6 March 1905
To draw up a list of the top violinists of all time acceptable to everybody would be a nigh impossible task. Selection criteria and their appropriate weights would be open to debate. Recency bias, where we put disproportionate weight on more recent events or observations, could lead us to favour living artists over the dead, especially those whose careers preceded sound recordings. Regardless of such difficulties, on any list purporting to represent the best would appear such virtuosos as Yehudi Menuhin, George Enescu, Fritz Kreisler and Isaac Stern. Of early masters, Niccolo Paganini, who was active in the early 19th century and was the composer of the fiendishly complex 24 caprices for solo violin, would also be on everybody’s list. Of those currently playing, Itzhak Pearlman, Viktoria Mullova and Pinchas Zucherman, the Musical Director of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa from 1999-2015, stand in the highest regard.
Another master, though one less known outside of music circles today, who would be a candidate for the world’s finest list is the Belgium-born violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe (pronounced “Ee-zah-ee).” The late, great Russian violinist, Nathen Milstein, once dubbed him the tsar of the violin. Kreisler reportedly wouldn’t play Ysaÿe compositions in the man’s presence, and said that Ysaÿe was the greatest interpreter of the Elgar Violin Concerto. This Concerto had been expressly written for Kreisler by Edward Elgar and is widely viewed as among the most difficult of a violinist’s repertoire.
Ysaÿe was born in 1858 in Liège. During his very early years, he and his older brother were taught the violin by their musician father who scrapped a living by playing in an orchestra in nearby Germany. He made his first public appearance as a violinist at age seven. He later studied music at the Liège Conservatory. His older brother was apparently the one who was supposed to have a musical career. But once he heard his little brother play a violin solo at age nineteen, he abandoned his career and is quoted as saying, “I shall never play again.”
As a young man, Ysaÿe’s talent was recognized by some the leading composers of the time. Ferdinand Hiller, the German-born composer and conductor, introduced Ysaÿe to Jacob Joachim, who at the time was considered one of the greatest violinists of the 19th century. On hearing Ysaÿe play, Joachim delphically said that he had never heard the violin played like that before. While it is unclear whether Joachim liked what he heard, his pronouncement illustrated the originality and freshness for which Ysaÿe was later to become famous.
At age 20, Ysaÿe came under the tutelage of the great Belgian composer and violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. (As a sidebar, Vieuxtemps owned and played a violin made by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1741 that Ysaÿe used during his early career. In recent years, that same violin, now known as the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesù, was played by Pinchas Zucherman. It was sold in 2013 for more than US$13 million and is currently on lifetime loan to American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers.) Vieuxtemps enabled Ysaÿe to study music in Brussels for three years and gave him private lessons. In 1880, Ysaÿe became the leader of the Bilse’s orchestra in Berlin. In 1886, he became professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory. He made his first trans-Atlantic tour in 1894.
By the early 20th century, Ysaÿe was in top form and was an international star of the first magnitude. He was described as a polar bear of a man—“huge, massive and royal,” with a broad brow and dark, flowing locks. “Thoroughly bohemian,” he appreciated the finer pleasures of life, especially good food. He also was keen on the sporting world. However, money seemed to have come second behind his art. In an 1895 interview given in San Francisco, Ysaÿe claimed that he rather earn $80 a month working as a professor of violin at the Brussels Conservatory than take home $10,000 per year as a professor in Cincinnati. As fate would have it, he was to become conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1919, a post he held for three years.
He also valued highly his family life, and for many years lived in near seclusion with his first wife Louise Bourdau with whom he had five children—three sons and two daughters—in the small Belgian town of Godinne, south of Namur in Wallonia. (After his first wife died in 1924, Ysaÿe married his student, the American violinist Jeanette Dincin, in 1927.) To an American journalist to whom he gave an interview in his country home in 1904, Ysaÿe said that he found inspiration in the pre-dawn hours of the morning paddling in his small boat on a creek near Godinne.
Ysaÿe owned two famous violins—a Stradivarius and a Guarneri. The Stradivarius, dubbed the “Hercules,” was made in 1734 by Antonio Stradivarius in Cremona, Italy. Ysaÿe used this violin when he practised, preferring the Guarneri for concert work as it was less “fatiguing” for him to play. The Stradivarius was stolen from Ysaÿe’s dressing room in 1908 while he was performing on-stage at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was recovered from a Paris stop in 1925. In 1972, the violinist Henryk Szeryng donated the instrument to the City of Jerusalem where it is played by the concert master of the Israel Philharmoic Orchestra.
Ysaÿe’s Guarneri violin was made Bartolomeo Giuseppe, also known as Joseph, Guarneri of Cremona in 1740. The violin bears the original label of its maker—“Joseph Guarnerius, fecit Cremonae, anno 1740, I.H.S.” In 1928, Ysaÿe reportedly added a second label “Ce Del Jesus fut le fidèle compagnone [sic] de ma vie,” which means “this Del Jesus [the name of the violin] was the faithful companion of my life.” Stories about how he acquired the violin vary. One newspaper account says that he had originally purchased the instrument in Paris for 30,000 francs on behalf of man who gave it to his daughter who was a pupil of Ysaÿe. The girl insisted that Ysaÿe play the violin in concerts. When Ysaÿe found it to be the ideal instrument for his temperament, he bought the violin from the pupil’s father for the same 30,000 francs. Another account has him borrowing the violin from the woman for his first North American tour. On his return to Belgium, he traded his own violin made by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini and an additional 40,000 francs for the Guarneri. In recent years, the violin was played by Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman who seems to favour instruments used by Ysaÿe. The instrument is owned by the Nippon Music Foundation and is currently played by Sergey Khachatryan.
