Ysaye Obsession Sonata

May 9, 2011 at 04:02 AM ·

Can anyone tell me something that will help me like this piece? I'm supposed to look at it, but the Dies Irae and Bach's bright little E major Preludio together just sort of annoy me, my immune system kicks up right after the intro. 

But I like the other Ysaye sonatas so much, maybe I can be converted. Help!

Replies (27)

May 9, 2011 at 04:20 AM ·

 Hi, Laurie,

maybe this will help?


May 9, 2011 at 04:27 AM ·

 lol, you know, that does help! I like what she does, I'll try watching it about 10x and see if it can help me overcome my allergy.

I'm still open to more cures, too!

May 9, 2011 at 04:42 AM ·

I also have always struggled to understand it, but never got something relevant out. But the beginning (Bach's original "sotto voce" and the first "fff" outburst) is my favorite phone ringtone... Gives more testimony about my lack of true understanding of it, but it's very, very effective ... 


May 9, 2011 at 06:50 AM ·

Laurie, this is your great chance to revenge on Bach!!!

May 9, 2011 at 12:09 PM ·

Hi Laurie,

Something brief that will help you maybe...  Ysaÿe wrote the set of sonatas following a performance of the Bach g minor by Szigeti.  He wrote them quickly and realized after the first sonata that he could not escape Bach, so he decided to include quotations in the first movement which is a sort of free paraphrase on the E Major Preludio.  The reason for the choice of the Dies Irae is because of the melodic contour of the first four notes which is very similar to the contour of the first four notes of the opening of the E Major partita.  There is a lot to say about this sonata and this movement, but this in its simplest essence is where the relationship between the two themes lie.  This motif serves as a connective element to both link and separate Ysaÿe's work and Bach's, a very clever idea.  

Ysaÿe's sonatas were meant as a sum total of the musical styles and techniques that had evolved during his career.  Nos. 1, 2 and 4 contain many neo-classical elements but from an approach quite different then the one in vogue when he wrote them in the mid-1920's.  They refer both to what was going on, earlier neo-classical elements from pre-WWI French chamber music as well as looking forward in some ways.

Hope this helps a little...


P.S.  I wrote my DMA document on the Ysaÿe sonatas... I guess I have spent a lot of time devoting thought to, and do research on them...

May 9, 2011 at 12:24 PM ·

I love this piece and performed it once. It was one of the 2 most difficult pieces I ever performed publiclly. The other is the Ysaye #3 - the Balllade. (And this is going over a few Paganini caprices that I've performed.)

 Literary critic, Harold Bloom, has spoken of the "anxiety of influence". This certainly applies to music performance and composition, as well - and I know no clearer example of this than the 1st mvt. of this piece, called "The Obssesion", so named with good reason. Ysaye was fascinated, so the story goes, with the Bach e major prelude to the point of obsession, and it threatened to derail his whole project of 6 unacompanied sonatas. Rather than give up, he incoperated it into ihis 2nd sonata. He begins with a direct quote from the beginning of the prelude, sotto voce and and printed in small print. Then, as if to try to drive it away, he follows that quote with a furious passage - but to no avail. It comes back again, and is driven away again. Finally, in a most unlikely turn, the two forces are somewhat resolved into yet another quotation - the old and very haunting Dias Irae (Day of Wrath) theme. I think that this is a stroke of genius. It is actually the Dias Irae theme, also quoted by Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique, that proves the more abiding obession. The Bach Prelude is set aside after the 1st mvt., but the Dias Irae rears its haunting head in all 4 mvts.

I really think that this is a minor masterpiece, and I always found it haunting, as well as exciting. When I performed it about 4-5 years ago it was part of a completely unacompanied recital, that included the Paganini caprice #21 and my own 1st caprice. But I purposely opened with the original Bach E major partita, then followed it with the "Obsession".

In the end, you can't force yourself to like something, but do give it more of a try. There are many fine recordings, but for me Aaron Rosand's stands above them all in technical prowess, intensity, and interpretive insight.

