Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe (1858–1931) was born to a musical family and began learning the violin at age five with his father, Nicolas-Joseph Ysaÿe, a prominent violinist and opera conductor. Although Ysaÿe wasn’t considered a prodigy, he was revered as “The King of the Violin” during his time and garnered great admiration from his colleagues and contemporary performers.
Through extensive travels performing and conducting orchestras throughout Europe, Ysaÿe was a close acquaintance with many notable and influential musicians such as Joseph Joachim, Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann and Anton Rubenstein. During his time, Ysaÿe also developed close relationships with prominent composers as Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré and César Franck, all of whom dedicated works to Ysaÿe.
Upon hearing Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo sonatas in concert, Ysaÿe was inspired to compose his own set of sonatas for the violin. Szigeti’s impressive virtuosity and expressive playing inspired Ysaÿe to write a work that showcased the full potential and capabilities of the violin. Dedicating each sonata to a distinguished contemporary violinist, the Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op.27 demonstrates extensive violin technique, coupled with a stylized musical portrait of each dedicatee.
As the muse for the Op.27 sonatas, Sonata No.1 is dedicated to the Hungarian violinist and renowned pedagogue, Joseph Szigeti (1892 - 1973). Born in Budapest, Szigeti studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music under the tutelage of Jenö Hubay and eventually settled in Geneva where he taught at the local conservatory. Widely admired and respected by his colleagues, Szigeti was a champion of new music and was the dedicatee of many new works. Notable works in addition to Ysaÿe's first sonata include Ernest Bloch's Violin Concerto and Béla Bartók's Rhapsody No.1 and Contrasts for piano, violin and clarinet.
In Szigeti's later years, he developed arthritis in his hands that ultimately led him to retire from his performance career and focus on his teaching. In 1969, Szigeti published his treatise on violin playing, Szigeti on the Violin. Providing thoughtful and informative insight to the fundamental technique of playing the violin, this treatise also covers broader philosophies on violin playing and more detailed commentary on various scores including J.S. Bach's 6 Violin Sonatas and Partitas.
"The player should cultivate a seismograph-like sensitivity to brusque changes of tone colour caused by fingerings based on expediency and comfort rather than the composer's manifest or probably intentions." (Szigeti on the Violin, p.52)
Following the same structure and layout as a traditional Bach sonata, this work is cast in four movements - Grave, Fugato, Allegretto poco scherzoso, Finale; con brio. The first movement is full of chords and rhapsodic melodic configuration. Ysaÿe clearly takes inspiration from Bach's textural language and sets it in this movement with his own compositional voice and harmonic vocabulary. Especially noteworthy is the passagework leading to the end of the Grave. Ysaÿe creates a unique sound world that highlights several special effects of the violin - a rising and falling pianissimo double-stop tremolo with a rhythmic left hand pizzicato pulse throughout - all set in a sul ponticello timbre to bring out the highest overtones on the instrument.
The second movement has direct similarities to Bach's G minor sonata. Ysaÿe draws inspiration from the format and structure of Bach's own fugue movement from his sonata, and displays two fugal-voice entries in regular alternation with episodic material. Ysaÿe's signature is found in the form of six-note chords at the end of this movement.
Incorporating influence from the impressionistic period, the Allegretto poco scherzoso's delicate triplet-figure tune bookends a contrasting section reminiscent of Debussy with its atmospheric parallel fourths and fifths.
Drawing inspiration from Niccolò Paganini, the Finale; con brio portrays the devilish dexterity often associated with his writing. Paired with the abrupt rhythmic energy of this movement, the hemiola patterns often found in Baroque dance forms give the ending of this work a virtuosic flair that Ysaÿe portrays so effortlessly.
