Violinist Philippe Graffin on Finding Ysaÿe’s Forgotten “Poème Concertant” and the Little-Known Love Affair That Inspired It

The story of the violin virtuoso, influential teacher, and composer's passionate love affair with a student—and the violin concerto he wrote for her—has only recently come to light

By Inge Kjemtrup | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Behind every legend, there is a secret; behind every public face, a private sorrow. Eugène Ysaÿe was at the heart of the Franco-Belgian music world in the decades before and just after the First World War. He is remembered as a great violin virtuoso, influential teacher, and composer. But the story of his passionate love affair with a student—and the violin concerto he wrote for her—has only recently come to light.

Ysaÿe was 35 and at the height of his career in 1893 when he began writing the Poème concertant for his pupil Irma Sèthe. She was, by all accounts, a fine violinist. Their love affair was tolerated—for a while—by his wife, Louise. The Poème concertant was dedicated to Sèthe but not published, and it was only recently recorded by the French violinist Philippe Graffin, who also produced a documentary about the Poème titled The Secret Concerto. Rêves, Graffin’s new recording, includes another Ysaÿe world premiere, the completed Violin Concerto in E minor.

Ysaÿe’s Secret Concerto “’L’œuvre retrouvée” (a film by Philippe Graffin and Clara Vorfeld)

Graffin has a long-held fascination with the turn-of-the century French repertoire and Ysaÿe, even organizing a festival dedicated to the composer in Knokke le Zoute, Belgium, where Ysaÿe had a summer home. Yet even Graffin was surprised when musicologist Xavier Falques showed him the manuscript of the unknown and incomplete Poème

The fact that Graffin studied in America with Ysaÿe student Josef Gingold explains part but not all of his interest in music of this period. “The person that really fascinates me and I feel the closest to musically is Debussy. I’m frustrated that he wrote great pieces for the violin—the string quartet, the sonata, and short transcriptions—but no violin concerto. Ysaÿe is as close as you can get to Debussy, and through Ysaÿe, I can paint the color of the music of that period. It was a great time for French music, especially chamber music. Maybe it’s some kind of nostalgia for a different world that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Philippe Graffin, Photo: Marije van den Berg

That world may be gone but is not entirely out of sight. A sequence in The Secret Concerto documentary shows a modern-day ride on a Brussels tram transitioning smoothly into a film from prewar Brussels. “That’s what’s very strange in Brussels, that you can have a walk in this part of town and your eyes would see the same thing that they would have seen one hundred years ago.” 

Recordings of Ysaÿe’s playing are few and of poor quality, largely because of the limitations of the recording medium of the day, a wax cylinder that allowed for three minutes’ recording time (though they made a special five-minute version for Ysaÿe). What is evident is that his playing stood out from other virtuosos, such as Sarasate. One central difference was Ysaÿe’s more consistent use of vibrato. Fritz Kreisler, one of the dedicatees of Ysaÿe’s six solo sonatas, would make this warm vibrato sound his signature.

“Mr. Gingold talked a lot about that,” recalls Graffin. “He says that when Kreisler played his debut in Budapest, the critics wrote that he was playing like a café violinist because he was using vibrato all the time. I guess they knew about vibrato, but it was kind of in bad taste to use it, somehow.”


Ysaÿe’s search for a wider color palette aligned with the forward-thinking composers of his time—Debussy, Chausson, Fauré—who were friends. “In the few recordings that we have of him, you can hear that he’s completely listening to what’s around him. Especially in the Wagner transcriptions. It’s just so beautiful. When you hear that, you have a sense of how he would’ve played the Franck sonata [written as a wedding gift for Ysaÿe.]”

Poème Concertant

What is Graffin’s sense of what Ysaÿe was like? “I think he must have been very impressive in person. I saw an interview of Joseph Szigeti, who knew Ysaÿe well. He speaks about Ysaÿe’s career, and he says that Ysaÿe built up his renown in small venues. I can imagine that he was so passionate in playing that he would transport any audience in a salon.”

Ysaÿe may have been immortalized as the performer of the fictitious Vinteuil Sonata in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, later retranslated as In Search of Lost Time. “That scene wouldn’t exist without Ysaÿe. Ysaÿe is the one who made the Parisian salon hear sonatas like Franck. Afterward, there were about 30 sonatas written in the same style as Franck for Ysaÿe.”

“Whenever I think of Ysaÿe, I actually think of Mr. Gingold, who knew him personally, and the memory of his personality was very vivid. [Gingold’s] playing was so touching. I think that the image I have of Ysaÿe’s music is through the sound and the playing of Mr. Gingold. There was always a violin in his hand. You would play a part of a movement or something, and he would play most of it for you. I go back in my mind for the things he said in lessons, even now.”

