Brian Lewis - Repertoire for Solo Violin Part 1: Ysaÿe's 'Obsession'

September 15, 2021, 6:15 PM · 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.

Bach and Ysaye
Eugène Ysaye and J.S. Bach.

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:

Ysaye Obsession first page

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.

Ysaye Obsession m2027

"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."

Ysaye Obsession m1118

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.

Ysaye Obsession m35

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.

A note about editions of the Ysaÿe Sonatas: the widely-used Schirmer edition "has a number of mistakes," Lewis said. The Henle edition, he said, corrects those mistakes.

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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September 16, 2021 at 11:54 AM · great reporting, as always!

September 16, 2021 at 01:13 PM · Dies irae is the sequence of the Requiem Mass, named for the first line as all Catholic prayers are.

September 16, 2021 at 05:55 PM · Great presentation. For anyone who has never heard the few rare recordings Ysaye made, it is clear he was truly one of a kind.

September 16, 2021 at 07:46 PM · Nice recording of middle part- Melancolia- from No. 2- with beautiful double stops:

This section also quotes Dies Irae in the last phrase. Don't understand why he said that's a 'weird thing to put in a piece of music' when it's a continual thread through musical history and liturgy.

September 17, 2021 at 07:11 PM · Tom, I think Brian just meant that it's awfully dark!

I love the "Melancolia." I've said it before, but I hear so many parallels between the "Melancolia" and a particular part of certain movie score by John Williams - Anakin's Theme from Star Wars, particularly at the very end. Ysaÿe quotes the Dies Irae, in such a ghostly, distant way -- Williams does something similar, appending Darth Vader's theme at the end of Anakin's Theme, in a very quiet and subtle way. In both cases, it sounds so resigned and chilling, when you recognize what the theme means.

September 19, 2021 at 02:57 PM · Knowing and performing whilst also recording Bach's Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas, I

have com to lifetime conclusions that if one can 'navigate' Bach's Solo Sonatas in their entirety

and the Partitas, likewise, without Scratch on All Chording throughout, one is enabled w/refined bowing to traverse All Eugen Ysaye Solo Violin Sonata's! This is a sweeping statement not lightly made but through one's long due diligence violinistically = left hand development and The Devil of Bowing Superiority which few possess either due to false/mythical ideas re How

to bow at the Frog; Middle; upper Midfle and Tip which if taught as 'Straight Bow' theory defeats

All later attempts to navigate or better described as Brushed Bowing in a trajectory of Rounded

Bowing ~

From early on this Contributor learned Unaccompanied Bach for the Violin on and at the Piano

as one's parents were 'elite' musicians with Mother, Arnold Schoenberg's Pianist at UCLA, for

All Schoenberg Advanced Classes in Theory; Orchestral Structure and Composition, having a

'Savant' Ear enabling all melody/harmony in Atonal 'guise' of Schoenberg {lover of Brahms} at

the piano, and impromptu performing vast portions of Schoenberg's Symphonic & Chamber Symphonic Symphonies near flawlessly. Being imbued with tremendous accents on the vital role harmony with melody played for any musician, one sat at the piano learning, literally, the

immense glories of Johann Sebastian Bach's 'master plan' (oft called 'mathematical') inspiration

which in a Musician Fidel Household was interpreted far differently!! The 'accent' was on the Whole, aka, Spiritual Messages contained within any movement of all Bach Sonatas & Partitas

for Violin and including all Brandenburg's, Masses, Tocatta's and 'the Lot' which gave a young

violinist overviews musically when approaching The Bible of Violin Playing & Praying ~

Not possible to cover such a ime honoured Subject, one simply must feel spiritually imbued &

Before learning any 'piece' of JS Bach ... This is either In or Not In the DNA of all aspiring to

learn and perform Unaccompanied Bach plus other Marvel's of Compositions by Bach, i.e., the

Violin concerti; the Oboe & Violin Concerto; the honour of sitting in the violin section of an orchestra rehearsing the Mass in b minor & St. John Passion, to absorb Bach's allegiance to a

Spiritual Realm rather than a Violin display of just playing Bach ~

Artist Studying Bach with Nathan Milstein, Master of Bach's Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas &

Partitas, throughout his over 73 year concert career, was a final commendation of one's early

teaching by both parents, {father, String Educator Violinist, President National ASTA, Youth

Orchestra Builder Author of The Youth Orchestra 'Movement' in America, Ralph}, of Bach in All

his Compositions for Violin whether Solo Sonatas & Partitas or in Chamber & Orchestral & Orchestra with Choral settings! The 'tool box' of authentic rounded Bowing was a Gift from the

Great Nathan Milstein, and for a period of over 3 & 1/2 Years, privately, at his London Chester Square home twice weekly for no less than 3 & 1/2 to even 5 hours each 'tutorial' ~ It was an

Act of Providence to be taken to meet Nathan Milstein in London's RFH {Royal Festival Hall} by

revered Leopold Auer Class-mate of 1st Mentor, Heifetz, and Sascha LASSERSON introduced to close friend, Nathan Milstein, following his ethereal performance of LvB's Violin Concerto, &

invited by Milstein to come round to play Bach's Chaconne to him!!! Long glorious Story made

Short: NM changed my Bow Arm, born of Franco-Belgium teaching, to NM rounded bowing &

which traversed all chording in All Bach's Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas minus scratch &

Liberation at Last to reproduce that in one's mind onto the violin & as Choral Work's ...

Performing Bach gives Grace in performing Ysaye's Solo Sonatas for Violin, but it is mandatory

to approach Ysaye composition with a Bachian mind-set spiritually aware attitude. The Ego'd

Violinist will never convince new listener's of the Glory of Ysaye! Having heard many Soloist

through Ysaye's Sonatas & particularly the Third in D Major, "Ballade" as if it were Paganini in

Caprice 'mode', was and is alarming. Period. Pethaps one must endure huge vicissitudes of

Life to finally clean Ego House's of Violinists to enable the Soul in Ysaye's splendid Sonatas

shine through ~

I am deliberately by passing any discussion of technical This's or That's purposefully to hope

my point from near 69 Years experience playing, teaching, relearning & entering into Spiritual

Spaces will help whomever may read this Testimony re Think Bach & to Follow his original text

via Urtext, minus confangled bowings & inserted Fingerings on a shelf to be later viewed but in

a vastly expanded overview Later and only RX here, Watch/Listen to Nathan Milstein in Bach

Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas for Violin sincerely and in a quiet place to shed all prior ~

Respectfully submitted ~ Elisabeth Matesky


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Cc dg

September 20, 2021 at 12:22 AM · Laurie, interesting about the Anakin's theme. It's a totally different and orchestral, but it does have a really similar 'feel' to Melancolia.

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