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© Rachel Kolly d’Alba
What are the reasons for the sonatas for unaccompanied violin by Eugène Ysaÿe being played today? For three quarters of the twentieth century, the core virtuoso repertoire for solo violin consisted of Paganini’s twenty- fourCaprices and J.S. Bach’s three sonatas and three partitas, and it took several decades before these six sonatas acquired their status as works of major signiﬁcance, for both their technical and artistic merits. No composer after Paganini and Bach had really thought to take a polyphonic approach to writing for unaccompanied violin. Neither of the two great virtuosos Henryk Wieniawski and Henri Vieuxtemps, the violin equivalents of Liszt in terms of instrumental supremacy and, in addition, both teachers of Ysaÿe, had composed anything of signiﬁcance for the solo instrument. It was Eugène Ysaÿe, an outstanding virtuoso, and one of the greatest violinists of the century, who showed that composing for unaccompanied violin had not come to a halt: in successfully reviving the genre, these six sonatas opened the way to the later sonatas by Bartók and Prokoﬁev, those by Hindemith and the preludes and fugues by Reger: Ysaÿe’s sonatas also set a new standard by which to judge violinists’ technical prowess. However, the twentieth century neglected to do one thing: to honour Ysaÿe the composer as well as Ysaÿe the discoverer of talent, the man who encouraged so many composers to write either for this supreme instrument, string quartet or symphony orchestra, by putting his remarkable career in the service of those new composers he believed in. Fauré, Ravel, Lekeu, Chausson and D’Indy all spring to mind, togetherwith Debussy — all of them composers on whose behalf he worked tirelessly. As well as these celebrated sonatas, Ysaÿe also left behind trios, genre pieces and some magniﬁcent poems for violinand orchestra that have for all intents and purposes been forgotten.
Features of the works
The ﬁrst thing that strikes anyone approaching the six sonatas, whether the listener or the player, is their dazzling virtuosity: in fact, the violin’s technical limits are pushed so far that the player has to forge a dedicated technique for the music, particularly in the use of double- stopping (scales in fourths, octaves and tenths) or even in the impression of chords of more than six notes (in the First Sonata), a challengeEugène Ysaÿe: Six Sonatas for solo violin, op.27 to the very logic of an instrument that has only fourstrings. Everything the violin is capable of is exploited to the full, whether in polyphonic writing, expressivity, lightning speed, sombre tones, left-hand pizzicato, harmonics or even quarter-tones. The instrument changes from a butterﬂy to a bird to a church-bell (in the Fifth Sonata), giving an impression of endless expressive possibilities, colours and ﬂexibility. Clearly, behind the music’s dazzling display of technical brilliance lies an immensely rich expressive, almost expressionistic world. It should not be overlooked that Ysaÿe, who was known as the “colossus of the violin”, was no beginnerwhenhe composed his Op.27. He had reached the age of sixty-four, and had a long careeras a violinist behind him. He had nothing left to prove to the world. Showered with honours and marked by the loss of his closest friends, he composed these Op.27 masterworks for the new generation coming after him, “in some way summing up the whole art and history of the violin and renewing it at the same time,” as Maxime Benoît-Jeannin writes in his biography of the composer. One of the most remarkable aspects of the set is the way in which the composer pays homage
to violinists of his day, carefully distinguishing each in tone and personality. By taking the six dedicatees lurking behind each sonata in turn, whether in terms of their background, their taste, personality or playing style, we can get to the heart of these works, each one so different from the other, each one a separate world.
Sonata No.1, dedicated to Joseph Szigeti
This sonata is brilliantly constructed to ensure that the four movements (Grave, Fugato, Allegretto poco scherzoso, Finale con brio) maintain a permanent sense of tension. With its clarity of form and construction, highly sophisticated polyphony and intricate lines, it is the closest to Bach’s sonatas and partitas. Ysaÿe had in fact been present at a Bach recital given by Joseph Szigeti, and we know that, having been hugely impressed by the violinist’s playing, Ysaÿe immediately afterwards dedicated the ﬁrst sonata in the Op.27 set to him. This sonata is moresober than its partners and in that sense matches Szigeti’s playing style. The grandiose ﬁrst movement has a classic ABA form, and ends with a short, sombre and uneasy coda. The second movement, in which the fugue theme returns twenty-four times, takes on a vaguely nostalgic tone, and the listener cannot fail to be amazed by the composer’s mastery of complex polyphony, while the tender third movement demonstrates the violin’s capacity for restraint and warmth. The structure of the fourth movement seems at ﬁrst sight to be solid and straightforward, but the music plays on chiaroscuro contrasts that the changing rhythmic manner- nowrigid, now wayward — serves to reinforce, and the shunting of accents and strong beats is at times reminiscent of passages in Schumann.
Sonata No.2, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud
“The joyous Bach quotations of the opening give way to a quirky, ghoulish atmosphere maintained by the obsessive presence of the Dies irae,” writes Michel Stokhem on the subject of this fascinating second sonata. The ﬁrst movement makes repeated references to ideas from the Prelude of the Third Partita by Bach, mixing themup with the famous Dies irae theme which appears throughout the whole work. Like the Bach model, the movement is made up of asuccession of semiquavers, and demonstrates an endless inventiveness. The violin is muted in the second movement, based on a Siciliano rhythm. With its sober charm, this provides a strong contrast with the preceding movement, and ends on the notes of the Dies irae notated in free rhythm. The third movement is a theme and variations on the Dies irae, as the attentive listener cannot fail to make out, and it is interesting to note that here the theme is given a major colouring in the harmonisation. The ﬁnal movement rounds the sonata off in a mood of mayhem. The sonata as a whole is an astoundingly imaginative piece of work; its fusion of Bachian themes and the Dies irae provides an opportunity for Ysaÿe the composer to step forward and dazzle us with his originality, power and unique harmonic style.