Sonata No.1 in G minor (á Joseph Szigeti)
Sonata No.2 in A minor "Obsession" (á Jacques Thibaud)
Sonata No.3 in D minor "Ballade" (á Georges Enescu)
Sonata No.4 in E minor (á Fritz Kreisler)
Sonata No.5 in G Major (á Mathieu Crickboom)
Sonata No.6 in E Major (á Manuel Quiroga)
Known by many as “Obsession,” Sonata No.2 is dedicated to French violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880- 1953). Born in Bordeaux, Thibaud began studying the violin with his father before entering the Paris Conservatory at age 13 studying with Martin Marsick. Shortly before attending the Conservatory, Thibaud had the opportunity to perform for Ysaÿe who was impressed with his talent and would later become his mentor and close friend.
Upon completion of his education, Thibaud was often seen performing at Café Rouge in Paris where he was discovered by conductor Edouard Colonne. Impressed by Thibaud's performance, Colonne gave Thibaud a job in his orchestra. Performing as both soloist and ensemble member, Thibaud enjoyed a rich performance career. Serving his country in WWI, Thibaud was honorably discharged from the army after recovering from many injuries and continued his performance career as a member of a piano trio with his two brothers. As part of his rehabilitation, he was active in such sports as tennis and golf to regain muscular agility.
"He [Jacques Thibaud] will be the master of us all." - Ysaÿe
After hearing Thibaud warm up regularly with the Preludio of J.S. Bach’s E Major Partita, Ysaÿe incorporated the violinist’s obsessive daily practice routine into the first movement of this sonata. Inserting the ominous "Dies Irae" chant from the traditional Requiem Mass in between quotes from Bach's partita, some have speculated that this work foreshadowed Thibaud’s fate as he was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1953 over the French Alps. Moving away from the Bach obsession for a brief moment, the Malinconia is muted throughout portraying an intimate and sorrowful setting that ultimately leads to a haunting "Dies Irae".
Set in a set of six variations, Danse des Ombres begins with a pizzicato sarabande that Ysaÿe's son recounts as an introduction to the six souls of the dead. Each variation has a distinctive character in which Ysaÿe utilizes modal folksong, stylish peasant dances, rustic drones, and slithering thirty-second note flourishes. The movement concludes with a reiteration of the Sarabande melody, this time played arco. A fiery conclusion to this sonata, Les Furies battles demonic outbursts with haunting sul ponticello moments that conceal the "Dies Irae" chant.
One of the most well known of the six sonatas, the “Ballade” is dedicated to composer, conductor, teacher and violinist George Enescu (1881 - 1955), a prominent Romanian musical figure of the 20th century. Born in Liveni, Enescu studied violin at the Vienna Conservatory and began focusing on composition in Paris. Enescu’s style of playing was greatly influenced by his first teacher, gypsy violinist Nicolas Chioru. The same gypsy flair can also be seen in Enescu's compositions.
A brilliant mastermind, Enescu had a fantastic memory and as a result did not always write down his compositions. A jack-of-all-trades, Enescu was not only distinguished in violin, conducting, and composing, but was also an accomplished pianist and violin teacher.
"the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart...
...one of the greatest geniuses of modern music." - Pablo Casals describing Enescu
Using both poetic and musical forms, the ballade is characterized by a certain freedom and irregularity of form. Consisting of two main sections, the work opens with a recitative that unfolds into the main rhythmically dotted tune that comes back often. There are moments of calm relaxation intertwined with the virtuosic passages, ultimately leading us to the exciting and climactic ending that builds first with single notes followed by climbing double stops.
Sonata No.4 is dedicated to Austrian virtuoso violinist and composer, Fritz Kreisler (1875 - 1962). Born in Vienna, Austria, Kreisler first began playing a violin made out of a cigar box at a very young age before playing his first real violin at the age of four. Surrounded by music in his youth, Kreisler showed natural talent for music. A student at the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 7, Kreisler became the institution's youngest student. Completing his studies five years later, he was awarded the Conservatory's Premier Prix at the ripe age of 12.
