J.S. Bach seemed to fully conquer the genre of "unaccompanied violin" when he wrote his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. He'd written so much, so well -- what was left for other composers to write?
That appears to be one of the questions that Eugène Ysaÿe was pondering when he wrote his "Obsession," the first movement from Sonata No. 2, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud.
Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931) wrote a total of six solo violin sonatas, each inspired by and dedicated to a different contemporary violinist: Joseph Szigeti; Thibaud; Georges Enesco; Fritz Kreisler; Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga.
Ysaÿe's "Obsession" was the focus of the second part of a lecture by Brian Lewis called "All Alone: Repertoire for Solo Violin" at last summer's virtual Starling DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard.
What exactly was Ysaÿe's "obsession"? Bach, of course! And it's pretty obvious from the introduction to this piece, which quotes the "Preludio" from Bach's Partita in E major (see the first part of Brian's lecture, read here). Below is the beginning of the piece, as well as an amazing performance by Augustin Hadelich, so you can listen as you read:
While Ysaÿe quotes directly from Bach in the first notes of "Obsession," the dynamics, pacing, articulation and character make it clear that this is not exactly a direct quote. "He's not quoting all the slurs," Lewis said, pointing to up-bow that breaks up the 16th notes in the second measure. Also, unlike Bach, Ysaÿe asks for the first two measures to be played "leggiero," (lightly and gracefully) and at the tip of the bow. Then after a pause, the violinist is to resume fortissimo, and "brutally"!
"People will be a little confused," Lewis said, "and we want that."
What follows after this introduction is a busy, 16th note-filled movement with plenty of bariolage - but that's where the comparison to Bach's Preludio ends. While Bach's Preludio wears a sunny disposition, Ysaÿes' Obsession plunges straight into dark themes. In m. 20 the tune that pokes out of all that bariolage is the "Dies Irae" -- from the Roman Catholic "Day of Wrath" chant. It has long been a symbol of death, used in requiems and by composers such as Berlioz, in his Symphonie Fantastique.
"The 'Dies Irae' is a weird thing to put in a piece of music," Lewis said. The Dies Irae is about 1,000 years old, and aside from the Berlioz it also appears many other pieces of music, including Liszt's Totentanz, Rachmaninov's Vocalise (well-disguised) and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.
Putting all this symbolism aside, "Obsession" presents a number of technical issues for any violinist - though "this movement is the most approachable piece by Ysaÿe," Lewis said. For m. 11-19, it helps to "think chordally," Lewis said, and "whenever possible, practice in double stops."
In the above excerpt, Lewis boxed off the measures that can be practiced as double-stops, emphasizing that it's important to practice them perfectly in tune. Ysaÿe, lauded as one of the best violinists of his day, provides his own fingerings fairly often in the score - unlike Bach. Throughout the Six Sonatas, Ysaÿe also uses his own special set of symbols, which are defined in a glossary at the front of the editions. (The definitions are in French, but Lewis said that the Henle edition provides a good English translation).
"He gives us very special instructions," Lewis said. That said, even though the fingerings come from Ysaÿe himself, "if something doesn't work, try another fingering," Lewis said.
Another issue for students or people first learning this piece can be the fifths and tenths that appear throughout. Measures 35-41 can be given to a student as a preview, before he or she even starts learning the piece.
You can start by playing them as double-stops. Starting by playing through the passage with just the first two of each set of four 16ths as a double stop. Then play the passage through, skipping the first two and playing the last two of each set of four 16ths (with the 10ths) as double-stops. (But if your hand starts hurting, stop!)
"With 10ths, reaching up can be murderous," Lewis said. Instead, find the top note and reach back. Students can also tap into a book of exercises that Ysaÿe wrote called 10 Préludes. Each prélue explores a different double-stop interval -- Prélude 1 features unison double stops, Prélude 2 features seconds, Prélude 3 thirds, etc. So one can practice the Préludes 5 and 10 for fifths and 10ths.
Ysaÿe wrote the Six Sonatas in 1923 - nearly a century ago, but students still find the harmonic language to be interesting and unique.
"These pieces are 100 years old," Lewis said, "but they sound new."
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