Ysaÿe: Trio à cordes "Le chimay," Op. posth.

Program Note

Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)
Trio à cordes “Le chimay,” Op. posth. (1915)

When Fritz Kreisler gave his debut in 1899 with the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a man sitting in the front row immediately jumped up and called for an encore at the end of the performance. Knowing that such an impressive musician as Eugène Ysaÿe approved of the young violinist, everyone else in the audience rose as well, and this marked the beginning of Fritz Kreisler’s international career. 

Eugène Ysaÿe was one of the preeminent violinists of his day, having studied with the legendary virtuosos Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawski. Players such as Joseph Szigeti, Pablo Casals, Lionel Tertis, and, of course, Fritz Kreisler, would gather at his house when they were all free to have chamber music parties. He was praised by critics for his virtuosity and dexterity, if occasionally he was a bit of a show-off. The playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw even went so far as to call his violin playing “bumptious.”

Yet Ysaÿe used his fantastic technique and great musicianship for an important purpose: because of his dedication to modern music, it was for him that much of the violin repertoire around the turn of the 20th century was composed. The Franck Violin Sonata was written as a wedding present and Debussy began a violin concerto, but after a prolonged period of silence from Ysaÿe decided to turn the sketches into Three Nocturnes for Orchestra instead. When asked, Ysaÿe wrote, “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!”

Ysaÿe is especially remembered today for composing his set of six violin sonatas, each of which he dedicated to a different violinist friend. His Trio à cordes “Le chimay,” one of his lesser-known works, was written in 1927. André Mangeot, the violinist who premiered another of Ysaÿe’s string trios, told a story about the night of the premiere, when Ysaÿe stood by the door waiting for him with a piece of paper and said, “Tiens, mon petit. Here are two small corrections I have made since our rehearsal this afternoon. There is practically nothing to change, and you will see that it sounds much better.” Judging by the fact that Ysaÿe’s compositions are horrifyingly difficult, it is highly likely that it was not “practically nothing” and that Mangeot would have been sweating quite a lot standing backstage before the performance that night.

Ysaÿe wrote about his choice not to publish much of his work. Having known and collaborated with so many important composers, he was very aware that he was first and foremost a violinist, not a composer. He was extremely picky about what he deemed fit for public consumption. Ysaÿe never chose to publish “Le chimay.” It was premiered in 1964 at the Festival de Chimay. One can hear that the composer of this trio was intimately aware of all the possibilities, and seeming impossibilities, of his instrument. He is ruthless with what he demands of the performers, both in technical prowess and emotional content. He wrote that to be a “violin master,” “[one] must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being,…must have known hope, love, passion, and despair,…must have run the gamut of the emotions in order to express them all in his playing. [One] must play [one’s] violin as Pan played his flute!”

—Annie Jacobs-Perkins