Artist, classicist, virtuoso
Over the years, I’ve come to group Ysaÿe’s six solo violin sonatas, Opus 27, into three camps: No. 1 & 4 into the Classical Set; No. 2 & 5 into the Artist Set; No. 3 & 6 into the Virtuoso Set.
When one learns about Ysaÿe’s struggle with imposter syndrome when he sat down to write the six sonatas that were modeled after J.S. Bach’s similar contribution to the form, one gets a sense that Ysaÿe tapped into what he knew best in order to get the work done. So while Ysaÿe may have initially started to craft his version of six solo sonatas with the goal to mimic form and structure of that of J.S. Bach’s, thankfully, he wasn’t too dogmatic about seeing that through all the way.
In the freest of the three sets, the Virtuoso Set, we lose the many-movement structure which is present in the other four. In the third sonata, we have a ‘Ballade,’ and in the case of the final sonata, sonata number six, we have a single-movement barn-burner showcasing Paganini-like bravado all grounded on Spanish dance rhythms. Both are a far cry from J.S. Bach, to be sure. The Virtuoso Set is a palette cleanser for the relatively powerful Bachian Classical Set.
The fireworks aren’t reserved exclusively for the Virtuoso Set, though. All the sonatas pose their technical challenges. Take, for instance, the noodling chromatic sixths in the final page of the first sonata; incredibly difficult, reminiscent to a Chopin étude for keyboard. But the Virtuoso Set certainly pulls no punches! The sheer number of daring & crowd-pleasing musical stunts are considerable.
The Classical Set contains the most interesting two sonatas. Yes, the inherit virtuosity and typical impressionistic qualities are still present, but the deliberate nod to J.S. Bach is quite profound here. And one mustn’t forget: Ysaÿe’s inspiration to compose the solo sonatas came from his regard for J.S. Bach’s own. And the tribute is quite deliberate even: in the Classical Set, Ysaÿe writes dances — like a Sarabande in the fourth sonata — and opens the first sonata with a Grave & Fugue, an exact marking J.S. Bach scribed on the first two movements of his ‘a’ minor sonata.
But form is just that, a form. It’s not where his Bachian ideas stopped. Most remarkably, there’s a certain trepidation that arises when one plays the first sonata, not unlike what happens when one presents solo Bach. For some reason, more seems to be at stake, both technically, and artistically with the Classical Set. Whereas, if you take a certain liberty with a passage in the final Ysaÿe sonata, there seems to be no real penalty for doing so. Perhaps that is why the first sonata is sometimes referred to as the ‘hardest,’ even though there are hardly as many crevasses one can step into compared to the more brilliant & virtuosic sonatas.
Of course, the sonatas in the Artistic Set aren’t just filler! Sonatas two & five probably constitute the essence of Ysaÿe more than any other, in fact. Circulating the practice rooms of music conservatories, there’s lore of Ysaÿe, an inebriated Ysaÿe, who once performed a virtuoso piece with little success at a parlor. It didn’t go over well at all. Soon after, to make things right, Ysaÿe is said to have followed up with Chausson’s Poème, which moved everyone to tears. Ysaÿe was first a poet — an artist — and his duty to this side of music is evident in the Artistic Set, sonatas two and five.
The fifth sonata opens with a pastoral scene. Translated to the English, he titles it ‘Daybreak.’ As the sun warms the prairie, life begins to bubble all around. The imagery is irrefutable. It’s interesting to note the contrast between what could be considered a landscape canvas in the fifth, to that of the second sonata, which could be likened to modern art, really. In the opening of the second, Ysaÿe starts off with a direct musical quote from J.S. Bach’s third solo violin partita. It only just gets started, only to be suddenly halted, whereby Ysaÿe throws a dark splattering of musical paint on the canvas. It takes the listener aback and certainly would have sounded like ‘noise’ back in its day. This opening plants the musical kernel for the remainder of the second sonata: what follows is a ‘mashup’ of old & new; mixing J.S. Bach, ‘Dies irae,’ all wrapping it in a cyclical form (something César Franck would have championed.)
Incredibly, the sonatas within the Artistic Set couldn’t be more contrasting: the fifth with its qualities of landscape canvases and folk scenes; the second, paying homage to vogue Franco-Belgium painters with all its symbolism and modernism. But what these two sonatas have in common is their dedication to color & imagery, and not so much to form, such as the middle movement of the fourth sonata, where form is quite divisive.
In the middle movement of the fourth — for those not sure what to listen for — Ysaÿe plays around with a single repeating motif — ‘Sol Fi Mi La’ ad infinitum. This is an example of form taken to the extreme, but the end result is delightful.
It would be interesting to perform the Ysaÿe sonatas in an order that takes the above into consideration. Although playing Opus 27 in order does a fine job in interleaving the contrasting Sets into each other, no doubt. The beautiful tapestry of the six sonatas is certainly something to marvel at, no matter what order they are presented. The final product is part poetry, part meditation on the great J.S. Bach, part painting through sound, all the while showcasing the thrills of the violin’s technical possibilities. The sonatas will never stop inspiring us players. And I for one will never tire of their beauty.