PS Christian - though the mood and ethos of the Bach Prelude could not be more different from the Dias Irae, I see what you mean about the similarity of the melodic contour. It never conciously occured to me before!

May 9, 2011 at 10:20 PM ·

 Interesting background....I can relate to having a few persistent and life-long "ear-worm" kinds of tunes that never quite leave my head. I wonder if that's what it was for him. Anyway, I've been playing through it and it's already growing on me. It's fun to play!

I think the introduction is what throws me, especially if the ff interruption is played in a really heavy way. And it's supposed to be :) But I like the versions I'm hearing that are mostly light and fast, with only the Dies Irae appearing with heavy feet. I usually relate to the Dies Irae in terms of the Catholic requiem chant; I was not aware of the "Day of Wrath" designation as well, but I suppose it's all related. Just played Rachmaninov Symphony 2 last weekend, and it also has a brief reference to the Dies Irae in it. At least it was obvious when playing it, but the program notes argued that perhaps it was not really meant as a quote.

May 10, 2011 at 02:15 AM ·

Having listened to this for the first time just now, what popped into my head is the "Dueling Fiddlers", but with only one player - an "I dare you to try" sort of beginning. 

May 10, 2011 at 02:34 AM ·

That actually is the literal translation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dies_Irae

David Russell told us a great story about this piece: he once performed it on the same concert as another well-known violinist playing the original Preludio, and she got angry because she thought he was making fun of her. :)  David, if you're reading...

May 10, 2011 at 04:01 AM ·

 The thing is, I don't want revenge on Bach. As a matter of fact, I aspire to be like Pablo Casals, who played an unaccompanied Suite every single day of his life, once he discovered them. Having studied all the S and P's, I'd like to know them as well as I know, say, the Vivaldi A minor concerto (this is a Suzuki teacher talking), to have them in hand well enough to be able to pick whichever one I feel like each day and play it in its entirety -- by the time I reach the next unnamed decade marker. Even better would be to do this without the music.  I adore Bach. Do not tire of it. Not mad at the guy. I can't relate to being mad at Bach, if that's what it's about. Is it? Not really, right?

But this Ysaye is growing on me.

May 10, 2011 at 05:20 AM ·


I know what you mean.  I feel the same with the Cello Suites after having studied them for a decade.   Ysayse can be a nice stylistic change after Bach, Bach and more Bach, though making the switch can put you off kilter for awhile.

May 10, 2011 at 11:52 AM ·

It's not revenge on Bach; it's inspiration from Bach.

May 10, 2011 at 11:58 AM ·


For me, one of the things that threw me off for a long time, is how the opening is played.  If you look closer to the score, Ysaÿe wrote that it should be light (with dots) but at the tip.  I don't think that he meant that it should be played off the string, but rather on like the original preludio except with a very small amount of bow.  It should almost sound like one hears the tune going on in the person's head while the violent outburst is the reaction of the person playing.  If done this way, which is rare, it takes on another dimension.

If Ysaÿe is mad, it is not at Bach, but rather himself for not being able to escape Bach.  It must remembered that he composed this set extremely quickly.  Probably being unable to escape Bach, he decided to include his music with his own commentary on the situation.

As for the choice of the Dies Irae, I don't think there is that as much of a violent notion attached to it.  Ysaÿe was devoutly catholic.  He also knew as he was writing these sonatas that they were sort of his testament to violin playing.  Since he was suffering also quite severely from diabetes at the time.

My impression is that often people try to associate the character of the last movement "Les furies" to the whole sonata, while in reality, each movement is its own universe with a distinct character (or in the 3rd movement, several).  Also, though this is uncertain, there is a suggestion somewhere that the symbol to use the whole bow applied to the entire slurred set of notes and did not imply a giant swell on one note which many do.  If you do it that way, it also changes the character quite a bit and gives it a whole other dimension.


