The Tools of Violin Mastery
Who is there among contemporary masters of the violin whose name stands for more at the present time than that of the great Belgian artist, his "extraordinary temperamental power as an interpreter" enhanced by a hundred and one special gifts of tone and technic, gifts often alluded to by his admiring colleagues? For Ysaye is the greatest exponent of that wonderful Belgian school of violin playing which is rooted in his teachers Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski, and which as Ysaye himself says, "during a period covering seventy years reigned supreme at the _Conservatoire_ in Paris in the persons of Massart, Remi, Marsick, and others of its great interpreters."
What most impresses one who meets Ysaye and talks with him for the first time is the mental breadth and vision of the man; his kindness and amiability; his utter lack of small vanity. When the writer first called on him in New York with a note of introductio from his friend and admirer Adolfo Betti, and later at Scarsdale where, in company with his friend Thibaud, he was dividing his time between music and tennis, Ysaye made him entirely at home, and willingly talked of his art and its ideals. In reply to some questions anent his own study years, he said:
"Strange to say, my father was my very first teacher--it is not often
the case. I studied with him until I went to the LiËge Conservatory in
1867, where I won a second prize, sharing it with Ovide Musin, for
playing Viotti's 22d Concerto. Then I had lessons from Wieniawski in
Brussels and studied two years with Vieuxtemps in Paris. Vieuxtemps was
a paralytic when I came to him; yet a wonderful teacher, though he could
no longer play. And I was already a concertizing artist when I met him.
He was a very great man, the grandeur of whose tradition lives in the
whole 'romantic school' of violin playing. Look at his seven
concertos--of course they are written with an eye to effect, from the
virtuoso's standpoint, yet how firmly and solidly they are built up!
How interesting is their working-out: and the orchestral score is far
more than a mere accompaniment. As regards virtuose effect only
Paganini's music compares with his, and Paganini, of course, did not
play it as it is now played. In wealth of technical development, in true
musical expressiveness Vieuxtemps is a master. A proof is the fact that
his works have endured forty to fifty years, a long life for
"Joachim, LÈonard, Sivori, Wieniawski--all admired Vieuxtemps. In
Paganini's and Locatelli's works the effect, comparatively speaking,
lies in the mechanics; but Vieuxtemps is the great artist who made the
instrument take the road of romanticism which Hugo, Balzac and Gauthier
trod in literature. And before all the violin was made to charm, to
move, and Vieuxtemps knew it. Like Rubinstein, he held that the artist
must first of all have ideas, emotional power--his technic must be so
perfected that he does not have to think of it! Incidentally, speaking
of schools of violin playing, I find that there is a great tendency to
confuse the Belgian and French. This should not be. They are distinct,
though the latter has undoubtedly been formed and influenced by the
former. Many of the great violin names, in fact,--Vieuxtemps, LÈonard*,
Marsick, Remi, Parent, de Broux, Musin, Thomson,--are all Belgian."
*Transcriber's note: Original text read "Leonard".
Ysaye spoke of Vieuxtemps's repertory--only he did not call it that: he
spoke of the Vieuxtemps compositions and of Vieuxtemps himself.
"Vieuxtemps wrote in the grand style; his music is always rich and
sonorous. If his violin is really to sound, the violinist must play
Vieuxtemps, just as the 'cellist plays Servais. You know, in the
Catholic Church, at Vespers, whenever God's name is spoken, we bow the
head. And Wieniawski would always bow his head when he said: 'Vieuxtemps
is the master of us all!'
"I have often played his _Fifth Concerto_, so warm, brilliant and
replete with temperament, always full-sounding, rich in an almost
unbounded strength. Of course, since Vieuxtemps wrote his concertos, a
great variety of fine modern works has appeared, the appreciation of
chamber-music has grown and developed, and with it that of the sonata.
And the modern violin sonata is also a vehicle for violin virtuosity in
the very best meaning of the word. The sonatas of CÈsar Franck, d'Indy,
ThÈodore Dubois, Lekeu, Vierne, Ropartz, Lazarri--they are all highly
expressive, yet at the same time virtuose. The violin parts develop a
lovely song line, yet their technic is far from simple. Take Lekeu's
splendid Sonata in G major; rugged and massive, making decided technical
demands--it yet has a wonderful breadth of melody, a great expressive
quality of song."
