A photograph of Eugène Ysaÿe.
Eugène Ysaÿe (French pronunciation: [øʒɛn iza.i]; July 16, 1858 – May 12, 1931) was a Belgian violinist, composer and conductor born in Liège. He was regarded as "The King of the Violin", or, as Nathan Milstein put it, the "tzar". His brother was pianist and composer Théo Ysaÿe (1865–1918).
Legend of the Ysaÿe violin
Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe came from a background of peasants, though a large part of his family played instruments. As violinist Arnold Steinhardt describes, a legend was passed down through the Ysaÿe family about the first violin brought to the lineage:
It was told of a boy whom some woodcutters found in the forest and brought to the village. The boy grew up to be a blacksmith. Once, at a village festival, he astonished everyone by playing the viol beautifully. From then on the villagers took pleasure in dancing and singing to the strains of his viol. One day an illustrious stranger stopped in front of the smithy to have his horse shod. The count's servant saw the viol inside and told the young smith that he had heard a new Italian instrument played by some minstrels at the count's court. That instrument, called the violin, was much better than the viol – its tone was like the human voice and could express every feeling and passion. From that moment the young man no longer took pleasure in his viol. Day and night he was thinking of that wonderful new instrument that could express joy and sorrow and whose tones went straight to the human heart. Then he had a dream: he saw before him a young woman of indescribable beauty, not unlike his own love, Bienthline. She came to him and kissed his brow. The young man awoke and looked at the wall his broken and neglected viol used to hang on and could barely believe his eyes: there, instead of the viol, was a new instrument of beautiful proportions. He put it against his shoulder and drew the bow over the strings, producing sounds that were truly divine. The violin sang in a heartwarming tone: it rejoiced and wept for happiness – and so did the musician. Thus, goes the legend, came the first violin to the Ardennes and to the Ysaÿe family.
Born in Liège, Belgium, Ysaÿe began violin lessons at age five with his father. He would later recognize his father's teaching as the foundation of everything he knew on his instrument, even though he went on to study with more reputable masters. At seven he entered the Conservatoire at Liège studying with Joseph Massart, though soon afterwards he was asked to leave the conservatory because of lack of progress. This was because, in order to support his family, young Eugène had to play full time in two local orchestras, one conducted by his father. Eugene went on playing in these ensembles, though he studied by himself and learned the repertoire of the violin. By the time he was twelve, he was playing so well that one day he was practicing in a cellar when the legendary Henri Vieuxtemps, passing in the street, was so impressed with the sound of his violin that he took an interest in the boy. He arranged for Ysaÿe to be re-admitted to the conservatory studying with Vieuxtemps's assistant, the noted Henryk Wieniawski. Ysaÿe would later also study with Vieuxtemps, and both "master and disciple", as Ysaÿe would call the roles of teacher and pupil, were very fond of each other. In his last years, Vieuxtemps asked Ysaÿe to come to the countryside just to play for him.
Studying with these teachers meant that he was part of the so-called Franco-Belgian school of violin playing, which dates back to the development of the modern violin bow by François Tourte. Qualities of this "École" included elegance, a full tone with a sense of drawing a "long" bow with no jerks, precise left hand techniques, and bowing using the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm quiet (as opposed to Joseph Joachim's German school of wrist bowing and Leopold Auer's Russian concept of using the whole arm.)
After his graduation from the Royal Conservatory of Liège, Ysaÿe was the principal violin of the Benjamin Bilse beer-hall orchestra, which later developed into the Berlin Philharmonic. Many musicians of note and influence came regularly to hear this orchestra and Ysaÿe in particular, among whom figured Joseph Joachim, Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann, and Anton Rubinstein, who asked that Ysaÿe be released from his contract to accompany him on tour.