In February 1905, Ysaÿe came to New York aboard the first super trans-Atlantic liner, the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of the North German Lloyd line for a massive 75 concert tour of North America with Canadian stops in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. By this time, he was the highest priced violinist in the world. His income was said to be enormous. For this North American tour, which was organized by Robert E. Johnston who managed all the great violinists of the time, he was given a $50,000 advance (equivalent to roughly $1.3 million today) before he even left Belgium.
Ysaÿe arrived in Ottawa on Monday, 6 March 1905 for a single performance at the Russell Theatre. Ticket prices ranged from 75 cents to $2.00. On the day of the performance, 300 rush seats were released at 50 cents each. It was a sell-out crowd. 1,400 spectators came to see Ysaÿe perform. The Ottawa Evening Journal claimed it was the largest audience ever to greet an artist. Ysaÿe was accompanied by M. Jules De Befve on the piano. De Befve was the head of the piano department at the Liège Conservatory.
Without a doubt, the performance was the social climax of the winter season. All of Ottawa’s elite was there to listen to Ysaÿe, including the Earl and Countess of Grey. The programme started with Handel’s Sonata in G minor. The Citizen’s reporter wrote “every pianissimo crescendo, fortissimo, was brought out clear as a silver bell and the audience could have listened till morning.” Other pieces played included the Ballade et polonaise by Vieuxtemps, the Chaconne by Bach, and Saint-Saëns’ violin concerto No. 3.
The evening was a huge success. The appreciative Ottawa audience gave Ysaÿe five encores. A local musician of considerable personal reputation called Ysaÿe’s performance “the finest example of tone production and artistic impression he had ever heard.” One observer recounted that only the presence of the Governor General and Lady Grey restrained the exuberance of the crowd. Otherwise “the men would have stood up and thrown their hats into the air.” The Evening Journal enthused that Ysaÿe began where technique left off. “The soul of Bach will sing itself away to everlasting bliss so long as giants like Ysaÿe are raised upon earth” wrote the Journal’s reporter. When the master played Abendlied by Robert Schuman, the journalist wrote that his delicate muted tones seemed to wail and sing at his command and as his face became illuminated with the beauty of the thoughts suggested to him by Schuman so the music itself took on the form of beauty and together Ysaÿe and his audience were absorbed, spell-bound, lost, nor was the spell broken when the music ceased.
The journalist feared that this might be one of the last public performances by Ysaÿe outside of Belgium as there were rumours that the master was exchanging his violin for a conductor’s baton. Fortunately, this was not the case, though over time Ysaÿe devoted an increasing amount of time to composing, teaching and conducting. In part this reflected persistent health problems that plagued the virtuoso, especially in later life. According to Canadian violinist Maurice Solway who was a pupil of Ysaÿe in the late 1920s, ill-health went a long way to explaining why Ysaÿe sometimes trembled his bow hand while playing—that and apparently his unconventional bow grip using only three or even only two of his right-hand fingers.
In 1929, afflicted by diabetes and phlebitis, Ysaÿe lost part of a leg. But he continued to work. Two months before he died, his opus magnum, the opera Peter the Miner, was played in Liège. As he was too ill to attend the debut, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians organized a radio broadcast so Ysaÿe could listen to it from his bed.
Following his death in May 1931, Belgium gave Ysaÿe a state funeral. On a pillow in front of his coffin laid his beloved Guarneri violin.
Corzio.com, 2018. Eugène Ysaÿe (b1858; d1931), Belgium, Violinist, https://web.archive.org/web/20110522002804/http://www.cozio.com/Musician.aspx?id=20.
Cumberland Evening Times, 1931. “Eugene Ysaye, Violinist, Dies In Brussels,” 12 May.
Globe (The), 1931. “Ysaye Is Mourned In Music World,” 13 May.
Globe and Mail (The), 1981. “Grateful Solway’s Memories Pay Homage to Eugene Ysaye,” 23 October.
Detroit Free Press (The), 1904. “A Day With Ysaye.” 6 November.
Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1905. “Coming Amusements,” 6 March.
————————————-. 1905. “Ysaye, a King Among Violinists,” 7 March.
Ottawa Citizen, (The), 1905. “Ysaye’s Recital,” 7 March.
Nippon Music Foundation, 2018. Instruments, https://www.nmf.or.jp/instruments/eng.html.
Salt Lake Herald (The), 1905, “This Week In The Theatres,” 2 May, 1905.
San Francisco Call (The), 1905. “With the Players and the Music Folk,” 21 May.
San Francisco Chronicle (The), 1895. “He Talks Of His Art,” 12 May.
Smithsonian, 2018. Violins: Guarneri Family of Violin Makers, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/violins/guarneri.
Tarisio Fine Instruments and Bows, 2018. Antonio Stradivarius, Cremona, 1734, the ‘Hercules,’
Ysaye, Szeryng, Kinor David, Semel, https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=41564.
——————————————, 2018. Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesù,’ Cremona, 1740, the Ysaÿe, https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=40064.
——————————————, 2018. Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesù,’ Cremona, 1741, the Vieuxtemps, https://tarisio.com/cozio-archive/property/?ID=40433.
Topeka State Journal, 1905. “Ysaye Is Next.” 18 February.