Violinist Philippe Graffin on Completing & Recording an Unknown Ysaÿe Sonata

By Cristina Schreil

Violinist Philippe Graffin could not believe his eyes. He was in the Brussels Conservatoire, leafing through a collection of musical sketchbooks by Eugène Ysaÿe—a composer for whom Graffin has a particular love. He glimpsed at a violin work with the heading “Sixth Sonata, dedicated to Quiroga” yet noticed that the notes did not match the composer’s Sixth Sonata.

Instead, it was an entirely new piece, written around 1923, in the last decade of Ysaÿe’s life and between his fifth and sixth violin sonatas. (It’s technically the original Sonata No. 6.) Two movements were complete, with the third only two-thirds finished. This discovery marked a new journey: of completing, performing, and, with Graffin’s latest album, recording the work.

“It’s rare to find a piece that’s written in a composer’s maturity,” Graffin says.

Yet, the world-premiere recording of the new sonata, titled “Sonate posthume pour violon seul, Op. 27bis” is hardly the most exciting facet of Graffin’s latest album Fiddler’s Blues. There’s also a world-premiere recording of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, transcribed for solo violin by David Matthews and Graffin. Also included are works that Graffin and pianist Claire Désert have performed often: Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 25, and Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in G.

Graffin took time to speak about the lost sonata, his process completing the last movement, and the azure-tinged themes woven throughout this album.   

What was your approach in completing the last third of the last movement of the Ysaÿe sonata?

In order to finish it, I wanted to have as much of Ysaÿe as possible. The form he uses in several other last movements of his [sonatas has] bridge material to come back to the theme and to make a coda. So I just very simply finished it [in this way]. I looked up any information I could find that was in the ones that he published that came a little bit from the material that he uses in this sonata. Even though they are presented a different way, I used those, transposed them in the right key, and used them to make the bridge and come back to the theme completely and write a coda.

I used also [part of the] first movement that he scrapped—the last bars of the piece were scrapped and he finished two bars early and he clearly indicates that the piece should finish here and not there, and I used those two bars to end the piece. So those bars are also by Ysaÿe.


So we have three movements, basically: two and two thirds that are by Ysaÿe and the rest is a very objective way of finishing with as much information from him as possible. So it’s not like I decided to be a great composer. That’s why the piece, if you listen to it, sounds like it’s all by Ysaÿe.     

Fiddler's Blues

Why do you think this music had not yet come to light?

That’s a big question. Of course, the last movement was unfinished, but even if you separate those movements by themselves, they are wonderful and deserve more attention. This slow movement, especially, of this sonata is probably the best movement of this whole cycle. It’s magical how the theme and this simple melody start, followed by another voice, and a third voice, and they find all kinds of ways to accompany. It’s amazing writing for the violin.

But what’s interesting about it is that it’s on par with the most mature works of Ysaÿe, which are very, very popular. I think it bears asking the question, “Why did he choose to not publish this one?” My explanation is basically that this piece is in C major, like the third sonata by Bach. And he wanted to finish in something more brilliant like E major, like the third partita by Bach. Ysaÿe wrote the sixth sonata—the one that he published—in E major. So there is a definite idea of key relationships with Bach and how the key of E major is more brilliant and maybe more appropriate to conclude a cycle. I think the idea of a cycle was somehow present in his mind because in this same sketchbook there are little scribbles on the side where he compares the key of his sonata to one of Bach. And so, I can tell that he was probably thinking that this is too serious and he should finish something in one movement more simply.

How did it come to be published and then recorded?

Obviously, everybody wanted to hear it. It’s amazing how one of the little things I found in this experience is how musicians are quite lazy, because they want for the music to be printed and they want to be able to hear it. The idea to look at the manuscript is not that appealing to most people. Of course, there are exceptions. I was quite astonished; it makes obvious sense to look at the manuscript and play it yourself, but I was surprised that most of my colleagues wanted to wait until this recording was published to see if they wanted to take the time to learn this. Also, a lot of people are suspicious about the quality of this. [They think], if it’s not known, it shouldn’t be really good. There is this attitude toward it. I think that’s complete rubbish. This piece is as good as any of the others—and I’ve played them all very often. I can tell you that this piece is really exceptional and I think it will be played a lot by musicians and they will enjoy it very much.


