Eugene Ysaÿe was born in Liège on July 16, 1858 to a family in which the violin had been a fixture for several generations. He began playing the violin under his father's instruction at the age of four. Though his father was a stern taskmaster, Ysaÿe in later years gave him credit for the development of his violinistic ability and singing tone, for which he was later to become famous the world over. At the age of seven, Ysaÿe became a pupil of Désiré Heynberg at the Liège Conservatoire, where his progress, though respectable, was hardly exceptional in itself. This, however, was a result of his having to play in two orchestras and many all-night village balls to support his family. His overwork made it necessary for him to leave the Conservatoire in 1869. Leaving the Conservatoire did not put a stop to Ysaÿe's education. He continued study on his own, mastering the virtuoso studies of Locatelli and Paganini and the concerto repertoire of the time. Apart from his musical studies, he was a voracious reader and showed promise in the fields of history and the natural sciences.
After a time playing in orchestras directed by his father in various cities across Europe, Ysaÿe was heard by the virtuoso violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, who was impressed by the boy's interpretations of his works. With Vieuxtemps' assistance, Ysaye was able to resume his studies at the Liège Conservatoire, where he became a student of Rodolphe Massart. By the time he was sixteen, he was studying with Henryk Wieniawski at the Brussels Conservatoire, which he soon left to study with his countryman Vieuxtemps in Paris.
After his graduation, Ysaye was the principal violin of the Benjamin Bilse orchestra, which played in the Konzerthaus, a Berlin beer-hall. (This orchestra later became the Berlin Philharmonic, an indirect result of the prestige it gained from Ysaÿe's presence.) Many musicians of note and influence came regularly to hear this orchestra and Ysaÿe in particular, among whom figured Joseph Joachim, Ferenc Liszt, Clara Schumann, and Anton Rubinstein.
Rubinstein, when he heard Ysaÿe play, arranged with Bilse to have him released from his contract to accompany him on a tour of Norway. This tour and the association, both musical and personal, with Rubinstein were most beneficial to the young artist. Part of the effect it had on him was to help him overcome the superficial, virtuosic side of violin-playing and begin to devote himself to the more spiritual aspects of his art. He became much more interested in the early Italians than had hitherto been the case, and he began to apply himself to the works of the master, Bach. This time too saw an increase in his involvement with chamber music, in which he also enjoyed playing the viola and the 'cello.
At this time, in 1885, when Ysaÿe was twenty-seven years old, he was recommended as a soloist for one of the Concerts Colonne in Paris. It was the start of his great success as a concert artist. He performed two works admirably suited to his personal style, the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole and the Saint- Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, with an unaccompanied prelude of Bach as an encore. The performance was a triumph and catapulted Ysaÿe to at least national fame overnight.
In 1886, Ysaÿe received a professorship at the Brussels Conservatoire in his native Belgium. This began his career as a teacher, which was to remain one of his main occupations after leaving the conservatory in 1898 and into even his last years. Among his more respected pupils are Josef Gingold, the violist William Primrose, Louis Persinger, Alberto Bachmann, and Mathieu Crickboom.
During his tenure as professor to the Conservatoire, Ysaÿe continued to tour an ever-broadening section of the world, including all of Europe, Russia, and the United States. Despite health concerns, particularly regarding the condition of his hands, Ysaÿe was at his best when performing. It was, as he said, what "animates me and gives me new life; it opens up unlimited horizons to my eyes . . . [When I play] I love everything in the world. I let go my feelings and my heart." The concern for the well-being of his hands, however, continued to be a worry, particularly his left hand. Though Leopold Auer, in an analysis of Ysaÿe's playing, blamed his hand problems on faulty bow technique, it is more likely that it could be attributed to his excessive weight and diabetes affecting circulation of his blood.
Ysaÿe's performances over the next pair of decades inspired many composers, especially French and Belgian ones, to write works for the violin dedicated to him. Chief among these are the Debussy and Saint-Saens string quartets and of course the Franck sonata and the Chausson Poème. These last two works are ones which became closely associated with Ysaÿe and with which he increased his fame and that of the composers. Particularly the Franck sonata he "carried . . . 'round the world like a torch and gave Franck one of the few earthly joys he knew."
During the first world war, Ysaÿe, saddened by the invasion of his native Belgium by natives of a country whose art he admired and which had received him gladly and hospitably only a very few years before, determined as the patriot he was to help his land as he could. He played benefit concerts for refugees, traveled to the Belgian front to play for troops, and even tried to enter military service, though he was about 55 years old. He was rejected, though, and relied on his art to support his country, even playing chamber music with Belgium's Queen Elizabeth (among others), whose teacher he was.