These works--those who have heard the Master play the beautiful Lazarri
sonata this season will not soon forget it--are all dedicated to Ysaye.
And this holds good, too, of the CÈsar Franck sonata. As Ysaye says:
"Performances of these great sonatas call for _two_ artists--for their
piano parts are sometimes very elaborate. CÈsar Franck sent me his
sonata on September 26, 1886, my wedding day--it was his wedding
present! I cannot complain as regards the number of works, really
important works, inscribed to me. There are so many--by Chausson (his
symphony), Ropartz, Dubois (his sonata--one of the best after Franck),
d'Indy (the _Istar_ variations and other works), Gabriel FaurÈ (the
Quintet), Debussy (the Quartet)! There are more than I can recall at
the moment--violin sonatas, symphonic music, chamber-music, choral
works, compositions of every kind!
"Debussy, as you know, wrote practically nothing originally for the
violin and piano--with the exception, perhaps, of a work published by
Durand during his last illness. Yet he came very near writing something
for me. Fifteen years ago he told me he was composing a 'Nocturne' for
me. I went off on a concert tour and was away a long time. When I
returned to Paris I wrote to Debussy to find out what had become of my
'Nocturne.' And he replied that, somehow, it had shaped itself up for
orchestra instead of a violin solo. It is one of the _Trois Nocturnes_
for orchestra. Perhaps one reason why so much has been inscribed to me
is the fact that as an interpreting artist, I have never cultivated a
'specialty.' I have played everything from Bach to Debussy, for real art
should be international!"
Ysaye himself has an almost marvelous right-arm and fingerboard control,
which enables him to produce at will the finest and most subtle tonal
nuances in all bowings. Then, too, he overcomes the most intricate
mechanical problems with seemingly effortless ease. And his tone has
well been called "golden." His own definition of tone is worth
recording. He says it should be "In music what the heart suggests, and
the soul expresses!"
THE TOOLS OF VIOLIN MASTERY
"With regard to mechanism," Ysaye continued, "at the present day the
tools of violin mastery, of expression, technic, mechanism, are far more
necessary than in days gone by. In fact they are indispensable, if the
spirit is to express itself without restraint. And the greater
mechanical command one has the less noticeable it becomes. All that
suggests effort, awkwardness, difficulty, repels the listener, who more
than anything else delights in a singing violin tone. Vieuxtemps often
said: _Pas de trait pour le trait--chantez, chantez_! (Not runs for the
sake of runs--sing, sing!)
"Too many of the technicians of the present day no longer sing. Their
difficulties--they surmount them more or less happily; but the effect is
too apparent, and though, at times, the listener may be astonished, he
can never be charmed. Agile fingers, sure of themselves, and a perfect
bow stroke are essentials; and they must be supremely able to carry
along the rhythm and poetic action the artist desires. Mechanism
becomes, if anything, more accessible in proportion as its domain is
enriched by new formulas. The violinist of to-day commands far greater
technical resources than did his predecessors. Paganini is accessible to
nearly all players: Vieuxtemps no longer offers the difficulties he did
thirty years ago. Yet the wood-wind, brass and even the string
instruments subsist in a measure on the heritage transmitted by the
masters of the past. I often feel that violin teaching to-day endeavors
to develop the esthetic sense at too early a stage. And in devoting
itself to the _head_ it forgets the _hands_, with the result that the
young soldiers of the violinistic army, full of ardor and courage, are
ill equipped for the great battle of art.
"In this connection there exists an excellent set of _…tudes-Caprices_
by E. Chaumont, which offer the advanced student new elements and
formulas of development. Though in some of them 'the frame is too large
for the picture,' and though difficult from a violinistic point of view,
'they lie admirably well up the neck,' to use one of Vieuxtemps's
expressions, and I take pleasure in calling attention to them.
