Concert Notes

Eugène Ysaÿe’s Violin Concerto in D Minor

Notes by TŌN violinist Chance McDermott

While there were many well-known virtuoso violin soloists throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler—the one deemed to be the “king” of them all was Eugène Ysaÿe. He had a prolific solo career, playing and premiering works by colleagues such as Debussy, Saint-Saëns, and Franck, the last of which wrote a violin sonata dedicated to Ysaÿe and gave it to him as a wedding present. As Ysaÿe grew older and his playing abilities began to decline, he turned to teaching and composition as outlets for his musical spirit. His most famous contribution to the violin repertoire are his six solo violin sonatas, written in 1923, which are quite well known for their difficulty and virtuosity. However, many people might be surprised to know, as I was, that he actually wrote multiple violin concerti. Ysaÿe’s Violin Concerto in D Minor was in fact recently discovered, and this performance by TŌN will mark the work’s premiere. Written in 1884, the concerto isn’t broken down into movements, but rather one long virtuosic showcase with clear character changes spanning roughly seventeen minutes. Stylistically, it is not quite as harmonically adventurous as Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas, and the listener can hear the influences from more well-known concerti. Ysaÿe’s concerto is very reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, in the sense that its hybrid classical/Romantic style of orchestration and harmonic structure convey an elegance, simplicity, and regalness that balance out the more showy and flashy passage work. These virtuosic techniques remind me of the concerti of 19th-century violinists and composers Henryk Wieniawski and Henri Vieuxtemps, as they are basically showcases for all that the violin and its soloist are capable of. Ysaÿe’s concerto even starts out with parallel tenths, a difficult technique dreaded by most violinists, and almost a direct quotation from the start of Wieniawski’s First Violin Concerto. As a violinist, it has been so gratifying to discover this lesser-known but still fantastic work from such a prolific composer of music for the violin.