When Ysaÿe was twenty-seven years old, he was recommended as a soloist for one of the Concerts Colonne in Paris, which was the start of his great success as a concert artist. The next year, Ysaÿe received a professorship at the Brussels Conservatoire in his native Belgium. This began his career as a teacher, which was to remain one of his main occupations after leaving the Conservatoire in 1898 and into his last years. Among his more respected pupils are Josef Gingold, former concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and Professor at Indiana University, the viola virtuoso William Primrose, the violin virtuoso Nathan Milstein (who primarily studied with Pyotr Stolyarsky), Louis Persinger, Alberto Bachmann, Mathieu Crickboom, Jonny Heykens, Charles Houdret, Jascha Brodsky, and Aldo Ferraresi.
During his tenure as professor at the Conservatoire, Ysaÿe continued to tour an ever-broadening section of the world, including all of Europe, Russia, and the United States. Despite health concerns, particularly regarding the condition of his hands, Ysaÿe was at his best when performing, and many prominent composers dedicated major works to him, including Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck, and Ernest Chausson.
In 1886 he established the Ysaÿe Quartet, which premiered Debussy's String Quartet.
Teaching and composing
As his physical ailments grew more prohibitive, Ysaÿe turned more to teaching, conducting and an early love, composition. Among his most famous works are the six Sonatas for Solo Violin op. 27, the unaccompanied Sonata for Cello, op. 28, one Sonata for Two Violins, eight Poèmes for various instruments (one or two violins, violin and cello, string quartet) and orchestra (Poème élégiaque, Poème de l'Extase, Chant d'hiver, Poème nocturne, among others), pieces for string orchestra without basses (including Poème de l'Exil), two string trios, a quintet, and an opera, Peter the Miner, written near the end of his life in the Walloon dialect.
Ysaÿe had been offered the post of music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1898, but declined it due to his busy solo performance schedule. In 1918, he accepted the music director's position with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1922 and with which he made several recordings.
Finally, in 1931, suffering from the extreme ravages of diabetes that had necessitated the amputation of his left foot, Eugène Ysaÿe died in his house in Brussels and was interred in the Ixelles Cemetery in Brussels.
As a performer, Ysaÿe was compelling and highly original. Pablo Casals claimed never to have heard a violinist play in tune before Ysaÿe, and Carl Flesch called him "the most outstanding and individual violinist I have ever heard in my life."
Ysaÿe was the possessor of a large and flexible tone, influenced by a considerable variety of vibrato — from no vibrato at all to very intense. He said, "Don't always vibrate, but always be vibrating". His modus operandi was, in his own words: "Nothing which wouldn't have for goal emotion, poesy, heart."
Possibly the most distinctive feature of Ysaÿe's interpretations was his masterful rubato. Ysaÿe's rubato is something apart; "Whenever he stole time from one note, he faithfully paid it back within four bars", said the conductor Sir Henry Wood, allowing his accompanist to maintain strict tempo under his free cantilena. This kind of rubato fits the description of Frédéric Chopin's rubato.
Although Ysaÿe was a great interpreter of late Romantics and early modern composers — Max Bruch, Camille Saint-Saëns, and César Franck, who said he was their greatest interpreter — he was admired for his Bach and Beethoven interpretations. His technique was brilliant and finely honed, and in this respect he is the first modern violinist, whose technique was without the shortcomings of some earlier artists.
An international violin competition in Brussels was created in his memory: in 1951, this became the violin section of the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition.
Ysaÿe was married twice: first to Louise Ysaÿe, and after her death in 1924 he married a pupil of his, Jeanette Dincin, 44 years his junior. She was a violinist who in her teens had studied with prominent teachers such as Franz Kneisel, Leopold Auer, and Otakar Ševčík. Ysaÿe met her in 1922 while conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra. She cared for him in his ailing years. Eugene's only request of her after he died was that she carry on her performances under his name.
Eugène Ysaÿe was also close friends with Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, whom he taught violin despite her lack of talent. His widow took over the royal teaching herself after his death, and the queen began the competition in his honor.
List of works
Violin and piano
- Rêve d'enfant, Op. 14
- 2 Celebres Arias
- 2 Mazurkas de Salon
- Caprice After the Study in the Form of a Waltz (Composed by Camille Saint-Saëns, arranged by Ysaÿe.)
