Eugène Ysaÿe – Extase, op. 21 (1921) 4ème Poème pour violon et orchestre
(b. Liège, 16 July 1858; d. Brussels, 12 May 1931)
Eugène Ysaÿe’s sixtieth birthday found the great violinist in America, far from the turmoils of the world war in his native Belgium, but concerned and depressed about his future and the future of music. The greatest violin virtuoso of his age – the man whose musical personality Bernard Shaw had called “prodigiously unmanageable,” the dedicatee of the Franck Sonata, the Debussy String Quartet, the Fauré String Quintet, and Chausson’s Poème – was suffering from asthma, diabetes, and a trembling bowing arm that spelt the end of his career on the concert stage. All the while he watched the world of music and European culture as he knew it collapsing about him. “The Americans have fled from the nightmare of war into the arms of the dance,” he wrote in a forty-page letter to one of his sons in the trenches:
“I have before me the spectacle of a nation which hitherto has prided itself on its puritanism, giving way to lust…. It is a saturnalia beyond the dreams of Rome, a sabbath of unnumbered witches.”
Nevertheless, it was this same morally depraved America that offered the great violinist a chance to renew his career. He accepted a position as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1918-22) and prepared to devote his declining years to conducting and composition.
Ysaÿe’s prowess as a conductor is well-attested: twenty-five years earlier he had turned down the post of chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic. His strength as a composer, however, still awaits final assessment. The Six Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin (op. 27) have never lacked for champions, from Ruggiero Ricci to Gidon Kremer; and the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello (op. 28) has recently found favor as well (Ysaÿe was also an accomplished player of the cello and the piano). The fate of his orchestral music, however, still hangs in the balance.
Ysaÿe had no special training in composition, but having played in professional orchestras from the age of seven, and having an unmatched command of his own instrument, he naturally absorbed the late-romantic idiom. If he could later dismiss his six juvenile concertos as “just imitations of Vieuxtemps,” he had no doubts that his Poème elégiaque (op. 12) had broken new ground:
“The poème form has always appealed to me. It favors the expression of feeling without being subject to the restrictions of concerto form; it can be lyrical or dramatic and is in essence half-romantic, half-impressionistic. It comprises light and shadow and every intervening shade; the composer is able to paint what he wishes without keeping within any rigid framework. In a word, the poème is a picture painted without a model.”
Op. 12 was to become the first of eight poèmes that formed the core of Ysaÿe’s compositional output. The novelty of the form was not lost on his contemporaries, especially, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), whose famous Poème of 1896 (op. 25) profited at every stage from Ysaÿe’s example and personal assistance. Ysaÿe’s poèmes range from evocative children’s music, such as the Petit poème romantique pour un enfant (op. 14a), to the thinly disguised emotional outpourings of his Cincinnati years: Exil! (op. 22) and the work of the present volume, Extase (op. 21).
Ysaÿe was not candid about the autobiographical content of his music, and Extase is no exception. It bears a dedication to his brilliant young colleague Mischa Elman, with whom he often appeared in public in duets. “Elman was born with a violin in his hands,” he wrote to his wife in 1912:
“and as I adore both the qualities and the defects of youth, and as I love exuberance and enthusiasm and warmth of rhythm, I assure you that I had intense pleasure in listening to a violin palpitating beneath the will of this young devil of twenty.”
In part, the “ecstasy” of the title was thus entirely musical. When Ysaÿe had toured the musical world with the Franck Sonata, introducing this demanding work to an at first uncomprehending public, the art nouveau sculptor Victor Rousseau (1865-1954) was inspired by one of his performances to create a piece of sculpture: two female figures raising their arms to heaven in gratitude. The title of the work: “Ecstasy.”
Yet op. 21 is more than a paean to the erotic lure of music. In his Cincinnati years Ysaÿe formed a seemingly hopeless attachment to one of his violin students. Exil! (1918), as we are informed by his son, publisher, and biographer Antoine Ysaÿe, was an attempt to find a musical outlet for the futility of these newly aroused feelings. In Extase, dating from the same period (1921), similar emotions of mingled yearning and renunciation are obviously at play. In the event, the feelings were to find a different outlet: in 1927, four years after the death of his wife, Ysaÿe and his American violin student from Cincinnati, Ginette Dincin married, he at nearly seventy, she at twenty-four. Ysaÿe’s son Antoine provides the fitting epitaph to the unequal but satisfying union:
“It was not an old man’s folly; it was not a young woman’s sacrifice – or cupidity; it was the natural ending of a situation towards which both had been moving, gently, steadily, for several years.”
Such, briefly, is the historical, biographical, and psychological background of Ysaÿe’s Extase. It, too, has had its champions, most notably David Oistrakh in a famous recording of 1953. In the end, its future must rise or fall with the fate of the poèmes as a whole, as is perhaps best expressed by the great historian Marc Pincherle:
“Ysaÿe’s poèmes, as the titles indicate, are quintessentially romantic, and since their character is so strongly drawn it follows that they will have both admirers and detractors. But whichever side one may take, their value is unquestionable.”
Bradford Robinson, 20045
For performance materials please contact the original publisher, Schott frères, Brussels.