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Eugène Ysaÿe was one of the greatest violinists who ever lived. He coupled beauty of tone and remarkable technical ability with a depth of musical expression that few violinists before or since can be said to have equalled, or even approached. Ysaÿe succeeded in breathing new life into an art that had become polarized by two divergent styles and personalities: the austere temperament of Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), and the flashy virtuosity of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Ysaÿe achieved a grand synthesis of these two approaches by imbuing the "serious" music of Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven, so dear to Joachim, with the flashy yet never superficial brilliance that Sarasate had been wont to apply to "lesser" works in the repertoire. Ysaÿe became the leading violinist of his time, spawning many illustrious pupils and proteges, among them Josef Gingold and Fritz Kreisler. Ysaÿe was also an accomplished composer, whose Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Opus 27 (1924) are recognized masterpieces of the genre.
Eugène Ysaÿe was born on July 16, 1858 in Liege, Belgium. He received his first violin lessons from his father when he was five years old. After this he studied with Rodolphe Massart, making his first public appearance at age seven. Ysaÿe was not, however, a prodigy; he was later kicked out of the Liege Conservatory due to poor performance! But he persisted, and went on to study with the famous violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80) with whom he made considerable progress; he was soon accepted as a student by the legendary Belgian violinist-composer Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-81).
In 1879, Ysaÿe made the acquaintance of Joseph Joachim, and performed with Clara Schumann. He soon began touring, visiting Norway in 1881, and playing at the Paris Conservatory in 1883. In Paris, he befriended the composer Cesar Franck, who wrote his beautiful Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major (1886) as a wedding present for Ysaÿe. This work soon became a signature piece for the violinist, who stamped it with his own inimitable style.
During this period, Ysaÿe founded the Concerts in Brussels that bore his name, as well as his own string quartet, which included his pupil Mathieu Crickboom, to whom Ysaÿe later dedicated the fifth of his Six Sonatas for Solo Violin. This ensemble premiered Claude Debussy's String Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 10 in 1893. A year later Ysaÿe made his first appearance in America, where he met with tremendous sucess, finally returning in 1918 to take over the post of conductor for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra which he held until 1922.
After his retirement from conducting, Ysaÿe devoted himself fully to composing, and the teaching of a select group of pupils, including Josef Gingold, who later went on to achieve international fame. By this time, Ysaÿe's performance technique had declined, due to a rapid deterioration of his right-arm stability -- a condition known to violinists as "bow tremor." This was probably the result of diabetes, with which he had been struggling for some time. Despite the fact that his performance career lasted for only 25 years, Ysaÿe exercised a tremendous influence on violinsts -- an influence still being felt today. His personal aura and grand musical sensibility were only two aspects of a complex personality that not only "played" but also lived the music he held dear. He was an authentic performer, an artist of immense stature and unmatched musical ability. Eugène Ysaÿe died on May 12, 1931, at the age of 72.
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