- Sonata for two violins in A minor
For violin and orchestra
- Poème élégiaque, Op. 12
- Au rouet, Op. 13
- Chant d'hiver, Op. 15
- Extase, Op. 21
- Amitié, Op. 26 Poem for 2 Violins and Orchestra
- Eight concertos for violin and orchestra, some still unpublished.
Violin, Cello and Orchestra
- Sonata for Cello Solo, Op. 28
Cello and Orchestra
- Méditation, op. 16
- Sérénade, op. 22
Violin, Viola and Cello
- "Le Chimay" Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello, op. posthume
"Piére li houyeû" 1931 (Original in Walloon language indeed perhaps the only performed opera in that language)
The première of Piére li houyeû (the composer's only opera) took place at the Opéra de Liège on 4 March 1931, during a long evening dedicated to the composer's works, in the presence of Queen Elisabeth (of Belgium) who had become his pupil. Ysaÿe, who was very ill with diabetes, listened to the performance in his hospital room. The Queen, having been informed of the seriousness of Ysaÿe's condition, had organised the radio broadcasting of the work and Ysaÿe was even able to address the audience thanks to a microphone placed in his room. After this unique performance, the work was performed in Brussels, on 25 April. Ysaÿe, having been taken to box on a stretcher, was finally able to follow the performance live. On 12 May, he died. The critics were appreciative but the opera did not find a place in the standard repertoire. It was performed again in Liège Opéra Royal de Wallonie on 25 November 2006. This performance has been recorded and is now published by the non-profit association "Musique en Wallonie" under the reference MEW 0884 - 0885 in a two CD set accompanied with a book containing the Walloon text and its French, Dutch and English translation, and introductory texts written in French, Dutch, German and English. The story is based on a real incident which occurred in 1877 during a miners' strike in the Liège region.  During clashes with the police, some shots were fired. The wife of a foreman rushed forward to seize a grenade which had been placed in the offices by a striker. But the grenade exploded and she was killed.
- "L’avièrge di pièr" (La vierge de pierre) - not completed, not performed
[Released on CD, Sony Classical MHK 62337, 1996]
Camille de Creus, piano accompaniment
- 'Prize Song' From Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg by Wagner, recorded 2/1/1912
- Piece Pittoresque No.10 : Scherzo-Valse by Chabrier, recorded 12/20/1912
- Abendlied, Op. 85, No. 12 by Schumann, recorded 12/24/1912
- Mazurka No. 1 In G Major, Obertass by Wienawski, recorded 12/26/1912
- Mazurka No. 2 In D Major, Dudziarz by Wienawski, recorded 12/26/1912
- Berceuse, Op.16 by Faure, recorded 12/27/1912
- Concerto For Violin And Orchestra In E Minor, Op. 64 (Lll: Allegro Molto Vivace) by Mendelssohn, recorded 12/27/1912
- Rondino, Op. 32, No. 2 by Vieuxtemps, recorded 12/30/1912
- Hungarian Dance No. 5 In F-Sharp Minor by Johannes Brahms, recorded 12/30/1912
- Caprice Viennois, Op. 2 by Kreisler, recorded 12/30/1912
- Albmblatt In C Major by Richard Wagner, recorded 12/30/1912
- Mazurka in B minor, Op. 11 No. 3, 'Lointaine Passe' by Eugene Ysaye, recorded 2/1/1913
- 'Reve D'Enfant', Op. 14 by Eugene Ysaye, recorded 2/1/1913
- Humoresque In G-Flat Major, Op.101, No. 7 by Dvořák, recorded 3/9/1914
- Ave Maria, D.839 by Schubert, recorded 1914, recorded 3/9/1914
- Marche Joyeuse by Chabrier, recorded 11/30/1919
Conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, recorded 11/28/1919
- Intermezzo From Naila (Pas Des Fleurs, Grande Valse), by Delibes
- Overture To Les Dragons De Villars, by Maillart
- 'Navarraise' From Le Cid, by Massenet
- Festival Overture, by Lassen
- Marche Joyeuse, by Chabrier
- Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov
- Orpheus in Hades, by Offenbach