jan 23

Some thoughts on Ysaÿe fingerings

The fingerings Eugène Ysaÿe put into his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Opus 27 are mostly good. They usually offer the shortcuts needed to make movement efficient and the pitch reliable. And like all fingerings offered up by player-composers, they give clues about what was vogue in their day, and divulge how these virtuosi approached their instruments.

I was reared on the notion that the little 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 (yes, five!) Eugène Ysaÿe applied to his manuscripts were mana sent from the heavens and should be followed at all costs. But the more time I have with Opus 27, the more I feel that some fingerings are not as thoughtful as they could have been. Consequently, I believe we need to scrutinize the fingerings more-so than his other markings and musical directions.

One can put the given fingerings into three categories:

  • effectual
  • unhelpful
  • thoughtful & brilliant

The fingerings given for effect

Some of the given fingerings can be strange at a glance: but be careful not to toss these out! In my experience, the stranger they seem at first, the more certain their legitimacy. For example, the second phrase of the 3rd sonata has us starting in ‘third’ position with our first finger. Then it is marked that the next lower half-step is to be taken with the second finger in ‘first’ position. So our fingers are ascending, while the pitch is descending in a passage that is slow and exposed. This creates a strange ‘gulp’ effect, but I believe this old-timey nuance is absolutely intentional. Such “fingerings-for-effect” are everywhere in Opus 27 and trumpets the adage that fingerings are at the service of the music no matter what; even if it makes for some clumsy mechanics. So, think twice when something looks like a misprint. It’s likely not.

The fingerings that don’t work

There is a share of the fingerings I consider to be hastily given, and not helpful considering the alternatives. These are not misprints, they work, but can be dangerously unreliable. How could the “Master of the Fiddle” be wrong, you ask? Well, not wrong, but consider the following: When Ysaÿe wrote Opus 27, he was 65 years of age and it had been decades since he was in his prime as player. Furthermore, in July 1923, when Opus 27 was penned, he had been battling severe arthritis (eventually leading to the amputation of his leg). These were not his ‘finest’ days as player and probably were not even ‘good’ days. So instead of forcing these few awkward fingerings into my muscle-memory-banks, I keep the above in mind and make some amendments here and there: but I do so with a clear conscience. To be good interpretive artists, we salute the composers best when we consider all the forensic evidence and take actions that make sense.

All the others

The lion’s share of Ysaÿe’s given fingerings are great, and are food for thought on the man, his time and his musicality. Exceedingly interesting is the neglect for ‘extensions.’ Extensions are utilized only as last-resorts, really, and this is shocking when juxtaposed to how Niccolò Paganini is thought to have approached the fiddle. For me, this validates that Ysaÿe thought life was better when we were playing in positions. It’s a reminder for how quick fads and fashions come and go for us fiddlers.

In summary, I think a modicum of objectivity has to be taken with Ysaÿe’s given fingerings. Some are given for texture, others offer perfect solutions to the problem at hand (pun intended), yet others aren’t engineered as well as they may have been had Ysaÿe been in his prime as a player. In order to bring these works to the highest level of art, us players should be wise to discount the fingerings that aren’t reliable.