global music partnership
Eugene Ysaÿe
(16 July 1858 – 12 May 1931)
A Legendary Violinist and Composer

Ysaÿe's Secret Sonata
This film is the short version of Ysaÿe's Secret Sonata focusing on the newly discovered Sonate posthume op 27bis by the composer.
Historical Recordings of Eugène Ysaÿe
Digital Sound Reprocessing by Donald H. Holmes 2013

  • F. Mendelssohn: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor Op.64 (III: Allegro molto vivace), recorded 27 Dec.1912
  • F. Schubert: Ave Maria D.839, recorded 9 Mar.1914
  • F. Kreisler: Caprice Viennois, Op.2, recorded 30 Dec.1912
  • H. Vieuxtemps: Rondino Op.32, No.2, recorded 30 Dec.1912
  • J. Brahms: Hungarian Dance No.5, in F-sharp minor (arr. Joachim), recorded 30 Dec.1912
  • G. Fauré: Berceuse Op.16, recorded 27 Dec.1912
  • E. Ysaÿe: Lointain passé, Mazurka No.3 in B minor Op.11, recorded 1 Feb.1913
  • E. Chabrier: Pièce pittoresque No.10 from Scherzo-Valse, recorded 20 Dec.1912
  • A. Dvořák: Humoresque in G-flat major Op.101, No.7 (arr. Kreisler), recorded 9 Mar.1914
  • R. Wagner: Prize Song from Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, recorded 1 Feb.1912
  • R. Wagner: Albumblatt in C major, recorded 30 Dec.1912
  • H. Wieniawski: Obertass, Mazurka Op.19, No.1 in G major, recorded 26 Dec.1912
  • H. Wieniawski: Dudziarz, Mazurka Op.19, No.2 in D major, recorded 26 Dec.1912
Frederick H. Martens
Violin Mastery
An interview with Ysaÿe
Who is there among contemporary masters of the violin whose name stands for more at the present time than that of the great Belgian artist, his "extraordinary temperamental power as an interpreter" enhanced by a hundred and one special gifts of tone and technic, gifts often alluded to by his admiring colleagues? For Ysaye is the greatest exponent of that wonderful Belgian school of violin playing which is rooted in his teachers Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski, and which as Ysaye himself says, "during a period covering seventy years reigned supreme at the Conservatoire in Paris in the persons of Massart, Remi, Marsick, and others of its great interpreters."

What most impresses one who meets Ysaye and talks with him for the first time is the mental breadth and vision of the man; his kindness and amiability; his utter lack of small vanity. When the writer first called on him in New York with a note of introduction from his friend and admirer Adolfo Betti, and later at Scarsdale where, in company with his friend Thibaud, he was dividing his time between music and tennis, Ysaye made him entirely at home, and willingly talked of his art and its ideals. In reply to some questions anent his own study years, he said:

"Strange to say, my father was my very first teacher--it is not often the case. I studied with him until I went to the Liège Conservatory in 1867, where I won a second prize, sharing it with Ovide Musin, for playing Viotti's 22d Concerto. Then I had lessons from Wieniawski in Brussels and studied two years with Vieuxtemps in Paris. Vieuxtemps was a paralytic when I came to him; yet a wonderful teacher, though he could no longer play. And I was already a concertizing artist when I met him. He was a very great man, the grandeur of whose tradition lives in the whole 'romantic school' of violin playing. Look at his seven concertos--of course they are written with an eye to effect, from the virtuoso's standpoint, yet how firmly and solidly they are built up! How interesting is their working-out: and the orchestral score is far more than a mere accompaniment. As regards virtuose effect only Paganini's music compares with his, and Paganini, of course, did not play it as it is now played. In wealth of technical development, in true musical expressiveness Vieuxtemps is a master. A proof is the fact that his works have endured forty to fifty years, a long life for compositions.

"Joachim, Léonard, Sivori, Wieniawski--all admired Vieuxtemps. In Paganini's and Locatelli's works the effect, comparatively speaking, lies in the mechanics; but Vieuxtemps is the great artist who made the instrument take the road of romanticism which Hugo, Balzac and Gauthier trod in literature. And before all the violin was made to charm, to move, and Vieuxtemps knew it. Like Rubinstein, he held that the artist must first of all have ideas, emotional power--his technic must be so perfected that he does not have to think of it! Incidentally, speaking of schools of violin playing, I find that there is a great tendency to confuse the Belgian and French. This should not be. They are distinct, though the latter has undoubtedly been formed and influenced by the former. Many of the great violin names, in fact,--Vieuxtemps, Léonard*, Marsick, Remi, Parent, de Broux, Musin, Thomson,--are all Belgian."

*Transcriber's note: Original text read "Leonard".
"César Franck sent me his sonata on September 26, 1886, my wedding day--it was his wedding present!"

Ysaye spoke of Vieuxtemps's repertory--only he did not call it that: he spoke of the Vieuxtemps compositions and of Vieuxtemps himself. "Vieuxtemps wrote in the grand style; his music is always rich and sonorous. If his violin is really to sound, the violinist must play Vieuxtemps, just as the 'cellist plays Servais. You know, in the Catholic Church, at Vespers, whenever God's name is spoken, we bow the head. And Wieniawski would always bow his head when he said: 'Vieuxtemps is the master of us all!'

