EUGENE YSAYE was an extraordinarily influential violinist. He was not only the most famous virtuoso of his day (which ran roughly from the mid 1890’s until the First World War), but also a conductor, composer, and indefatigable champion of new French music. He premiered Franck’s Violin Sonata, Debussy’s String Quartet, and Chausson’s Poème, among many other works, and he was known not only for his virtuosity, but also for his interpretive insight, musical dedication, and thoughtful programming.
The impulse of Ysaye’s Six Sonatas for solo violin is above all violinistic. Following the tradition of his teachers Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps, Ysaye wrote works to show the violin’s possibilities with maximum effect. Each of the sonatas is dedicated to a different violinist, indicating both a dedication to the guild-like subculture of the instrument, and an affection for his fellows in it.
These solo sonatas, however, have more musically curious roots than most virtuoso pieces. There is a combination of harmonic interest, compositional experiment, and musical friendship in Ysaye’s six-work homage to Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas which is more than just charming. The Second Violin Sonata, subtitled ‘Obsession’ and dedicated to Jacques Thibaud, is an idiosyncratic mix of the medieval ‘Dies Irae’ cantus with an assortment of ideas taken directly from Bach’s works. The ‘Dies Irae’ tune alone carries a long history. With its apocalyptic text and gloomy melodic outline, it had spent the 19th century parading in Gothic costume through a fair number of the world’s most frightening pieces. (It might have seemed a little bit ironic by 1924. Olivier Messiaen, below, gives a rather more searching meditation on the apocalypse). Each movement uses the cantus as the basis for a brief riff on elements of the Bach solo sonatas: in the first movement, a whole-tone shift in the fourth note of Bach’s E major Partita for solo violin seems to cause a day of (possibly obsessive) practicing to turn into a ‘day of wrath’; in the second, it serves as the lilting tune of a Sarabande; in the third, it is used for a mini-quasi-Ciaccona (in sets of two, just like the real thing in the D minor Partita); and the fourth movement seems to take off from the opening chords of the G minor sonata and the barriolage bowing in its fugue.
Ysaye’s wide-ranging career, musical knowledge, and pedagogical influence give the piece a psychology and self-awareness which defy a one-dimensional reading. His Second Sonata speaks of the relationship between violinists and virtuosity; of the relationship between performance and the canon; and, last but not least, of the simple musical values that make virtuosity and the powerful illusion of instrumental presence uniquely engaging and entertaining in the finest sense.