Pablo de Sarasate

1844 1908

Pablo de Sarasate

Composer • Violin


At this time, the leading violinist of the German school was Joseph Joachim, against whom Sarasate was fated to be constantly compared, both positively and negatively, for the entirety of his career. Interestingly, the two virtuosi bore each other no ill will and were admirers of each other’s playing, with each composing songs for the other. Any rivalry that existed was entirely in the minds of the critics. Nevertheless, these critics were especially harsh to Sarasate during his first visit to Germany in 1876, to the point where he almost cut the tour short to return to Paris. However, the boisterous reception he received while performing at the famous Gewandhaus in Leipzig changed his mind, and from that point on he gained a surprising following in the German-speaking countries.

When he started his career, Sarasate focused on performing the mainstays of the Romantic repertoire, including the violin concertos byBeethoven and Mendelssohn, although he eschewed the Brahms’s Violin Concerto, claiming not to like the melody. He did however branch out as he matured. Perhaps in an effort to distinguish himself from the German school, he began to play many pieces written for him by composers such as Henryk Wieniawski,Antonín Dvořák andCamille Saint-Saëns.

With his newfound financial stability, Sarasate first travelled to the cultural hub of Madrid, where he studied with violinist Manuel Rodríguez Sáez. However, his true ambition was to travel to France and study at the Paris Conservatory, which Sarasate had the opportunity to do the following year. Tragically, while en route via train, his mother suffered a heart attack and died near the border with France. Sarasate himself was diagnosed with cholera and was forced to stay in Spain until he recovered.

Upon arriving in Paris, Sarasate successfully performed for Jean-Delphin Alard, an acclaimed violinist. He would remain there for five years, during which time he won the Conservatory’s first prize in violin in 1857 as well as prizes in solfège and harmony. By the time he finished in 1859, Sarasate was a consummate musician and had prepared himself for becoming a touring virtuoso.

Over the next thirty years, Sarasate was almost constantly on the road. His travels brought him to nearly every country in Europe, South Africa, and the Far East as well as all over North and South America. Although his first performance in London met with a chilly reception, his return in 1874 was greeted much more enthusiastically. The only region in which Sarasate hadn’t performed by this time was the German-speaking countries, where audiences were dismissive of the French style of violin playing which Sarasate had come to represent. This sentiment was worsened by the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s.

Sarasate was also a prolific composer in his own right, frequently performing his own pieces in concert. Possibly for pragmatic reasons, many of his works were written for violin with piano accompaniment, although many have been arranged for orchestra. Of his catalogue including over fifty original works, the most famous by far isZigeunerweisen (1878), which is based on folk music from both the Gypsy and Spanish traditions. His fourSpanische Tänze (Spanish Dances) were published between 1878 and 1882, and these also satiated a desire for “exotic” Spanish additions to the popular repertoire in Western Europe. Nearly all the pieces he wrote were considered some of the most virtuosic works in the violin repertoire, and are thus still performed regularly to this day.

Like with his compositions, Sarasate’s violin playing is characteristically romantic, but not as extreme as his German counterparts. His tone was pure and devoid of audible friction between the bow and the string, and he preferred to disguise the extreme technical demands behind an effortless façade. A reviewer for theAmerican Record Guide stated that Sarasate’s playing contained “presented its extreme virtuosity to the listener as though it were nothing remarkable—no drama, no histrionics, but the fleetest fingers and bow arm in the history of recorded sound.”

With a career that waxed and waned before the heyday of recorded sound, Sarasate was fortunate to make nine phonograph records in 1904 at the age of 60, which together represent the only surviving examples of his masterful playing. Despite his advanced age his playing was practically undiminished, and these records, in addition to his stylized compositions, have inspired subsequent violinists up until the modern day, with both Joshua Bell and Leila Josefowicz recordingZigeunerweisen in recent decades.

Header image courtesy of public domain Other images courtesy of Burusi Wordpress, the Romantic School of Music and public domain

Pablo de Sarasate was an influential violinist and composer from the Romantic period. Many of his works are based on traditional Spanish folk music and dances and the most famous of them,Zigeunerweisen (1878), is still widely played today.

Originally named Martín Melitón Sarasate y Navascuéz, Sarasate only simplified his name later to appeal to foreign audiences. He was a native of the city of Pamplona in Spain. There is a popular story that Sarasate’s father Don Miguel, also a violinist, first handed his son his violin only to be amazed when the five-year-old immediately began playing pieces the elder Sarasate had been practicing, only better. While the veracity of this story is somewhat in doubt, this anecdote exemplifies the kind of precocious talent that allowed Pablo to give his first concert when he was only eight years old. The performance impressed the Countess Espoz y Mina so much that she donated an annual allowance of 2,000 Spanish reales for Sarasate to acquire the best education possible.