techniques that he knew were possible that hadn’t been written into the repertoire yet. I would venture that Ysaÿe knew what he wanted to leave on paper in this world, and he did so with complete confidence.”
And now, it’s up to the violinists who follow him to imbue the pieces with their own selves and make them part of their own legacies. “He wrote solo works that leave space for the individual performer,” says Hahn, “and that’s how they will live on, and that’s one way he will live on. I think he knew this.”