"I have often played his Fifth Concerto, so warm, brilliant and replete with temperament, always full-sounding, rich in an almost unbounded strength. Of course, since Vieuxtemps wrote his concertos, a great variety of fine modern works has appeared, the appreciation of chamber-music has grown and developed, and with it that of the sonata. And the modern violin sonata is also a vehicle for violin virtuosity in the very best meaning of the word. The sonatas of César Franck, d'Indy, Théodore Dubois, Lekeu, Vierne, Ropartz, Lazarri--they are all highly expressive, yet at the same time virtuose. The violin parts develop a lovely song line, yet their technic is far from simple. Take Lekeu's splendid Sonata in G major; rugged and massive, making decided technical demands--it yet has a wonderful breadth of melody, a great expressive quality of song."

These works--those who have heard the Master play the beautiful Lazarri sonata this season will not soon forget it--are all dedicated to Ysaye. And this holds good, too, of the César Franck sonata. As Ysaye says: "Performances of these great sonatas call for two artists--for their piano parts are sometimes very elaborate. César Franck sent me his sonata on September 26, 1886, my wedding day--it was his wedding present! I cannot complain as regards the number of works, really important works, inscribed to me. There are so many--by Chausson (his symphony), Ropartz, Dubois (his sonata--one of the best after Franck), d'Indy (the Istar variations and other works), Gabriel Fauré (the Quintet), Debussy (the Quartet)! There are more than I can recall at the moment--violin sonatas, symphonic music, chamber-music, choral works, compositions of every kind!

"Debussy, as you know, wrote practically nothing originally for the violin and piano--with the exception, perhaps, of a work published by Durand during his last illness. Yet he came very near writing something for me. Fifteen years ago he told me he was composing a 'Nocturne' for me. I went off on a concert tour and was away a long time. When I returned to Paris I wrote to Debussy to find out what had become of my 'Nocturne.' And he replied that, somehow, it had shaped itself up for orchestra instead of a violin solo. It is one of the Trois Nocturnes for orchestra. Perhaps one reason why so much has been inscribed to me is the fact that as an interpreting artist, I have never cultivated a 'specialty.' I have played everything from Bach to Debussy, for real art should be international!"

Ysaye himself has an almost marvelous right-arm and fingerboard control, which enables him to produce at will the finest and most subtle tonal nuances in all bowings. Then, too, he overcomes the most intricate mechanical problems with seemingly effortless ease. And his tone has well been called "golden." His own definition of tone is worth recording. He says it should be "In music what the heart suggests, and the soul expresses!"
"Too many of the technicians of the present day no longer sing. Their difficulties--they surmount them more or less happily; but the effect is too apparent, and though, at times, the listener may be astonished, he can never be charmed."

"With regard to mechanism," Ysaye continued, "at the present day the tools of violin mastery, of expression, technic, mechanism, are far more necessary than in days gone by. In fact they are indispensable, if the spirit is to express itself without restraint. And the greater mechanical command one has the less noticeable it becomes. All that suggests effort, awkwardness, difficulty, repels the listener, who more than anything else delights in a singing violin tone. Vieuxtemps often said: "Pas de trait pour le trait--chantez, chantez!" (Not runs for the sake of runs--sing, sing!)

"Too many of the technicians of the present day no longer sing. Their difficulties--they surmount them more or less happily; but the effect is too apparent, and though, at times, the listener may be astonished, he can never be charmed. Agile fingers, sure of themselves, and a perfect bow stroke are essentials; and they must be supremely able to carry along the rhythm and poetic action the artist desires. Mechanism becomes, if anything, more accessible in proportion as its domain is enriched by new formulas. The violinist of to-day commands far greater technical resources than did his predecessors. Paganini is accessible to nearly all players: Vieuxtemps no longer offers the difficulties he did thirty years ago. Yet the wood-wind, brass and even the string instruments subsist in a measure on the heritage transmitted by the masters of the past. I often feel that violin teaching to-day endeavors to develop the esthetic sense at too early a stage. And in devoting itself to the head it forgets the _hands_, with the result that the young soldiers of the violinistic army, full of ardor and courage, are ill equipped for the great battle of art.

"In this connection there exists an excellent set of Études-Caprices by E. Chaumont, which offer the advanced student new elements and formulas of development. Though in some of them 'the frame is too large for the picture,' and though difficult from a violinistic point of view, 'they lie admirably well up the neck,' to use one of Vieuxtemps's expressions, and I take pleasure in calling attention to them.

"When I said that the string instruments, including the violin, subsist in a measure on the heritage transmitted by the masters of the past, I spoke with special regard to technic. Since Vieuxtemps there has been hardly one new passage written for the violin; and this has retarded the development of its technic. In the case of the piano, men like Godowsky have created a new technic for their instrument; but although Saint-Saëns, Bruch, Lalo and others have in their works endowed the violin with much beautiful music, music itself was their first concern, and not music for the violin. There are no more concertos written for the solo flute, trombone, etc.--as a result there is no new technical material added to the resources of these instruments.

