The Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe was a bright star whose originality lives on through the works he left behind, not to mention the legacy he passed through his students such as Joseph Gingold, William Primrose, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Brodsky, and more.
Violinist and musicologist Ray Iwazumi has made the violinist the focus of much of his life's work, and we had the privilege of hearing Ray both lecture about and perform Sonatas No. 2 and No. 5 earlier this month at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.
Ray Iwazumi. Photo by Nan Melville for The Juilliard School.
It all started in the Juilliard studio of the great violin teacher Dorothy DeLay. "When she had an inkling we didn't know about the composer, or other extra-musical details, she put us right to the task of finding out," Ray said. That often meant going to the library and searching through the Grove Encyclopedia or looking through liner notes.
But this wasn't enough for Ray, who went far beyond his initial research to make Eugène Ysaÿe a topic of intense focus. He has written articles about Ysaÿe and his works for The Strad, MLA Notes and the Japanese journal String.
Eugène Ysaÿe lived from 1858 to 1931, but he wasn't a child prodigy, Ray said. The peak of his career came around 1890-1910.
"He was an awesome performer," Iwazumi said. "Once he reached the top, he was really at the top."
For example, notices from the period describe Ysaÿe in ways such as, "Ysaÿe: Not only the greatest violinist living, but the greatest violinist that ever lived. Ysaÿe possesses the combined qualities of Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Sarasate and Joachim."
"All of them quietly admit that words don't do justice to Ysaÿe," not even those over-the-top descriptions. "Anyone from the early 20th century would equate Ysaÿe with a god, playing the violin."
Impressionism may make us think of the paintings of Monet and the music of Debussy, though pure impressionist would put nothing subjective into the work.
Symbolism was a late 19th century movement, born in a time when secret societies flourished, with their cryptic codes. Images were cast into more dream-like, mystical settings, used to express subject ideas.
Surrealism started in the 1910's, fantasy without the preoccupation with symbols. You've seen Salvador Dalí's melting clocks? It's that kind of thing: things that don't belong together, existing in a way that can only be found in the imagination, not in reality.
In 1923, Ysaÿe wrote his six solo violin sonatas, each inspired by and dedicated to a different contemporary violinist: Joseph Szigeti; Jacques Thibaud; Georges Enesco; Fritz Kreisler; Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga.
When it comes to Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2, written for Jacques Thibaud, the first obvious symbol is J.S. Bach's E major Preludio from Partita No. 3, the first two measures which are taken as a direct quote to start the piece.
What is symbolic about Bach's E major Preludio? Well first, said Ray, it's Bach, whose towering achievements, in the form of his Solo Sonatas and Partitas, seemed to cast shadow over Ysaÿe -- or so Ysaÿe said. Who would dare try to write for solo violin, after Bach did so with such genius? Also, material from the E major Preludio was recycled by Bach, a devout German Protestant, for other music. "Bach used it for settings of bright celebrations in life," Ray said. "Bach must have been happy with the emotional effect, it has a bright, joyous character."
The next symbol is the Dies Irae from the Roman Catholic chant about the "Day of Wrath" or "Judgment Day." It has long been a symbol of death, used in requiems and by composers such as Berlioz (Symphony Fantastique).
"There's nothing cheery about that," Ray said.
In Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2, the Dies Irae pops out of the top of a bariolage passage, starting in m. 20, though, Ray said, "I believe the Dies Irae already lurks in measure 4. The first four notes of the "brutalement" passage come from the head motive of the Dies Irae, and that identical half step movement shared between the very opening of the Preludio and the opening of the Dies Irae is something Ysaye was probably very aware of."
Both the Preludio music and Dies Irae are woven throughout the first movement, Obsession, with the Dies Irae returning in various forms in all four movements.
"So we have the celebration of life in the Preludio, and the spectre of death in the Dies Irae," Ray said.
Ysaÿe dedicated the Sonata No. 2 to Jacques Thibaud, who was known for his sensuously beautiful tone. "There's nothing ugly or jagged about Jacques Thibaud's playing," Ray said, yet "this was some of the most grotesque music written at the time." Apparently when Ysaÿe went to Paris and first heard Thibaud play the piece, he stopped him because he wasn't performing the brutal parts of the piece in a brutal enough way.
The second movement, Malinconia, is one long, unbroken thread, with two voices that weaving in and our of each other, combining elements of melancholy, hopefulness, anxiety and resignation. It ends quietly, eerily, directly quoting the Dies Irae.
Though the Sonata No. 2 certainly has enough symbolism and story to seem programmatic, and though people (even Ysaÿe's son, Antoine) have even presented their own interpretations of what the program is, Ysaÿe himself said that the piece has no program. "I've never found any definitive evidence to support that, and Ysaÿe himself said it has no program," Ray said.
It's clear, from looking at the manuscript for the Sonatas, that Ysaÿe was not only an innovative composer but also an innovative violinist. The second page of the music contains a list of definitions (in French) for unique symbols created by Ysaÿe for the specific techniques he used to create the effects throughout the Sonatas. For example, he created symbols that mean, "a quarter tone above" or "put your finger on the perfect fifth."
Ysaÿe also marked the music with his own fingerings and bowing. "He tries all these different combinations for fingerings and bowings -- but that's for him," Ray said. You may not use them all, but Ysaÿe's markings serve as a guide -- and as a window into Ysaÿe's genius as a player. "It pays to try the fingerings, even if you think they are crazy. There is a certain concept of technique inherent in his fingerings and his bowings."
Ray played the entire Sonata No. 2 for us during his lecture, and it occurred to me, what a privilege it was to hear this piece live, played by someone who has researched this piece so deeply and taken it completely to heart as a musician. His "Obsession" was fast and beautifully outlined, the "Malinconia" truly wept, and by the last movement "Les Furies," it was clear to me that he was calling up some spirits with his icy ponticello and wicked brutal chords. I wish I could link to Ray playing this whole sonata, but I could only find Malinconia, linked above. Here are some other performances, just so you can hear each movement (first two movements are linked above): III. Dans des Ombres and IV. Les Furies
The other Ysaÿe sonata we studied was the two-movement Sonata No. 5, dedicated to Ysaÿe's student, Mathieu Crickboom.
"Practically every measure could be in an exercise book," and many are, in Crickboom's own Technique of the Violin. In fact, Ray gave us a handout that matched certain passages from Sonata No. 5 to corresponding exercises in Crickboom's book: the string crossing ex. 51; fourths, ex. 174; chords, ex. 186; ex. 202, ex. 206.
"But this is so much more than a collection of exercises," Ray said.
The piece is abstract, in its use of the pentatonic scale and lack of tonal center, he said. The sequence D-E-B-F is used over and over. For example, in the first movement, "L'Aurore," (literally "the dawn") it is used to affect the feeling of daybreak.
Ray's performance was very inspiring. The first movement, L'Aurore, began with a stillness and great voicing, growing into an absolutely glorious sunrise, I was pretty worked up when I wrote in my notes, "I hear the rays poking out, and they are orange and pink and even red -- light!" His Danse Rustique certainly did not sound like a collection of exercises, so internalized it was, and again my notes: "damn hot left-hand pizzicato, and the end…piu piu piu presto, holy cow!"
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