Sonata No.3, dedicated to George Enescu
The best-known of the six sonatas, this is also the shortest. Cast in one single movement, it is a rhapsodic, powerful piece whose successful fusion of the poetic and virtuosic meant that every violinist immediately took it up. Its unreserved virtuosity can sometimes obscure the title, however. A “ballade” is originally a poetic form, with close musical associations by virtue of its three couplets. The envoi of a fourteenth-century ballade begins by addressing a person of importance (could this be an introduction for Enescu?). The ballade later became a romantic genre popular with nineteenth-century composers such as Chopin and Liszt, and a vehicle for some of their greatest music. George Enescu, the dedicatee, was an outstanding thinker, musician and teacher, and the sonata stands as a worthy tribute to his many talents. In certain aspects, notably harmonic, the music offers a foretaste of the Impressions from Childhood that Enescu composed twenty years later. The long introduction to the third sonata is harmonically unsettled, as the music seems to seek a goal, a home key to rest on, while the violinist is repeatedly sent to the topmost and lowest registers of the instrument. As it turns
out, the opening is in the dominant key, and it forcefully introduces the theme of the work, recognisable by its strict, powerful dancing rhythm. This theme returns three times, like a refrain, and is later interspersed with much freer variations that imaginatively elaborate on the constituent notes. There are few compositions that give the violinist such a feeling of creative power, this sense of struggling with the music, the audience and the world (like at the end of the Tchaikovsky concerto) and the feeling of using the instrument to take possession of the stage. Ysaÿe, one of the greatest violinists of his century, had an unparalleled grasp of the instrument’s possibilities, and here lent the
violin the power of a whole orchestra. In doing so he ﬁlledagap in the violinist’s repertoire, and his achievement has scarcely been equalled since.
Sonata No.4, dedicated to Fritz Kreisler
It is well known that Fritz Kreisler had a love of pastiche. For him, and by way of imitation, Ysaÿe wrote a sonata in the form of a short
Baroque suite (Allemande, Sarabande and Finale), including some quotations from Kreisler in the ﬁnal movement. The whole of the ﬁrst movement is dominated by the characteristic rhythms of an Allemande, but the harmonic style is unmistakably Ysaÿe’s. Highly vocal in style, and with many touching moments, the movement closes with a fugue that introduces a strikingly sombre note. The second movement is a remarkable piece of work, using the same four notes, G, F sharp, E and A, over and over again, but somehow avoiding the impression of repetition. The nimble ﬁnal movement, with its sudden changes of direction, is the one that gives the overall piece its name, and this was the sonata that was played to Ysaÿe on his deathbed.
Sonata No.5, dedicated to Mathieu Crickboom
The ﬁfth sonata is an astonishing piece of music. Matthew Rye has drawn attention to its forward-looking qualities and its wealth of novel effects that rival and often surpass those of Bartók. It was for his favourite pupil, whom he played alongside in the quartet bearing his name, that Ysaÿe wrote this, the freest sonata in the set. The quotations from Chausson’s concerto and the Franck-like harmony pay homage to those quartet years. The prevailing mood of this intensely expressive Fifth Sonata is light, bucolic and joyful. The ﬁrst movement, “Dawn”, is constructed on a single, four-note phrase which strolls on over many bars and on all the strings of the violin, undergoing endless
transformations. Those ﬁrst notes marked pianissimo, utterly pure and seeming to come out of nowhere, evoke a dawn that will ultimately burst into light. In the distance there are church bells (left-hand pizzicatos) while birds ﬂutter around, and the listener starts to make out a picture of a radiant, serene countryside bathed in pale, but increasingly warm sunlight. The movement ends with arpeggios that, by emphasizing certain notes, bring out the opening theme, the four notes that have kept the stroller company throughout. For the player, the indication très librement gives the go-ahead for some bold rhythm gestures and lends the piece some of its fanciful and
free character. We know that Mathieu Crickboom loved the countryside and drew inspiration from it, so it is no surprise to ﬁnd that the second movement is a danse rustique. With its unusual time signature of 5/4, it moves at a cheerful, unhurried pace. The second part of the movement is compositionally free, going back over the elements of the ﬁrst movement one by one. An impressionof ﬂuttering butterﬂies gives way to a poignant theme interwoven with technical twirls that seem to have found a place there only
out of a spirit of fantasy and freedom, and the sheer joy of playing the violin — a sort of gypsy style à la française. The end of the movement unfolds with the dance theme being repeated increasingly quickly, as if played by the ﬁddler at avillage dance, pressed by his listeners to outdo himself until he himself is dazed by the speed.
The only truly rustic element in this sonata is the marked rhythm in the second movement; otherwise, the quality of the writing, the composer’s ideas and imagination are quite astonishing, and the rigour and virtuosity of the composition (a ﬁrst movement on only four notes that gives the impression of an improvisation) are truly remarkable.
Sonata No.6, dedicated to Manuel Quiroga
The sixth sonata is well known to violinists: it is technically the hardest of all, and pays homage both to Spain and the now little-remembered composer Manuel Quiroga. Cast in the classic ABA form, the sonata has at its centre a habanera whose characteristic rhythm, imaginative qualities and improvisatory air have great charm. The sonata alternates between powerful fortissimos and moments of poetry, giving the listener an impression of a rather more Mediterranean and certainly more intense passion than the rest of the set.
TEXT: Rachel Kolly d’Alba
Translation: Kenneth Chalmers
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