May 10, 2011 at 01:21 PM ·

You don't have to love the whole repertoire.  Or, you could change your mind about it later on.  It is allowed...

Are you learning this piece out of some sense of duty?  Because at this stage in life, there isn't enough time, and the repertoire is far too big, to work on a piece you don't already adore.

May 10, 2011 at 02:09 PM ·

Chris, a month ago I attended a live performance of Ysaye #2 by 18-year old Tansy Bennett at a charity concert in a local church in Bristol, UK.  Tansy's performance was 100% assured and immaculate, and her approach to the work, especially the "Obsession" movement, was just as you suggested it should be.  It was a privilege to see and hear.  The other works she played were the Largo from Bach's Sonata #3 in C, and Kreisler's Liebeslied and Liebesfreud.

The concert was given by Tansy Bennett (violin), her cousin Jasmine Bennett (sopranino recorder and cello), Irene Carter (singer, former Head Girl Chorister of Bristol Cathedral), and Paul Walton (piano, Assistant Organist at Bristol Cathedral).  The concert included a Trio Sonata by Loeillet, a Concerto in C for sopranino recorder by Vivaldi, the Andante from Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D minor, and a number of vocal works ranging from Purcell to Barber.

Tansy, who comes from Somerset in England, studied at Wells Cathedral School and is currently a scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she studies with Mateja Marinkovic. More on  http://www.mediaconcepts.co.uk/tansybennett/Welcome.html.

May 10, 2011 at 11:57 PM ·

I wonder if Tansy Bennett's extraordinary performance of Ysaye #2 at the concert at my local church was a pre-run for a future performance at a more prominent venue. It would make sense, given that it is not unusual for major plays and musicals in the UK to have pre-runs in provincial venues before appearing in London's West End (I don't know whether a similar system applies in the USA).

I reckon I'm starting to become obsessed with this sonata myself :)

May 11, 2011 at 01:10 AM ·

 OK---Can't resist!  Plus I have been invoked! :-)

I studied this piece with Josef Gingold who studied it with Ysaye.  He told me that it was the sense of foreboding that he (Ysaye) was somehow treading where he should not tread---the audacity of a violinist writing ANOTHER 6 unaccompanied Sonatas--after Bach had done it so perfectly!!)---  The Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) was the sense that "something bad would befall him".  The last movement "Les Furies" is when "all Hell breaks loose" figuratively speaking.  It is his "Day of Wrath"  The third mvmt. "Dance of the Shadows" implied that doom was lurking... 

The Dies Irae was an expression of Ysaye's guild and foreboding of being punished by the "gods"  for his audacity.  It was also a sort of parody of the violinist to whom it was dedicated---who practiced the Praeludio obsessively-- and to distraction (at least to Ysaye's distraction)

Now--yes. When I was about 19 yrs. old. I played it at Meadowmount. I was second on the program to Lara St. John (who played the actual E Major Partita).  At the time, many people still were not all that familiar with the Ysaye # 2... so when I played the sotto voce ~ FFF beginning---there was laughter!  They thought I was making a big joke of Lara's playing (which was lovely, of course!) :-)

Laurie--Try it---you'll like it! :-)


May 11, 2011 at 02:51 AM ·

Thanks, David!  I remembered the gist but not so much the details.

Ah, Meadowmount...from whence many good tales originate... :)

May 11, 2011 at 05:22 AM ·

Wow, such wonderful stories! Thank you for chiming in, David!

Well I'm giving it my best shot. The reason I'm looking it over is that there will be a few lectures at the upcoming Juilliard Symposium on Ysaye sonatas, including No. 2 and No. 5. So I'm on my way with 2 and you have all helped me allow it to grow on me. 

So what can everyone tell me about L'Aurore? I like it already because -- it's clearly named after me ;) and also I grew up in Aurora, where the sun dawns over the prairie in Denver. (A very aptly named suburb, I must say) But of course I must know more than that. I do like Augustin Hadelich's video.