"In a way the same holds good of the violin--new works conceived only from the musical point of view bring about the stagnation of technical discovery, the invention of new passages, of novel harmonic wealth of combination is not encouraged. And a violinist owes it to himself to exploit the great possibilities of his own instrument. I have tried to find new technical ways and means of expression in my own compositions. For example, I have written a Divertiment for violin and orchestra in which I believe I have embodied new thoughts and ideas, and have attempted to give violin technic a broader scope of life and vigor.

"In the days of Viotti and Rode the harmonic possibilities were more limited--they had only a few chords, and hardly any chords of the ninth. But now harmonic material for the development of a new violin technic is there: I have some violin studies, in ms., which I may publish some day, devoted to that end. I am always somewhat hesitant about publishing--there are many things I might publish, but I have seen so much brought out that was banal, poor, unworthy, that I have always been inclined to mistrust the value of my own creations rather than fall into the same error. We have the scale of Debussy and his successors to draw upon, their new chords and successions of fourths and fifths--for new technical formulas are always evolved out of and follow after new harmonic discoveries--though there is as yet no violin method which gives a fingering for the whole-tone scale. Perhaps we will have to wait until Kreisler or I will have written one which makes plain the new flowering of technical beauty and esthetic development which it brings the violin.

"As to teaching violin, I have never taught violin in the generally accepted sense of the phrase. But at Godinne, where I usually spent my summers when in Europe, I gave a kind of traditional course in the works of Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski and other masters to some forty or fifty artist-students who would gather there--the same course I look forward to giving in Cincinnati, to a master class of very advanced pupils. This was and will be a labor of love, for the compositions of Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski especially are so inspiring and yet, as a rule, they are so badly played--without grandeur or beauty, with no thought of the traditional interpretation--that they seem the piecework of technic factories!
"a violin master? He must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing."

"When I take the whole history of the violin into account I feel that the true inwardness of 'Violin Mastery' is best expressed by a kind of threefold group of great artists. First, in the order of romantic expression, we have a trinity made up of Corelli, Viotti and Vieuxtemps. Then there is a trinity of mechanical perfection, composed of Locatelli, Tartini and Paganini or, a more modern equivalent, César Thomson, Kubelik and Burmeister. And, finally, what I might call in the order of lyric expression, a quartet comprising Ysaye, Thibaud, Mischa Elman and Sametini of Chicago, the last-named a wonderfully fine artist of the lyric or singing type. Of course there are qualifications to be made. Locatelli was not altogether an exponent of technic. And many other fine artists besides those mentioned share the characteristics of those in the various groups. Yet, speaking in a general way, I believe that these groups of attainment might be said to sum up what 'Violin Mastery' really is. And a violin master? He must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair, he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing. He must play his violin as Pan played his flute!"

In conclusion Ysaye sounded a note of warning for the too ambitious young student and player. "If Art is to progress, the technical and mechanical element must not, of course, be neglected. But a boy of eighteen cannot expect to express that to which the serious student of thirty, the man who has actually lived, can give voice. If the violinist's art is truly a great art, it cannot come to fruition in the artist's 'teens. His accomplishment then is no more than a promise--a promise which finds its realization in and by life itself. Yet Americans have the brains as well as the spiritual endowment necessary to understand and appreciate beauty in a high degree. They can already point with pride to violinists who emphatically deserve to be called artists, and another quarter-century of artistic striving may well bring them into the front rank of violinistic achievement!"
Learn from Ysaye's own handwriting
The major Ysaÿe's manuscripts are located at the Royal Library of Belgium, Juilliard School, and Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussel. The Juilliard School and Koninklijk Conservatorium offer digital access to these invaluable manuscripts for studying purposes.
Cadenza - Improvisation for Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
by Ysaÿe, Eugène.
Brussels 1888-1889.
Recordings of Ysaye's 6 Sonatas for Violin Solo, Op. 27
Ysaye: Sonata no. 1
Ysaye: Sonata no. 2
Ysaye: Sonata no. 3
Ysaye: Sonata no. 4
Ysaye: Sonata No. 5
Ysaye: Sonata No. 6
Recordings of Ysaye's works for Two Violins.
Ysaye: Sonata for Two Violins (1st movement)
Ysaye: "Amitié" Poem for two violins and piano
Piano Transcription of Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 "Ballade"
The Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaye was considered one of the most prominent and influential violinists of his time. Born in Liège on 1858, he began learning violin at age 4 under his father, and continued his study with such eminent violinists as Massart, Wieniawski, and Vieuxtemps.

Ysaye recalls: "Rodolphe Massart, Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps opened up new horizons for me in the realm of technique and interpretation, but it was my father who taught me how to make the violin speak."

Ysaye began his career as an orchestra musician, but never missed an opportunity to perform as a soloist. As a result, he was noticed by one of the greatest pianists of the time, Anton Rubinstein, who took him on tour of Norway; it was the beginning of Ysaye's career as one of the greatest violinists.

It is Ysaye, as David Oistrakh said, who "stands out as the greatest innovator after Paganini, as one who has considerably enriched the technical and expressive potentialities of the instrument..."
Made on