Frontiers of the early 20th Century with Ysaÿe and Kreisler

Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe (1858 -1931)

[This summer we’ll be featuring Fritz Kreisler’s “Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice” and Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 (“Ballade”), both for unaccompanied violin]

If a violin concerto represents a lone individual against the massed forces of a symphony orchestra, works for unaccompanied violin feel like an internalization of this struggle within just one individual. How can one person play multiple voices, fiendishly difficult chords, range through the extreme top and bottom ends of the instrument, and draw upon an enormous palette of colors, all with a few strands of horsehair coated with tree-resin rubbed over four wires? Playing solo repertoire leaves one feeling both omnipotent and uniquely vulnerable.

This summer we have two solo violin works by composers who not only knew the capabilities of the violin intimately but, as the greatest virtuosi of their respective generations, were active participants in the creation of a new type of music. The turn of the 20th century was a heady time as music transitioned to the modern age. Brahms died in 1897; Schoenberg, already making waves, was 23 years old at the time; Mahler was 37, Debussy 35.

Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962)

Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe (1858 -1931) and Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962) were colleagues and friends. Before the Great War, the two would meet at Parisian soirees held at the house of the great French violinist, Jacques Thibaud, to read quartets, switching off on viola when there were too many violinists. (Talk about a hausmusik!) Kreisler wrote of his senior: “It was Eugène Ysaÿe, and not Joseph Joachim, who was my idol amongst violinists.” Ysaÿe returned the younger man’s affection, writing:

After the rehearsal, Kreisler was delightful. He was full of admiration, both for me and for the work. He has a rare nature, perfect tact, and also great sincerity. All he said to me went straight to my head. Coming from him, who first performed the Elgar Concerto – which he played so well, with so much poetry and in so masterly a manner – his words had double their value.

Kreisler wrote his Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice in 1911 when he was 36 and dedicated it “À Eugène Ysaÿe, le maître et l'ami.” Ysaÿe, in turn, dedicated a sonata to Kreisler [this summer we’ll be featuring his Sonata No. 3 (“Ballade”)] written in 1923 when he was 65. While only twelve years separate the two works, the international turmoil of those years must have made it feel like a lifetime.

Kreisler with his wife, Harriet,
who served as a nurse in the Red Cross

Kreisler served briefly as an officer in the Austrian Army during World War I and saw major combat until he was trampled by an enemy horse, concussed, and then knifed. This man, a wunderkind who graduated from Paris Conservatoire when he was 12, wrote a brutal chronicle of his time on the eastern front:

It is extraordinary how quickly suggestions of luxury, culture, refinement, in fact all the gentler aspects of life, which one had considered to be an integral part of one's life are quickly forgotten, and, more than that, not even missed. Centuries drop from one, and one becomes a primeval man, nearing the cave-dweller in an incredibly short time. For twenty-one days I went without taking off my clothes, sleeping on wet grass or in mud, or in the swamps, wherever need be, and with nothing but my cape to cover me. Nothing disturbs one. One night, while sleeping, we were drenched to the skin by torrential rains. We never stirred, but waited for the sun to dry us out again. Many things considered necessities of civilization simply drop out of existence. A toothbrush was not imaginable. We ate instinctively, when we had food, with our hands. If we had stopped to think of it at all, we should have thought it ludicrous to use knife and fork.

We were all looking like shaggy, lean wolves, from the necessity of subsisting on next to nothing. I remember having gone for more than three days at a time without any food whatsoever, and many a time we had to lick the dew from the grass for want of water. A certain fierceness arises in you, an absolute indifference to anything the world holds except your duty of fighting. You are eating a crust of bread, and a man is shot dead in the trench next to you. You look calmly at him for a moment, and then go on eating your bread. Why not? There is nothing to be done. In the end you talk of your own death with as little excitement as you would of a luncheon engagement. There is nothing left in your mind but the fact that hordes of men to whom you belong are fighting against other hordes, and your side must win.

Otto Dix: “Crater Field near Dontrien Lit by Flares” (1924)

After the war, Kreisler moved to New York where he resumed his career and lived until returning to Europe in 1924, only to eventually move back to America permanently in 1938, where he became a US citizen.

Ysaÿe

During World War I, the older musician, Ysaÿe, now nearly 60, fled the continent for England before also heading for the United States. He was invited to conduct the Cincinnati Symphony but found Ohio too far from his friends, family, and musical culture. He plunged into depression, inscribing “torment and despair, 1917” on the title page of a composition from this period. After the war, he returned to his beloved Belgium where, withdrawing at last from a life of performing, he focused on composing.

Opening page of the manuscript to Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3.
Note the inventive use of black for the notes and red for articulation.

A personal footnote: Ysaÿe had a profound influence on his student, the violinist Joseph Gingold, member of Toscanini’s legendary NBC Symphony Orchestra and later concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra.  I was fortunate enough to be coached by Gingold when I was in high school in the 1980s and be entrusted with this oral tradition handed down over generations.


David Yang, Artistic Director

Kreisler playing Leibesfreud, one of his most famous works

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