In May 2004, I completed my doctoral thesis on Eugene Ysaÿe's Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, Op. 27.
Three years earlier, as I was just beginning my degree, I was struggling with picking a topic. During a lesson on Sonata No. 4 with my teacher and mentor Vartan Manoogian, he was relating some anecdotes about Ysaÿe and his sonatas. I was so taken by them (and always had been) that I realized my topic was right before my eyes.
I have spent countless hours researching and practicing these works and I can honestly say that my love and passion for them have only increased. Below is the introduction of my doctoral thesis. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
My interest in the violin solo sonata has branched out into more research dealing with the genre as a whole. I will be posting more information about this in the future. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or information you would like to share on Ysaÿe.
Eugene Ysaÿe and the Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, Op. 27.
Introduction to the Doctoral Thesis of
Eugene Ysaÿe is considered one of the greatest violinists to have emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. He had great success and earned much respect as a performer, pedagogue, conductor, and composer. Born in Liège, he was immersed in a rich Belgian musical tradition, beginning with his father and continuing through his studies with such noted masters as Henri Vieuxtemps, Rodolphe Massard, and Henryk Wieniawski. Later on in his career he was considered by many to be an integral part of the Franco-Belgian violin school. He was a wildly successful performer with tours in Europe and the United States. As a duo partner with pianist Raoul Pugno, he was one of the first to present progressive concert programs that incorporated both contemporary works and sonatas for violin and piano.
Throughout his career Ysaÿe was known for his appreciation of contemporary music and became one of the first performers and conductors to present new music in concerts. He created the Concerts Ysaÿe in Belgium which served as a forum to promote new music and showcase many of the world’s top artists. As a composer he revolutionized violin playing style by creating important innovations that would enable a performer to play the harmonic language of contemporary composers of his day. He embraced modern trends while still maintaining many conventions of his predecessors.
Before Ysaÿe, Nicolò Paganini was perhaps the most important reformer of violin technique. In many of his compositions, including the Twenty-Four Caprices, Paganini required techniques in his own music (such as fingered octaves, tenths, double harmonics, and innovations for the bow like ricochet and flying staccato) that many considered to be impossible on the violin. By combining his own and Paganini’s innovations, Ysaÿe became perhaps one of the most significant and influential innovators of contemporary violin technique. This is most evident in his Six Sonates pour Violon Seul, Op. 27. These sonatas, composed in 1923, exemplified the culmination of Ysaÿe’s technical and compositional innovations.
They represented a technical advancement embracing modern conventions including quartertones, whole-tone double stops, and extensive arpeggios, as well as an individualized approach to the bow. Written at the age of sixty-five, the sonatas display his deep love for the violin and suggest his desire to leave a legacy for future generations.
One important characteristic was Ysaÿe’s dedication of each sonata to one of six noted violinists of the time: Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom, and Manuel Quiroga. Each of these violinists had a particular relationship with Ysaÿe, and he paid tribute to his colleagues and friends in the form of a dedication. Ysaÿe heard Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti perform the G Minor Solo Sonata of Bach and was so overwhelmed that he was immediately inspired to write the six sonatas. Frenchman Thibaud had long been an admirer of Ysaÿe and studied with him for a short period of time. As a result they became lifelong friends. Rumanian George Enescu was one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century whom Ysaÿe respected tremendously. Fritz Kreisler, an Austrian violinist, was perhaps the closest personal friend of the six to Ysaÿe. Belgian Mathieu Crickboom was one of Ysaÿe’s favorite students and the second violinist in the Ysaÿe Quartet. Together they premiered Debussy’s String Quartet. Spanish violinist Manuel Quiroga performed several times at the Concerts Ysaÿe, and Ysaÿe was very taken with his style of playing.
There are several other influences apparent in the sonatas. First was Ysaÿe’s obsession with Bach which influenced Ysaÿe’s use of genre, movement form, melodic and harmonic material, and his keyboard style of writing. Second was Ysaÿe’s relationship to Debussy and the influence of both Debussy’s String Quartet and Sirènes from the Three Nocturnes evident in the Fifth Sonata.
Third, the virtuosity of previous performer/composers, such as Paganini and Sarasate, which paved the way for the technically virtuosic passages prevalent throughout the sonatas. Finally, the effects of old age and bad health, which prompted Ysaÿe to compose a legacy for generations to come. For the performer, there is a satisfaction attained when one truly learns the sonatas. The demands are such that not only will the performer grow as a violinist, but more important the performer will grow as a musician. Ysaÿe is one of the great violinists and pedagogues of our time and his Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin, Op. 27 are a wonderful treasure that every violinist should know.