The incomparable violinist/composer Eugène Ysaÿe was born in Liege, Belgium on 16 July, 1858. He received his first lessons from his father at the age of five; and then he studied for a short time with Desire Heynberg and Rodolphe Massart, typical musical "Gradgrinds" of the day. At age seven Ysaÿe made his first public appearance, which was not as successful as his father had hoped. Ysaÿe was certainly no child prodigy, a fact which, in my opinion, proved to be of advantage later. At one point he was thrown out of the Liege Conservatoire due to basically poor performance. But there was no need to fret.
In 1873 he began his studies with the great Henryk Wieniawski: a total of twelve priceless lessons. Ysaÿe admired Wieniawski deeply, and it is safe to say that these lessons proved to be a turning point in the aspiring virtuoso's career. For, shortly thereafter, Ysaÿe was taken under the able wing of the fellow who wrote one of my favorite works for violin – Henri Vieuxtemps. This noble soul obtained for Ysaÿe a government subsidy which allowed him to continue his studies with the master himself.
In 1879, with his career still in the budding stage, Ysaÿe went to Cologne to play a few concerts; and there he was introduced to Joseph Joachim (one of the few people I would like to resurrect for a conversation over Sunday brunch). In that venerable city Ysaÿe performed Beethoven's C minor sonata with Clara Schumann at the piano. What a performance that must have been! One can only conjecture wistfully as to the manner in which Clara was treated by the Casanova Ysaÿe.
Soon his star was on the rise. In 1880 he became Concert Master of Bilse's Orchestra in Berlin. Hey! It was a start. He held that post until '81, when he left to tour Norway. In '83 he played the Paris Conservatoire, and met and befriended César Franck, who wrote his famous violin sonata for him, and Ernest Chausson, who dedicated his Poeme to him, among other musical celebrities of the time. By 1896 he was a professor at the Brussels Conservatoire, where he remained for eleven years.
Ysaÿe's career as a successful soloist was not easily attained. Only at the age of 32, after bringing down the roof night after night in Vienna, did he receive anything like international recognition. His success, in my opinion, was due as much to his inimitable and innovative style as it was to his winning personality. Although his wild lifestyle at times adversely affected his playing, he never left his audience disappointed. For example, on one night when he was scheduled to perform, he put away a little too much of his favorite Bordeaux wine (the concert, incidentally, was in Bordeaux), and took the concert platform in a condition that was less than capable. The audience began to jeer. But, during the second half of the concert, with tears streaming down his face, Ysaÿe gave a most moving performance of Chausson's Poeme, and in turn reduced the audience to tears.
In 1894 he founded the Ysaÿe Concerts in Brussels, which he conducted, and the Ysaÿe String Quartet with Mathieu Crickboom, to whom he would later dedicate the fifth of his six sonatas for solo violin. He also made his successful American debut in this year.
Ysaÿe lived most of his life in his beloved Belgium. In 1896 he married Louise Bourdeau de Coutrai, with whom he had three sons. She died in 1924, the same year he composed the six violin sonatas. He let no grass grow under his feet, however, for he married Jeanette Dincin, a lass of 36, whom, I suppose, made the 70 year old Ysaÿe feel young again.
In physical appearance, Ysaÿe was quite imposing. He stood nearly six feet tall, and, due to his incurable love of food and drink, was rather corpulent. The musical genius passed away on 12 May, 1931, shortly before his 73rd birthday.
Recordings devoted solely to the music of Ysaÿe are not many, and are often hard to find. The best performances of his works are scattered on discs of works by various composers, performed by our noted modern violinists. I can recommend, as a good introduction to the talent of the man as performer and composer, the discs below. ~ Edward Moore