Memories of Bach in a modern, dissonant setting

Ysaÿe was influenced by Bach and Debussy. © Charles Thibo
Ysaÿe was influenced by Bach and Debussy. © Charles Thibo

Avant-garde. Ahead of his time. Anticipating Ligeti’s sound shapes and clouds. His compositions are extra-ordinary just like his name and his origin. Eugène Ysaÿe. Belgium. Born in 1858, he became one of the best known violinists of his time. And he composed six violin sonatas that keep intriguing me. Food for the soul? May be. Food for thought? Certainly.

Friendship with Debussy

He was first taught by his father, an amateur musician, later by another Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps. In 1874, he graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Liège and soon he was offered a tenure as violin professor at the Conservatory of Brussels succeeding Jeno Hubay, a violinist and composer to whom we shall return. Hubay himself was the successor of Vieuxtemps in Brussels.

Ysaÿe toured with Arthur Rubinstein as a violinist and worked as a conductor in Europe and the USA. Though Ysaÿe was a personal friend of the French composer Claude Debussy, whom we have met in one of my earlier posts, and performed many of Debussy’s works, he made himself a name as an interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. His technique commanded the respect of conductors and colleagues alike. He characterized his style once with the words: “Nothing which wouldn’t have for goal emotion, poetry, heart.”

Sonatas dedicated to fellow violinists

Ysaÿe wrote the Sonatas for Solo Violin Op. 27 in 1924 towards the end of his career. They are all set in different keys: G minor, A minor, D minor, E minor, G major and E major. Each is dedicated to one of Ysaÿe’s contemporaries: Joseph Szigeti (No. 1), Jacques Thibaud (No. 2), George Enescu (No. 3), Fritz Kreisler (No. 4), Mathieu Crickboom (No. 5), and Manuel Quiroga (No. 6). Ysaÿe got the idea of writing this set after a particularly brilliant interpretation of Bach’s Violin Sonata in G minor (BWV 1001) by Szigeti.

The one I like best is No. 2 and that is hardly surprising. The composer quotes Bach’s Partita No. 3, but he uses composing techniques reflecting the new world of classical music sketched by Arnold Schönberg:  dissonance, whole-tone scales, quarter-tones. Thibaud was a good friend of Ysaÿe. Thibaud lived at his house, and Ysaÿe once lent him his precious Stradivari and Guarneri violins for a concert. Both violinists shared a passion for Bach.

Baroque and impressionist themes

Sonata No. 4 also reflects this passion as the first two movements have titles recalling Baroque dances. The first movement of No. 5 reflects more the composing style of Ysaÿe’s friend Claude Debussy: “L’aurore” is an impressionist rendering of the break of dawn. The second movement “Danse Rustique” reminds me of the Russian folk themes that Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky have abundantly used.

1924: World War I had devastated the European continent.  Rebuilding the economies and the political systems had barely begun. The Roaring Twenties were reserved for the upper class while the working class struggled. Rupture, disorder, the memories of a horrible war, the longing for security, the fear that harmony will never be found again – those were the subjects of painters, poets and composers. I can find all that in Ysaÿe’s sonatas. They reflect the time when they were written. To some degree they forecast today’s world.

The recording I recommend is the one by Alina Ibragimova, published in 2015 by the label Hyperion. A stunning Russian violinists, by the way.

© Charles Thibo

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