Until his death, Ysaÿe continued his work as a musician, the emphasis turning to conducting and composition, which two activities had always been a part of his life, with his public appearances as a violinist becoming less and less frequent and eventually ceasing entirely due to ill health and declining condition of his hands, now particularly his right. Among his most famous works are six unaccompanied violin sonatas, Op.27, a quartet, Harmonies du Soir, Op.31, and an opera, Peter the Miner, written at the end of his life in Walloon dialect.
Ysaÿe the violinist was idolized by many other virtuosi of his time and of the following generation. His playing has been described in glowing terms by such worthies as Kreisler, Thibaud, Menuhin, Enesco, and a host of others. To his home, "La Chanterelle," flocked all these artists and more, paying homage to a recognized master and benevolent friend. Casals claimed never to have heard a violinist play in tune before Ysaÿe , and Karl Flesch called him "the most outstanding and individual violinist I have ever heard in my life".
Ysaÿe's playing was certainly individual; when he played one of the masterworks of the violin repertoire, he made it his own. His great freedom of expression, though not to everyone's taste, was in large part that which made his interpretations so attractive. He was, after hearing Joachim's interpretation of the Beethoven Concerto, convinced of its musical value, but continued to study it until his thirty-first year, developing a truly personal rendition which, though many disagreed with its freedoms, formed a compelling musical statement.
One aspect of Ysaÿe's originality was his magnificent tone. Although he was a large man and capable of drawing an equally massive tone, he was able to control it to a great degree. Interestingly, the tone seems to have grown with the man; as a student and in his early tours of Russia, the critics applauded Ysaÿe's sensitivity while suggesting a greater breadth of tone. A part of his growing tone was his original and in many ways very modern use of vibrato. As stated by Fritz Kreisler:
Wieniawski intensified the vibrato and brought it to heights never before achieved, so that it became known as the "French vibrato." Vieuxtemps also took it up, and after him Ysaÿe, who became its greatest exponent, and I. Joseph Joachim . . . disdained it.
Ysaÿe and after him Kreisler widened and increased the abundance of the vibrato of which the Germans disapproved, making the violin much more sensual in sound than it had previously been. Ysaÿe, though, warned of a fault into which Kreisler was sometimes accused of falling; he spoke of the one true pitch of a note, which must be sought out and, when found, not obscured by constant, frantic vibrato.
Another area of violin-playing in which Ysaÿe was a pioneer is the portamento. Like most violinists of his time, Ysaye used this device to a greater degree than do modern violinists, but in his playing, it is less obtrusive in effect. This is partly because of the grace with which he executed it, and partly due to his extreme good taste - no slide is unjustifiable for purely musical reasons. He was a pioneer of the so-called “French portamento,” which involves a slide on the finger which ends the interval, as opposed to the Germanic type, which slides on the previous finger. This style of portamento later became a part of Heifetz’ sonic signature.
Possibly the most delightful and distinctive feature of Ysaÿe’s interpretations was his masterful rubato. Rubato is literally “stealing” of time; it usually implies a mere flexing of tempo for expressive purposes. Ysaÿe’s rubato is something apart; whenever he stole time from one note, he paid it back in another place, allowing his accompanist to maintain strict tempo under his free cantilena. He told his sometime accompanist, Jacques Dalcroze, “Have no fear, we’ll always find each other, for when I accelerate certain notes, I reestablish equilibrium immediately by slowing down the following notes or broadening one of them.” This kind of rubato fits the description of the textbook Chopinesque rubato, but, of all the early performers on record, is the only real display of it. Despite its complicated sound when set down on paper, Ysaÿe’s rubato on record sounds natural and uncomplicated, and is entirely unforeign to the modern ear.
Ysaÿe was an artist who was not equally at home in all repertoire; though admired for his Bach and Beethoven interpretations, he was in his best form in the works of more modern composers, the late Romantics and early modern writers. Particularly Bruch, Saint-Saëns, and Franck called him their greatest interpreter, and in those and similar composers’ works he was unquestionedly supreme. His technique was brilliant and finely honed, but never employed without some musical purpose in mind. In this respect he could be considered the first of the modern type of violinist, whose technique is without the gaps of some earlier artists, but not used for its own sake so much as in the service of the music at hand.
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