1858 — 1931
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Eugène Ysaÿe was a Belgian violinist, conductor, and composer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was one of the leading violinists of his time and revolutionized violin playing.
Ysaÿe was born in Liège, Belgium in 1858. His father, a violinist and conductor, gave him his first music lessons. At the age of seven, Ysaÿe began studying at the Liège Conservatory with Désiré Heynberg, however, his irregular attendance resulted in the conclusion of his lessons for a time in 1869. Ysaÿe returned after a few years, in 1872, to the conservatory, where he joined the violin class of Rodolphe Massart. This time, his lessons were productive, and in 1874 he was the co-winner of the conservatory’s silver medal. Ysaÿe then won a scholarship allowing him to take lessons with teachers in other cities, including Henryk Wieniawski in Brussels and Henry Vieuxtemps in Paris. He attended lessons, concerts, and lectures for four years in France, where he became acquainted with many artists.
In 1879, Ysaÿe was appointed leader of the Bilse Orchestra in Berlin, where he remained until 1882. He also gained many opportunities through the patronage of Anton Rubinstein. Through Rubinstein, Ysaÿe was able to appear as a soloist in Scandinavia, Russia and Hungary and many other countries.
Ysaÿe returned to Paris in 1883 and became closely acquainted with many of the top French composers such as Saint-Saëns, Franck and Fauré. He also became close with emerging composers such as d’Indy and Chausson. During this time, Ysaÿe also performed very successfully at the Concerts Colonne.
As a violin teacher, Ysaÿe also experienced great success. He was appointed professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory by Gevaert, where he succeeded the masters, Jenő Hubay and Vieuxtemps.
Ysaÿe’s performance career also took off. He was engaged as a soloist, chamber musician, and composer. As a chamber musician, he took part in many of the avant-garde concerts in Paris and Brussels. As a soloist, he premiered many works that were dedicated to him, such as Franck's Violin Sonata (1886), Chausson's Concert (1889–91) and Poème (1896) and Lekeu's Violin Sonata (1892). Quartets dedicated to him include d'Indy's First String Quartet (1890) and Debussy's String Quartet (1893).
Ysaÿe was in his prime between his American tour in 1894 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. During this period his talent was acknowledged worldwide and he performed regularly in the best concert halls. Between these years he also founded the Société Symphonique des Concerts Ysaÿe, together with Maurice Kufferath. With this society, he both managed and conducted an orchestra which focused on giving concerts of modern music. These concerts became part of the core of Belgian musical life.
Ysaÿe collaborated with many great pianists including his brother Théophile Ysaÿe, Anton Rubinstein Buoni, Ziloti and Nat. His most notable collaboration, however, was formed in 1895 with Raoul Pugno. The two artists worked together until Pugno’s death in 1914. During their collaboration, they became known for their exceptional programmes, which consisted mostly of sonatas, a very unusual choice at the time.
An interest in conducting led him to conduct many orchestras passionately. Later, however, his declining health forced him to focus more and more on conducting instead of performing. Ysaÿe suffered from neuritis and diabetes. Though he was known for his perfect technique and unorthodox bow grip, his diseases resulted in his loss of bow control, a disastrous problem for a violinist.
During the war, his playing deteriorated drastically, though he kept performing until 1928. In 1918, Ysaÿe was appointed conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the USA; he remained there until 1922. While conductor, he added many modern French pieces to the repertoire.
After leaving Cincinnati, Ysaÿe returned to Belgium and continued with the Concerts Ysaÿe series and teaching private lessons. During the short period that remained of his performance career, he collaborated with pianist Clara Haskil to perform all of Beethoven’s violin sonatas. He also performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the Beethoven centenary in 1927. There, he was conducted by Pablo Casals.
Ysaÿe had his right foot amputated in 1929, due to the progression of his diabetes. He gave his final concert at the end of 1930, about seven months before his death. During the final months of his life, Ysaÿe composed his only opera, Pier li Houyeû with a Belgian theme and entirely in the Walloon lanuage, which was premiered at Théâtre Royal in Liège just weeks before his death. Ysaÿe died in May of 1931 in Brussels.
Ysaÿe was very influential as a violinist, and was able to influence three generations of violinists with his playing. He departed from the older style of Joachim, Wieniawski, Sarasate and Auer and opted instead for a style that featured creative freedom, a powerful sound, and plentiful technique. He influenced the players of his own generation, such as César Thomson, Hubay and Remy, in addition to younger players such as Enescu, Flesch, Huberman, Kreisler, Szigeti and Thibaud. Ysaÿe’s popularity among his colleagues was evident in a 1912 concert in Berlin, where he premiered Elgar’s Violin Concerto; many of the greatest violinists of the day were in attendance, and were awed by his beauty of sound, flawless technique, inspiring interpretation, and diversity of vibrato.
Ysaÿe began to compose in his adolescence, though his early concertos and works for the salon are of little importance. He followed in the steps of great violinist/composers C.-A. de Bériot, Hubert Léonard and Henry Vieuxtemps. His works are very improvisatory and passionate, traits he acquired from Saint-Saëns, Fauré and the Franck school of composers. Hints of expressionism can be heard in hisExil op. 25 (1917) for string orchestra. Ysaÿe’s Poème élégiaque op. 12 (1893) was the inspiration for Chausson’s Poème. For what his scores lack in subtlety, they make up for in harmonic originality. One of his most famous pieces is theCaprice d'après l'Étude en forme de valse de Saint-Saënsop. 52, no. 6 (c1900). He also composed six sonatas for violin solo op. 27 (1923) and the Sonata for Solo Cello op. 28 (1924).
Ysaÿe was very modest about his own compositions and they were not often performed. His legacy lies in his influential style of playing.
The style of his playing can be described as a fusion of French and Belgian styles. This new synthesis was important in the development of the modern style of violin playing. Ysaÿe believed above all that virtuosity should be used to re-create music and not just to create an exhibition of technique. This is a view he shared with Ferrucio Busoni, though he did admire the outstanding virtuosity of both Paganini and Vieuxtemps.
Ysaÿe’s style of playing was very influential, but his preferences for repertoire were not. He always chose a very sophisticated and high quality programme, but many violinists chose still to include lighter, less sophisticated works in their programmes.
Ysaÿe’s recordings are of a very high calibre despite the fact that they were mostly recorded in 1912, after his health had already began deteriorating. In addition to his talent as a musician, Ysaÿe was well-liked and respected by other musicians.