The Violins of Violinist Eugène Ysaÿe

The Violins of Violinist Eugène Ysaÿe

The Belgian virtuoso claimed a personal affection for his violins, even if his style of playing was unorthodox and might have shortened his playing career.

Violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) was and remains perhaps the greatest violinist to come out of Belgium. He was described by his contemporaries, including virtuoso Nathan Millstein, as the “king [some say tsar] of the violin.”

Indeed, he earned that title by hard work, as he was never considered a child prodigy. He also had a creative way of holding his bow. Instead of relying on the wrist or whole arm, Ysaye used the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm neutral. This technique served him well as a performer, but it might have led to the decline of his ability to perform as a violinist – leading next to performing as a conductor, at which he also excelled.

It bears mention as well that Ysaÿe favored the Tourte bow, then considered a modern choice, sometimes referred to as being in the Franco-Belgian school of violin playing. Sometimes, geography can be destiny.

But of course, it wasn’t merely about fine French bows and bowing technique. He played on several of the world’s finest instruments as well. In the decades of his performance as a concert violinist, his instruments included these fine Italian violins:

1754 Guadagnini. Maker Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786) made violins in Milan and, to a lesser extent, in Cremona, and in his final years in Turin, the latter of these working for a collector-patron, Count Cozio di Salabue.

1740 Guarneri ‘del Gesù. Owned and played by Isaac Stern after Ysaÿe, it is said that Ysaÿe requested an inscription be inserted while it was being repaired that said, “this violin was the faithful companion of my life.”

1732 ‘Hercules’ Stradivari. This was not Ysaÿe’s preferred instrument – it required greater physical vigor on the part of the violinist to play, but he kept it for backup while playing the 1740 Guarneri. Alas, while performing in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the Imperial Theater in 1908 it was taken from his dressing room. It resurfaced 17 years later in Paris and the thief was never apprehended.

The violin that got away: He wished to own the ‘Cannon’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’, having played it in a recital in Genoa, but it was not for sale. This is said to have inspired him to acquire the 1740 Guarneri.

It is well known and documented that Ysaÿe owned and sometimes performed on a violin crafted in 1899 by renowned French luthier Joseph Hel.

So what cut short his years of performing as a violinist? It seems to have been a confluence of two factors: his novel bowing technique (this is speculative but it was that arm that suffered). Also diabetes, which plagued him most of his adult life – his left foot was amputated – and ultimately led to his death. But before that happened, he indulged in composing and conducting with similar vigor to what he gave to his violins. From 1918 to 1922, he was the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. As a composer, he was a friend and arguably a mentor to the younger Claude Debussy. Ysaÿe’s many compositions include 6 Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27, Etude posthume, and Cadenza for Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms.