Eugène Ysaÿe was one the greatest violinist in the history
of the instrument, a rare talent that but only a few has ever approached. Born
in Liège, Belgium on July 16, 1858, Ysaÿe received his first lessons on the
violin from his father, whom he would recognize later in life as the foundation
for everything he knew about his instrument. He progressed well enough on the
violin to be admitted to the Conservatoire at Liège at the age of seven, where
he studied with Désiré Heynberg. Surprisingly, however, he was later kicked out
of the school for lack of progress, which was partly due to his having to
support his family by playing full-time in two local orchestras. Nevertheless,
Ysaÿe persevered. He continued to practice and learn the repertoire of the
violin. At the age of twelve, his playing drew the attention of the famous
Henri Vieuxtemps. Impressed with the young lad's skill, Vieuxtemps took Ysaÿe
under his wing, first assigning him to study with his assistant, Henryk
Wieniawski, and later with himself.
Under Vieuxtemps tutelage, Ysaÿe became a part of the
Franco-Belgium school of violin performance, which focused on elegance and a
precise left hand technique. His own personal style, however, would find the
golden middle ground between the austerity of Joseph Joachim and the
superficial virtuosity of Pablo de Sarasate. At the age of twenty-seven, Ysaÿe
began his career as a concert artist. Though due to health reasons, his
performing career would last only a quarter of a century, he left an indelible
mark on the history of the instrument, and influenced several notable artists.
His interpretations of the works of Bach and Beethoven were highly regarded,
and he was a great supporter of the late 19th century composers.
Several composed works especially for Ysaÿe to performed, including César
Franck who wrote his beautiful Sonata in A major as a wedding present for
Ysaÿe. In 1886, he established the Ysaÿe Quartet which would later premiere
Claude Debussy's String Quartet.
As complications from diabetes gradually interfered with his
ability to perform, Ysaÿe turned more to teaching and composition. Many of his
compositions were for strings, either in a chamber or orchestral setting. Among
his most well-known works are his six sonatas for unaccompanied violin,
intentionally modeled after Bach's sonatas and each dedicated to a famous
contemporary violinist. Apart from his works for strings, Ysaÿe did compose one
opera, Piére li houyeû (Peter the Miner),
which was well-received but failed to become a part of the standard repertoire.
Diabetes continued to take its toll on Ysaÿe's health in
his later years. He died at his home in Brussels on May 12, 1931.
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