May 11, 2011 at 05:44 AM ·

 okay another question, in the 7th measure from the end in the Malinconia, that just can't be a C natural, as it says, right? (It would be the 5th m back from the ad lib)

The end of this mvt, in a strange pop-culturish way, reminds me of the soft little Darth Vader theme that comes in at the end of Anakin's Theme (which is amazingly nowhere for free on the Internet so I could show you guys what I mean!).

May 11, 2011 at 05:59 AM ·

Isn't the "earworm" opening movement of the Bach E major lifted from one of his many Cantatas, i.e. possibly not originally a solo violin piece ? I wonder if Ysaÿe knew that and whether the subject ot the Cantata is a clue to yet another hidden meaning ?

It's many moons since I heard the Ysaÿe Sonata and I didn't like it then. But now I realise that it qualifies the writer to be classed as either a "post-modernist" composer or a "polystylist", what with the "time-travelling" contained within. How VERY contemporary ! Gosh.

Pity I don't have the dots to this work, or the Cantata. Further research is needed. Funding, please.

May 11, 2011 at 12:11 PM ·

Hmmm...I just got out my part and looked at that measure in Malincolia, and I see that I'd penciled in a sharp next to that C! Why? Probably like Laurie, it didn't sound right to me. Then I probably looked it up in an article I have by a violinist named Henkle, listing lots of mistakes and corrections in all of the sonatas - and indeed he says C# on that note!

I don't know if this article is still available. I got it from SHAR back in 1988.

Re the Bach prelude, he does use it in one of his cantatas  as an organ solo with orchestra. I don't know which came first. Bach did lots of arrangements of his own and other's music, and freely changed keys when he did.

May 11, 2011 at 01:19 PM ·

 Sinfonia to Cantata #29.  Wonderful insights into his implied harmony for the Praeludio.

"L'Aurore"  is of course "sunrise".  Beautiful if played clearly.  All the arpeggiations are a unique creative device.  Apparently, Ysaye was quite fond of this kind of arpeggiated playing (it appears in many of his pieces).  It may be due to some extent to the form and function of the strictly Franco-Belgian bow arm.  Performer needs to think about how to best bring out the harmony AND color in these arpeggiations. Sometimes, there is an element of left hand articulation that assists in the brilliance of these arpeggios. The arc of the arm at the string crossing is also important, as is the speed of the arc.

Intonation needs to be pristine in this sonata (especially against the open strings in 1st mvmt.) The approach to the shifts needs to be timed perfectly, so as to not disrupt the flow with unintentional articulations.

Finally, I think often times too much effort is made to make the first movement "floaty" sounding. It will sound "floatier" if you sustain the legato lines (with pizz. added). It really is all in the perception of seemless, smooth, legato playing. Need to sustain to hear it.

Love the 5/4 movement. Very rustic.

Pace is VERY important to the success of the performance throughout the sonata. Need to master it, then live with the pacing awhile.

OK...  Class dismissed. ;-)

May 11, 2011 at 02:25 PM ·

Ysaye wrote a short series of excersises for smooth string crossing that I got from Aaron Rosand. Even there you can see the germ of the arpeggiation he was fond of.

May 12, 2011 at 12:37 PM ·


Mr. Russell - thank you for your insights.  This is always great, since knowledge from people with first hand experience is often contrasting from that put forward by musicologists.  I have always regretted that Mr. Gingold was not interviewed or that no historical record was ever made of his experiences with Ysaÿe with the sonatas.  I also find it tragic that no edition was ever made of the revisions that Ysaÿe wrote in his copy of the sonatas.

Thanks and Cheers! 

May 12, 2011 at 04:44 PM ·

 Laurie - 

That's absolutely a C-sharp.

Mr. Russell - fond memories of studying this with you at ENCORE.  :)

May 17, 2011 at 04:38 PM ·

 David, thank you! I'm definitely warming to all this stuff! So glad I have this excuse to dive a little deeper.

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