Kreisler was infamous for his aversion to practicing and believed that observing and absorbing the talents of world-class violinists was more important than daily practice. In a biography written by Amy Biancolli, Kreisler recounts his opinion on formal education and his unique talent to self-educate as a musician and performer:
"I really believe that hearing Joachim and Rubinstein play was a greater event in my life and did more for me than my five years of studies!" -Kreisler
In his youthful career, Kreisler was known for his impeccable technique but was often criticized for lacking in interpretation. It was only after he took time away from the violin (between 1894 - 1896 while serving in the Austrian Army) that he was able to recommit to both the violin and composition and find his own musical voice.
By the 1930s, Kreisler had composed several showpieces and various shorter works that were flavored by ethnic or national traditions. However, his best-known compositions to this day are the short sentimental pieces that showcased his awe-inspiring vibrato, elegant bowing technique and graceful phrasing in works such as Liebesfreud and Liebeslied (Love's Joy and Love's Sorrow), Caprice Viennois (Viennese Caprice), and Schön Rosmarin (Beautiful Rosemary). Ysaÿe carefully depicts these iconic characteristics of Kreisler’s playing, eloquently capturing these aspects in this sonata. Showing a mutual respect and admiration for his colleague, Kreisler dedicated his Recitativo and Scherzo, Op.6 to Ysaÿe.
This work is traditional in its form and is written in three movements. The first evokes an allemande, a slow dance that originated in Germany during the 16th century, which eventually became the opening dance of the standard Baroque suite. The second movement is a stately triple meter Sarabande, an oriental dance that came to Europe via Spain. Lastly, the rapid Finale shows the most resemblance to Kreisler's excellent bowing technique as Ysaÿe carefully notates the type of stroke each note should be given to mimic Kreisler's technique.
A student-turned colleague, Mathieu Crickboom (1871 - 1947) is the dedicatee for Sonata No.5. Born in Verviers, Crickboom was a Belgian violinist and principal disciple of Ysaÿe's. After completing his studies with Ysaÿe, he became the second violinist of the Ysaÿe Quartet before moving to Barcelona. In 1897, Crickboom formed his own quartet with Pablo Casals, José Rocabruna and Rafael Gálvez.
Returning to Belgium, Crickboom became a professor at the Conservatories in Liege and Brussels. Crickboom edited several violin concertos by notable composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, but is famously known for his violin method, "Les Maîtres du Violon".
In the picturesque opening of this sonata, the first movement is marked Mesure trés libre (very freely measured). L'Aurore, meaning "daybreak" or "sunrise" allows the performer to take freedom in timing to fully express each stage of the process. The second movement, Danse Rustique, is full of folk dance melodies suggesting a tribute to Ysaÿe and Crickboom's shared Belgian homeland. The innovative techniques in this movement, like left hand pizzicato, suggest the high level of Crickboom's technical ability.
Sonata No.6 was written for Spanish virtuoso Manuel Quiroga (1892 - 1961). Born in the Galician town of Pontevedra, Quiroga was expected to become one of Europe's most outstanding violinists. Billed by many music critics as "the finest successor of Pablo de Sarasate," Quiroga was held in high regard by many notable violinists and composers. The years between World War I and II were the height of Quiroga's performance career, which included concerts in Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium. Unfortunately, Quiroga's performance career was cut short after a traffic accident in New York leaving him with the loss of feeling and mobility in his arms. As a result, Quiroga was the only dedicatee who did not premiere his sonata. Returning to Spain, Quiroga continued his life painting and composing. A contributor to the violin repertoire, Quiroga composed two concertos, smaller concert pieces and cadenzas to major concertos.
Billed by many music critics as
"the finest successor of Pablo de Sarasate"
This final sonata is written in a single extended movement full of virtuosity. Using a freer rhapsodic form, it has fewer inflections of Bach and resembles more of Paganini's style. Written in a Spanish style with Quiroga in mind, this work contains flourishes of rapid, difficult passages and a sultry habanera at the center of the work.