What was your process in getting to know the sonata?

The process was interesting. I went on tour, I played this in Japan and so forth. Little by little I started to understand more about what I want to do with the piece. It’s still a process that evolves. I think the piece has a lot of possibilities, especially as there are no markings for dynamics or ritardandos or  ccelerandos. Those things are basically blank. Also, articulation is very little. And so, as I know Ysaÿe’s way of marking and what he does with counterpoint and his very particular technique of using the bow, I applied those same things to this piece;  it became quite obvious to me what had to be done. But then, as one plays it, you can start to hear, “Oh, I can take more time here; I can do this there.” Each time I play I have a different, new idea that works better.

How have audiences reacted to this piece?

One Ysaÿe specialist with me in Japan, when he heard this said it’s obvious that it’s by Ysaÿe and this piece cannot be by any other composer. So that’s from one specialist. I think the audience is quite mesmerized by the fact that you can still find today a piece that nobody knows, and one that is substantial. Ysaÿe, for violinists, is a big household name all over the world. How he writes for the instrument is very inspiring. So the idea that there’s a new work of quality by Ysaÿe—I think even though the audience may not be especially familiar with Ysaÿe’s music, they can tell it’s exceptional to hear a three-movement piece like that with such .a high quality. Even though I think it is a very easy piece to listen to, I think even though it’s very touching and beautiful, especially compared to other sonatas by Ysaÿe, it’s still quite contemporary for audiences’ ears. I’ve played it in the south of France, in Paris this month, I’ve played it in Belgium, of course, in Los Angeles, and also in a few places in Japan. The reaction was quite enthusiastic about this discovery.   

Soon there is going to be a small documentary about this little discovery. I will speak about it and play it through for the camera. That will be a different interpretation from the recording.


Let’s speak about the other new work on the record. What inspired you to transcribe ‘Clair de Lune’ for solo violin?

The idea of making it violin solo is very much like Ysaÿe; as you know he was a great friend of Debussy. This was a very big challenge and it’s very difficult to try to play every note and every harmony and just to make the piece and transcription justifiable by the quality of it. I’m fascinated by the beauty of this work and I just wanted to do it on solo violin. This is something worth hearing and I’m happy it’s on this recording. I intend to play it a lot in concerts.

Why did you include Enescu and Ravel as well?

There are these two sonatas by Enescu and Ravel that I like very much. I’m especially fond of Enescu; I knew Menuhin quite well—I made my first recording with him conducting. I studied some Enescu with him. He held a special place in Menuhin’s heart through the end of his life. This sonata is a masterpiece and something I really enjoy performing. I think it matches very well with the rest of the program because Ysaÿe liked Enescu very much. He dedicated his third sonata to him. For me, in this CD, the main work is the sonata by Enescu actually.

At first it was going to be just violin and piano sonatas with Ravel and Enescu. But when the Ysaÿe emerged, I tried to make it make sense. [This program is] a violin recital, that’s for sure. There’s a link between the pieces, all written in the 1920s. There’s a link between the composers also in the fact that they are interested in imaginary folklore. In the case of Ysaÿe, he thinks of Spain and the many rhythmical elements in this sonata are actually Spanish. Also, Enescu is about the imaginary folklore of his childhood, not like Bartók’s particular and precise folklore, but imaginary—it sounds more original than the original thing. It’s unbelievable, what he wrote . . . Ravel, what’s fascinating about it is he heard the music of Bartók especially and Enescu was his close friend, so he knew about this. There’s an element of folklore in early blues—not the blues from later jazz, but much earlier than that. I think that’s very charming. So that’s why it’s called Fiddler’s Blues, because of this feeling of sadness and, as they say in Romania, doina: the sad song, basically.