Interview with Hilary Hahn: 100 Years of the Ysaÿe Sonatas

July 10, 2023, 1:28 PM · Violin-playing today owes a lot to one important man of yesterday: Eugène Ysaÿe - who lived from 1858 to 1931.

For one, he wrote the Six Sonatas for solo violin - beautiful and groundbreaking pieces that follow in the footsteps of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas. But also, there is the direct teaching lineage that so many people can claim to Ysaÿe, who taught Joseph Gingold, William Primrose, Matthieu Crickboom, Oscar Shumsky, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Brodsky and Louis Persinger, among others. Ysaÿe's pedagogy is connected to anyone whose teachers descend from that line, and there are a great many. (Even I can make the connection - several of my teachers were proteges of Gingold.)

Hilary Hahn has always treasured the direct musical lineage she had through her teacher at the Curtis Institute. When she realized last October that the Six Sonatas were coming up for their 100th anniversary in 2023, she felt a sudden compulsion to do something about it.

Hilary Hahn
Violinist Hilary Hahn. Photo by Chris Lee.

"These pieces are iconic, generation-defining, and a beautiful celebration of the instrument. Could I find some way to mark their centenary?" she said. "My concert schedule was completely full. There was one other possibility, but it would be a massive undertaking: recording this opus."

That's how Hilary came to record the entire set in a creative whirlwind that lasted for the next seven weeks - recording them in chronological order, in between concert tours. That recording, Eugène Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Violin Solo, Op. 27, officially will be released this Friday.

Last month I spoke with Hilary about this breathtaking project, her connection to Ysaÿe, and Ysaÿe's connection to all violinists.

"I've always put a lot of value in being 'one-generation-removed' from a man who was born in the 1850s and was hugely influential," Hilary said, "I take great pride in being a 'musical grandchild' of Ysaÿe."

That said, when it comes to the Sonatas, the influence a little more indirect - Hilary did not study them all with her teacher. "I taught myself all of them, except for number six," she said. "Number six, I learned while I was still a student; the rest I taught myself after graduating. So it's music that is in my soul, in my musical DNA, but I don't have particular pedagogical stories about it."

When it comes to repertoire for violinists, the Ysaÿe Sonatas are a solid part of the canon. "You learn the Bach as a younger student, and then you add the Ysaÿe for some variety, to learn some slightly different techniques," Hilary said.

It is clear that Ysaÿe was inspired by Bach's Sonatas and Partitas. "The seed of the project for him came from a performance by (Joseph) Szigeti, who was playing Bach," Hilary said. "I don't think Ysaÿe intended for it to be the series of six it became - he probably discovered more ideas and just kept writing."

The sheer audacity of Ysaÿe's Six Sonatas is part of its charm and challenge. Not everyone would take on the task of writing a follow-up to Bach's works for solo violin, but "Ysaÿe heard his colleague playing Bach and thought, 'Hmmm, this could use an update, let me modernize this. How about six-note chords on a four stringed instrument?'" Hilary laughed, "And he did it!

Eugene Ysaye
Violinist Eugene Ysaÿe (1858-1931)

A composer who wasn't violinist - or who wasn't a violinist at Ysaÿe's proficiency level - simply would not have been able to find the possibilities that Ysaÿe did. "In these pieces there is an informality and also an exuberance," Hilary said. "The way he writes through the expressive freedoms - it's from a very deep knowledge of the instrument. Where other composers hit a roadblock, he sees a path. Or he just bursts right through the wall - as if saying, 'Oh, this is not made of brick, this is made of Styrofoam!'"

"So it's this niche, but super-important set of pieces for a violinist," she said.

Ysaÿe also wrote the Sonatas with particular violinists in mind - dedicating each one of them to a violinist who was his contemporary. Of course, he dedicated the first to Joseph Szigeti, who inspired the entire project. Then he dedicated the second to Jacques Thibaud, third to George Enescu, fourth to Fritz Kreisler, fifth to Mathieu Crickboom and sixth to Manuel Quiroga.

"You have a lot of inner messages in these pieces, from Ysaÿe to the dedicatee," Hilary said. "You just sense that there are stories being told, and references - to parties they were at together, or some conversation, or a concert Ysaÿe went to. The closer the dedicatee and composer were, the more personalized and sort of hidden-message-y the piece ended up being. I was really interested in all of those dynamics."

For Hilary, this recording project generated a series of revelations - about connections to Bach, or to Ysaÿe's dedicatees, or to other aspects of the music - which deepened her personal relationship with this music.

"The first revelation for me was in the first Sonata," she said. "I realized that the more I played it like Bach, but like 'organ Bach' (she laughs), the more it worked. It's a little choppy if you play it like 'violin Bach,'" Hilary said. "But if you look at the (first-movement) Grave as something you might hear in a meander-y organ improvisation, with some powerful jolts," then it works. Making that connection to Bach's organ music gave her a perspective on "how Ysaÿe takes an influence and distills it," and that served as a basis for connecting to the rest of the sonatas. The Fugato in the first sonata "is very much a combination of references to the three Bach fugues in the Sonatas and Partitas, and to Bach's organ music."

