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Tribute to Eugène Ysaÿe

Ysaÿe: Rêve d’enfant, Op. 14

Chopin-Ysaÿe: Ballade No. 1, Op. 23

Liszt: Romance oubliée

Ysaÿe: Poème élégiaque, Op. 12

Vieuxtemps: Romance, Op. 40 No. 1

Franck: Sonata


I like to think up various questions and play with the several possible answers to them.

Take, for example, Ysaÿe’s “Rêve d’enfant”, which he composed for his son Antoine. What kind of dreams may Ysaÿe have wanted to show to his son? And what would his own childhood dreams have looked like? Is it a coincidence that this charming lullaby shares the same kind of atmosphere with the opening of the violin sonata Franck composed about ten years earlier as a wedding gift to him? Supposing it’s not, would it be too far a stretch then to assume Ysaÿe likened Franck’s sonata to life and interpreted the first part as a childhood dream, which would make the piece an homage to Franck?

Ysaÿe, who never met Chopin in person, arranged a couple of his piano pieces for violin and piano. Since in the end, Ysaÿe was more active as a virtuosic violin performer than as a composer, it is easy to imagine him wanting to add that extra touch of sparkle to a concert program, but where did this desire to arrange Chopin’s music, perfect in itself as a piano solo as it is, come from? And why exactly would he have chosen Ballade No. 1?

Chopin completed the original about fifty years before Franck composed his sonata. He was in his mid-twenties then, and it was around that time he fell in love with Maria, the neat and variously-talented sister of an old hometown friend of his. Chopin presented a waltz to her (Op. 69-1) and she came to be the only girl in the life of this lifelong bachelor whom he ever dreamt of marrying. They even got engaged, but eventually her parents broke off the engagement before a year went by, probably due to his suffering from tuberculosis. Along with the pile of letters from Maria, the waltz remained sealed-up until his death, but his warm affection for her is also clearly expressed in “My Darling”, a song he composed based on a poem written by the great Polish poet and a good friend of Chopin, Mickiewicz. Chopin’s ballades are said to be influenced by Mickiewicz’ “Ballads and Romances.” Ballade No. 1 is allegedly related to “Konrad Wallenrod,” an epic poem that is said to have exerted ideological influence on the popular uprising in Poland. Probably this relation was not a very concrete one, but rather limited to some inspiration imparted to the composer with regard to “a patriotic rebellious spirit.” As a result, Chopin freed the “ballade” form from its traditional constraints as a song or poem, artistically sublimating it into an instrumental piece, which makes him, in my eyes, a pioneer. Returning then to the question of why Ysaÿe was drawn to this piece, one thing comes to mind. Though having maturity as a cultural sphere, Belgium was in fact a very young country around the time Ysaÿe was born, being declared independent less than thirty years earlier and recognized as such a mere twenty years before. It should not surprise us then that the Belgian national Ysaÿe, living in such an environment, would have felt empathy toward the “patriotic rebellious spirit” of Chopin.

I would now like to direct my ruminations to Liszt, whom Chopin had quite a cordial friendship with- not only did he play the organ at the funeral of his untimely deceased friend, he even wrote a biography on Chopin’s far too short life two years after his death at the age of thirty-nine. Toward the end of his life, when he was already looking death in the eye, Liszt shifted his musical style away from so-called romanticism to one stripped of every unnecessary note, where even tonality was done away with. I’d like to bring to mind “Romance oubliée” here, a work composed for viola and piano six years before the composer’s death. What forgotten romance might this piece, which seems to be seeking for solace in sweet memories of the past, like a wandering spirit, be telling of? Might it not be about Chopin and Sand? No one will disagree that Sand was an outright femme fatale for Chopin. Though she did not even show up at his funeral and each one of the letters to him that she got back after he died, she burnt without hesitation. Nevertheless, she might have thought back to her own forgotten love if she heard this small piece of Liszt – or at least that is what I’m hoping for.