"When I said that the string instruments, including the violin, subsist
in a measure on the heritage transmitted by the masters of the past, I
spoke with special regard to technic. Since Vieuxtemps there has been
hardly one new passage written for the violin; and this has retarded the
development of its technic. In the case of the piano, men like Godowsky
have created a new technic for their instrument; but although
Saint-SaÎns, Bruch, Lalo and others have in their works endowed the
violin with much beautiful music, music itself was their first concern,
and not music for the violin. There are no more concertos written for
the solo flute, trombone, etc.--as a result there is no new technical
material added to the resources of these instruments.
"In a way the same holds good of the violin--new works conceived only
from the musical point of view bring about the stagnation of technical
discovery, the invention of new passages, of novel harmonic wealth of
combination is not encouraged. And a violinist owes it to himself to
exploit the great possibilities of his own instrument. I have tried to
find new technical ways and means of expression in my own compositions.
For example, I have written a _Divertiment_ for violin and orchestra in
which I believe I have embodied new thoughts and ideas, and have
attempted to give violin technic a broader scope of life and vigor.
"In the days of Viotti and Rode the harmonic possibilities were more
limited--they had only a few chords, and hardly any chords of the ninth.
But now harmonic material for the development of a new violin technic is
there: I have some violin studies, in ms., which I may publish some day,
devoted to that end. I am always somewhat hesitant about
publishing--there are many things I might publish, but I have seen so
much brought out that was banal, poor, unworthy, that I have always been
inclined to mistrust the value of my own creations rather than fall into
the same error. We have the scale of Debussy and his successors to draw
upon, their new chords and successions of fourths and fifths--for new
technical formulas are always evolved out of and follow after new
harmonic discoveries--though there is as yet no violin method which
gives a fingering for the whole-tone scale. Perhaps we will have to wait
until Kreisler or I will have written one which makes plain the new
flowering of technical beauty and esthetic development which it brings
"As to teaching violin, I have never taught violin in the generally
accepted sense of the phrase. But at Godinne, where I usually spent my
summers when in Europe, I gave a kind of traditional course in the works
of Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski and other masters to some forty or fifty
artist-students who would gather there--the same course I look forward
to giving in Cincinnati, to a master class of very advanced pupils. This
was and will be a labor of love, for the compositions of Vieuxtemps and
Wieniawski especially are so inspiring and yet, as a rule, they are so
badly played--without grandeur or beauty, with no thought of the
traditional interpretation--that they seem the piecework of technic
"When I take the whole history of the violin into account I feel that
the true inwardness of 'Violin Mastery' is best expressed by a kind of
threefold group of great artists. First, in the order of romantic
expression, we have a trinity made up of Corelli, Viotti and Vieuxtemps.
Then there is a trinity of mechanical perfection, composed of Locatelli,
Tartini and Paganini or, a more modern equivalent, CÈsar Thomson,
Kubelik and Burmeister. And, finally, what I might call in the order of
lyric expression, a quartet comprising Ysaye, Thibaud, Mischa Elman and
Sametini of Chicago, the last-named a wonderfully fine artist of the
lyric or singing type. Of course there are qualifications to be made.
Locatelli was not altogether an exponent of technic. And many other fine
artists besides those mentioned share the characteristics of those in
the various groups. Yet, speaking in a general way, I believe that these
groups of attainment might be said to sum up what 'Violin Mastery'
really is. And a violin master? He must be a violinist, a thinker, a
poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion and despair,
he must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all
in his playing. He must play his violin as Pan played his flute!"
In conclusion Ysaye sounded a note of warning for the too ambitious
young student and player. "If Art is to progress, the technical and
mechanical element must not, of course, be neglected. But a boy of
eighteen cannot expect to express that to which the serious student of
thirty, the man who has actually lived, can give voice. If the
violinist's art is truly a great art, it cannot come to fruition in the
artist's 'teens. His accomplishment then is no more than a promise--a
promise which finds its realization in and by life itself. Yet Americans
have the brains as well as the spiritual endowment necessary to
understand and appreciate beauty in a high degree. They can already
point with pride to violinists who emphatically deserve to be called
artists, and another quarter-century of artistic striving may well bring
them into the front rank of violinistic achievement!"