"I love Sonata No. 2 for so many reasons," Hilary said. Sonata 2, called "Obsession," begins with a quote from the Preludio from Bach's Partita No. 3. "So there's clearly the Bach reference, but I also love the idea that it's a reflection of how Thibaud (its dedicatee) practiced," she said. "He would just practice these little blips - he would play a little bit of this, a little bit of that... And Ysaÿe knew this, and so he wrote that first movement as such."

"And then in many places, Ysaÿe is juxtaposing different messaging," Hilary said. "There is the Dies irae in the second Sonata, and that whole Sonata is connected to Bach as well." The Dies irae is musical sequence that relates to the Day of Wrath, from the Catholic Requiem Mass. But "it's also a mood cue in a lot of repertoire from around (Ysaÿe's) era," she said.

BELOW: Sonata No. 2 in A Minor - II. Malinconia - the Dies irae is that chilling bit at the very end...

Of course, Bach was deeply religious and served the Lutheran church for most of his professional musical life. "There are elements of Bach chorales in that Sonata that are hymns - the old Lutheran hymns," she said. Hilary grew up going to the Lutheran church, singing from the old hymnal, and as she was recording, she kept associating the music with a certain hymn. "I wouldn't want to say for sure that it is that hymn, but for me, the message in that hymn is the total opposite of the message of the Dies irae, and it's immediately juxtaposed inside this sonata," she said. "For me, that was a moment of feeling even more at home in the music, like there are insights that I can also access that are personal to me, even though the music wasn't dedicated to me. That was a beautiful realization: that I had some insight that I didn't even know lived in me. And I don't know if it's an insight into Ysaÿe or just an insight into my relationship with the piece."

Sonata No. 3 has a little insider message as well. "Enescu's Third Sonata is the biggest piece by Enescu that you're likely to play if you're a violinist - and this is Sonata 'No. 3,' of Ysaÿe's, dedicated to Enescu! It has that sort of same flair and style that you feel when you really get comfortable with Enescu's writing. So Ysaÿe is just playing with all these inside references."

But Hilary's biggest moment of realization came when recording Sonata No. 5, "L'Aurore," dedicated to Crickboom. It brought her back to a project she did a number of years ago - working with composer Antón García Abril. He wrote her Six Partitas for Solo Violin, which she recorded and released in 2019. "When I was recording Ysaÿe's Number Five, it felt like everything I've learned was coming together, because the García Abril Partitas feel similar to what Number Five feels like." she said. "The opening of Number Five is pushy and laid back at the same time, and it's sporadic but also directional, and that's very much what the García Abril Partitas feel like."

Those insights held, as she went on to record Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 6, dedicated to the Spanish violinist Manuel Quiroga.

"When we got to Number Six, I felt like, 'Oh, I know these rhythms so much better now than I did, back when I first learned this piece' - because Anton taught me the Spanish rhythms," she said. The sixth Sonata quotes Spanish folk rhythms - "the same rhythms that Antón was so proud of in his heritage," she said. "Antón taught me things he didn't even know he was teaching me, in his sense of rhythm that he was developing, things that I later recognized in the Sixth (Ysaÿe) Sonata." All those things together helped her develop her own new relationship to that piece, which is the first Ysaÿe Sonata she had ever learned.

"Ysaÿe was living during very pivotal time," Hilary said. These sonatas were written right before a historical period that brought about music that sounds to us, even today, very radical. "A lot of the composers in his time were experimenting with form, experimenting with where tonality could go, questioning what the role of an individual instrument could be." And for his part, Bach was also ahead of his time - "Things that he did in the Sonatas and Partitas are more experimental than I've seen from many composers today," Hilary said.

Many of the things we take for granted today when it comes to technical options on the violin, "were still being experimented on and developed as Ysaÿe was growing up," she said. He lived at a moment when recordings started connecting musicians. Cars were just being invented - now people were starting to have more access to each other. All of the things that kept people apart were becoming less of a barrier.

"Ysaÿe was in the eye of the storm," Hilary said. "All these ideas were swirling around, and he was somehow in the middle - sort of a hub. If you think about a wheel, there are all these spokes - and he was the hub for so many things that were both past and future."

"I discovered so much about the pieces that made me fall in love with them all over again - but in a different way," she said. Recording them "made me understand my own sense of expressiveness even better."

You might also like:

Click here for Hilary's new recording of the Ysaÿe 6 Sonatas.

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July 11, 2023 at 12:36 AM · When I first read the title of the article, 100 years of the Ysaye Sonatas, I thought, "No! Hilary's not THAT old!" Joking aside, it's wonderful to hear the insights of a top performer, someone known worldwide for profound artistry.

July 11, 2023 at 03:02 PM · Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful - the music, the composer, and the violinist in these performances.

July 11, 2023 at 04:11 PM · Wonderful interview! I learned so much! The clip you provided is awesome. I definitely want the recording.

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