“Poème élégiaque Op.12” was still just the twelfth composition of Ysaÿe, also one of Liszt’s acquaintances. Despite the callowness one would associate with such a number, Ysaÿe was already a corpulent performer in his mid-thirties gaining fame all over Europe at the time. Yet the piece constitutes a profound expression of an overwhelming feeling of desolation and sorrow in life. The middle part (Scène funèbre), for example, sounds to my ears as an endless barrage of questions toward a dead man who passed away with his lips buttoned, keeping many mysteries undisclosed. Could it have been a barrage of questions to his friend Franck, the bestower of that marvelous wedding present who had passed away about three years earlier? It seems in fact that Ysaÿe, entering the seventh year of marital life in that year, had a hard time soothing his jealous wife in those days. He was on tour most of the time, must have had a lot of female fans, and had been a reputed womanizer before getting married, so we can easily imagine why his wife fell prone to such worries. The couple eventually overcame their crisis, but when we undergo such human dramas, there rarely is a clear distinction between right and wrong. As right and wrong coexist in each of us, we end up suffering from paradoxes and irrationalities. It appears to me that those convoluted thoughts may have led Ysaÿe to a feeling of resignation, resulting in this masterpiece.

Vieuxtemps, the highly valued Belgian composer who fostered Ysaÿe as a violinist virtuoso, composed a couple of romances during his lifetime, too. One of those is “Romance Op.40 No.1”, a piece published in 1864, one year after his viola sonata, a cornerstone in the repertory of viola players. It is a short work, but it is made up of beautiful motifs and has great formal beauty, as if it wants to let us feel what the definition of the so-called universal romance really means.

Franck’s violin sonata was composed about twenty years after that. Doubtless, many scholars will have exhausted their imagination about the meaning of this work. There probably isn’t a classical music fan who does not know this work that, as mentioned before, was composed and presented as a wedding gift to Ysaÿe, with whom he shared his hometown Liège. I feel obliged to express my gratitude here to Liszt. The reason is that Liszt, whose virtuosity had originally led Franck to become a performer and composer himself, had kept on encouraging Franck to compose music during a long period of frustration. Unsurprisingly, this sonata greatly appealed to Ysaÿe, who would continue putting it on the program of his performances during the forty years from the moment it was presented to him until five years before his death. I would like to sympathize here with his feelings by citing part of the words he spoke upon receiving this superb gift by a representative of Franck.

“Nothing in the world would have done me greater honor or given me more pleasure than this gift. But it is not for me alone. It is for the whole world.”

The first time I came into contact with this piece was when I was in lower secondary school. When one of my teachers back then was hospitalized to battle cancer, I recorded this piece on a cassette and offered it to her. I heard later that she had listened to it many times during the last weeks before her death. At the time, I wasn’t able to express well why I had chosen this piece exactly, but I think I know more or less now. It is because this music is a sort of wordless bible about life itself, rather than just about marriage. I consider it a privilege that I will be able to grasp my own semi-silver wedding (12.5 years anniversary) this summer as an opportunity to grapple with this magnificent piece together with my husband. Let me think up just another question: in our marital life, at what movement of this sonata would we have arrived now?

In conclusion, I would like to add something like an excuse. Except for Liszt’s piece, each composition was originally written for violin and piano, so we, as Duo Agineko, had to arrange all of them for viola and piano.

One of the talents Ysaÿe managed to foster at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels in between his very busy activities as a performer, was Primrose. Primrose had been a violinist at first, but it was none other than Ysaÿe who had encouraged him to switch over to the viola. Consequently, Primrose would become a real pioneer for the viola, which until then had hardly been put on the map as a solo instrument. He arranged a vast number of works for viola thereafter, a lot of which still belong to the essential repertory of contemporary viola players. This brings me to our excuse, which I want to express with the greatest respect for Ysaÿe and Primrose. That is, we are merely walking in your footsteps, so let me expect you to share the responsibility with us.


Yasuko Takahashi, pianist of Duo Agineko

July 2015

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