Graffin is a teacher himself these days, commuting between the conservatories of Brussels and Paris, after 20 years in London and a stint at SUNY Stony Brook. “I enjoyed teaching very much. I find that my life is about five different lives together that I’m trying to mix, from discovering music to organizing festivals to teaching to playing to concertizing. I think that we’ve got to reinvent ourselves all the time. That’s what I tell my students.”

Ysaÿe wrote the Violin Concerto in E minor in 1884–85. The score is incomplete. The first movement was orchestrated by Ysaÿe and has been recorded previously. The musicologist Xavier Falques located a completely orchestrated second movement and was persuaded by Graffin to complete the orchestration for the last movement.


Philippe Graffin in a cafe
Philippe Graffin. Photo: Marije van den Berg

“The second movement is inspired by Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll,” says Graffin. “The last movement is very much like the first movement, which is inspired by Mendelssohn. It’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then one hears a theme like Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence.”

Why did Ysaÿe set the violin concerto aside? “I think that he thought the world was turning into something different. He befriended those composers in Paris that were turning toward the future, like Debussy and Chausson and Franck. He thought that he didn’t fit any more; he was not satisfied with the style in which he was writing. But now, we don’t have to judge the style because we’re not the composer. We can place it in its time.

“In the 1880s, he is a young composer virtuoso starting his career, wanting to write something for himself in the vein of Vieuxtemps or Wieniawski. This piece is very beautiful and would be very popular if it would have been finished earlier.”

Ten years later, Ysaÿe began the Poème concertant. “What interests me about that piece is that it comes exactly at the period when Ysaÿe is having doubts about his writing. He no longer wants to write in the sonata form and a three-movement virtuoso piece like Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps. He’s more interested in something freer and more poetic. And that’s when he changes the role of the soloist. The soloist is no longer a hero, [his part defined by a] very virtuoso style. He’s a poet with the sound world around him. It’s a completely new relationship with your audience. That’s what’s really inspiring about this. It’s quite close to Chausson’s Poème, which was commissioned and written at the same time.”

There’s a lovely painting of Irma Sèthe from 1901–02 by Johannes Lüpke. She is playing the violin, a determined look on her face. After her romance with Ysaÿe ended, Sèthe went to London. “That’s when she met her husband, a doctor in philosophy,” says Graffin. “She married him in Brussels. I think Ysaÿe went to the wedding.” The couple moved to Berlin, where she played in the philharmonic and concertized for several decades, even as they started a family.


“There is a beautiful letter from 1903, where she writes to Ysaÿe, and she wants to meet him. She says, I know that you’re coming a few times to Berlin to play the season, and I am your most devoted pupil, and I would love to see you and your wife.” In 1941, Sèthe and her family fled Europe, and she spent her final years in the United States. 

Sèthe’s biographer, Marie Cornaz, says that there was a before and an after Irma for Ysaÿe. “I think she’s right, actually. This was something that transformed his life completely, this passion.” After the First World War and following the death of his wife, Ysaÿe moved to the US. “He soon married a very young woman, who had been his student in America,” says Graffin.

What remains of Ysaÿe’s music for Graffin to explore? There’s a string quintet and some chamber music, but Graffin says he has abandoned the idea of playing all of Ysaÿe’s music. Yet rediscovering the concertos has offered him “a way to redo the history of the repertoire, in a sense. For example, I really regret that we don’t have this piece that Ysaÿe commissioned from Debussy, which became the Three Nocturnes. There is a letter from Debussy to Ysaÿe saying, ‘Oh, I finished it. The three nocturnes are finished, and it will be like a painting by Whistler. One would be with violin and strings; another with violin, woodwinds, and brass, and the third with all of the forces.

“But then they got in a fight because the wife of Debussy found a letter from his lover in his pocket. She took refuge in Brussels. They didn’t see each other for a while after that. So the three nocturnes for violin just turned into the three nocturnes that we know. In a sense, all the poèmes by Ysaÿe are a little bit like those three nocturnes.

“What’s interesting about this Poème concertant is that he starts writing it in 1893, and he finishes, and the last manuscript is dated 1910. But Xavier tells me that he probably worked on it until the early 1920s, because his writing is different on the score. So there are different styles, very different influences. The central part, which doesn’t exist in the first version, is very much like Debussy, but after Pelléas et Mélisande. It’s very fascinating for me. So in the sense I have my little Debussy for violin and orchestra with this piece!”