This is a special occasion. The violin, which is used to hearing from other instruments below the middle-register G that is its fixed lower boundary, is by itself. The violinist, normally a partner or a star in collectivities, is alone. But wait. To see this as unusual is to look at the case from our viewpoint, as listeners. For the violinist, solitariness is the common condition. The violinist spends a lot of time alone, practicing. The violinist, as a virtuoso, must also be a recluse. Perhaps it follows that music for violin alone is most likely to come from composers sharing that experience—fellow violinists—who will put into their music memories of the practice room. This will be music rooted in exercises: flickering arpeggios and scale fragments, quick changes of bowing, testings of different colours, challenges to phrasing and agility. It will be music where virtuosity is spurred not so much by an audience as by the instrument—its technical possibilities, its history, its whole culture—and by the violinist’s mechanisms of self-proving.
At this point, in his mid-sixties, he can survey a passionate affair with the violin that started when he was four. His father, a violinist and theatre conductor in Liège, had been his first teacher. Later he had studied with Wieniawski in Brussels and Vieuxtemps in Paris. By his mid-twenties he was acknowledged the outstanding virtuoso of his generation, with an unusual (for a virtuoso at that time) insistence on music of substance. His programmes were built from sonatas; he founded a quartet (1886), and made his sensational U.S. debut (1893) in the Beethoven concerto. Composers loved him. Works had come from his fellow Belgian Franck (the sonata as a wedding present), from Chausson (the Poème, the Concert), from Debussy (a quartet). He himself had written eight concertos, besides much else for his instrument. More present as he writes than all these personal memories, though, are those guiding and goading spirits, Bach and Paganini. So too for the violinist who retraces these supremely arduous, various and abundant journeys.
The first piece is a shadow sonata after Bach’s first, in the same key of G minor (but turning to the relative major, B flat, for the tearoom-tinted third movement) and with something like the same slow-fast-slow-fast plan, where a fugato is in second place (only Ysaÿe’s is steadier in speed). Startling at this time of back-to-Bach neoclassicism—the time of Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and winds and Schoenberg’s Piano Suite—is the lack of contention and anxiety. Bach is not being rediscovered. Bach was always here. For the modern player this presence of Bach adds to all the work’s other difficulties a virtuosity in time travel, since generally now Bach is considered to be decisively elsewhere, retrievable only by means of historically sanctioned approaches. How could Ysaÿe reach him without a Baroque bow? And how is the musician now to reach both him and Ysaÿe, understand Ysaÿe’s adoption of Bachian ornaments? What style of performance could be suitable for both the 1920s and the 1720s?
In the second sonata (originally fourth: the composer swapped these two pieces around before publishing the set) Bach is not shadowed but emphatically present. Ysaÿe’s ‘Obsession’ is with music that is itself obsessive, the prelude from Bach’s E major partita, phrases from which are answered, diverted, echoed and developed in an A minor context. But the music is obsessed also with the Dies irae melody, which appears in all four movements. ‘Malinconia’, the E minor (or Phrygian) slow movement played with a mute, slips easily at the end from a gentle folksong atmosphere into the chant theme. The ‘Danse des Ombres’ (Dance of the Shades), in G, converts the plainsong first into a pizzicato sarabande and then, in six variations, into further avatars—another folksong, a musette, a two-part invention in the minor, and so on—before ending with the sarabande again, now bowed. Finally, ‘Les Furies’ restores the force and temper of the first movement, and eventually the A minor tonality. In another composer the extremes of rage in this sonata might seem directed at the great predecessor who is being quoted—or at his absence. Ysaÿe, however, is with Bach. The quotations are gradually integrated, and meaningful here in the way they were in the Bach partita. Bach, folk music, gypsy fiddling—all are near at hand. The violinist is alone, certainly, but at the same time everywhere in the world of the violin.
With the fourth sonata Ysaÿe returns closer to the Bach model—explicitly to the model of the partitas. As in both the B minor partita and the D minor, the opening movement is an allemande–at least ostensibly, for this one switches from the quadruple time characteristic of the Bachian allemande to triple after its introduction. Jumping over the customary courante, Ysaÿe arrives at another slow dance, the sarabande, for his second movement, authentically couched in triple time and sporting a concealed ostinato: a descending scale fragment A-G-F-E recurring every bar. The finale, a perpetuum mobile, brings back the allemande for its middle section, being otherwise somewhat gigue-like. Recalling that this sonata was originally the second, one wonders if the composer’s initial plan was for an alternation between sonatas and partitas, as in the Bach collection. All three movements are in E minor, the finale moving into the major as it catches sight of its end.
Ysaÿe, perhaps imagining performances of the sonatas as a programme, made sure the last would be a fit finale. At one point entitled ‘Fantaisie’, it might be described as a cadenza with habanera, in E major, the Hispanic tone suiting the dedicatee, Manuel Quiroga, the greatest Spanish violinist of his time. Each of the other sonatas is similarly dedicated to a younger colleague, whose personality and repertory are reflected in the music: the first to Joseph Szigeti, whose performances of the Bach solo pieces are said to have moved Ysaÿe to begin this set, and the middle four in order to Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler and Mathieu Crickboom (the composer’s compatriot, pupil and quartet partner).
What is certain, however, is that at that moment, you hated your body and wanted to put an end to your life. Why didn’t you? Was it because you couldn’t resolve the paradox of wanting to kill yourself not in order to die, but rather to find a better way to live? Did your fantasy of death as a return to the womb, enabling you to be born again in a new skin, evaporate in the light of reason? Or did salvation come, when all is said and done, through your violin? Indeed, as your teacher reported, from Paganini’s Caprices you extracted the music their role as virtuoso exercises had hidden: You brought out more musicality than she had heard in many a year. And then you immersed yourself in another masterwork for the unaccompanied instrument: Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. Alone in your room in Neuchâtel, savage in your solitude, you entered a forest of notes where nothing but the possibilities of the instrument itself, informed by the ghosts of its culture, spurred the virtuosity of the music. Confronting the composer, encountering yourself, from your fierce isolation you drew dark meditations, daring and disturbing. And thus into being you brought the music’s power and beauty, and thus you expressed your passion and soothed your soul.
Making love in such a state was magical: Supple, responsive, never making a wrong move, you, Inès found, were an inspired lover.