Monday, July 5, 2010

Eugène Ysaÿe

HERE is a biography of the renowned Belgian virtuoso and composer. He was a close friend and violin teacher of Queen Elisabeth. "She plays badly divinely," he once remarked. Like many artists and savants, Ysaÿe found a kindred spirit in the poetic, intellectual queen and adored her. After Ysaÿe's death, Elisabeth founded her famous musical competition in his honor. Sadly, long after the fact, there have been those who have tried to distort their friendship into something sordid.

In her memoirs, Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, another member of Elisabeth's artistic circle, gives a touching account of Ysaÿe:
Ysaye was as charming a person as one could meet. He was tall and large and stout, with long straight hair, beautiful features, gray-blue eyes, and great intelligence and goodness. At this time he was in his late sixties but he appeared young and he was still handsome. He was wearing a black velvet jacket, striped trousers, pumps on his feet, and he came in exuberantly, greeted my husband with shouts of delight, whirled around to talk to me about Russia, declaring that he loved it, and exclaiming, "Caviar! O ma jeunesse!"
...His hospitality was indescribable. He had always been lavish in his generosity and had never managed to hang on to any money. His house and his purse were at his friends' disposal. Only one key he clung to and that was the key to his cellar. In the midst of his dinner, he took this key from his belt and gave it to a servant with long and careful instructions, explaining the particular wine he wanted to offer us.
I asked if he would pose for me, and he agreed at once. So the next morning I came to him. He was on the second floor, in a big room with three or four windows overlooking a little garden.
"Maître," I said, "I should like to do you with your left hand holding the violin."
"Of course."
"If you want to practice, please forget I am here while I work."
At that time, Ysaye no longer appeared in concerts, but he practiced every morning, and he was in wonderful form. He lifted his violin and began to play as only he could play. It would have been perfect if I could only have found the expression I sought for my sculpture.
Then he began to play the Mendelssohn concerto and at last I found the ecstatic expression only music can give. After that, whenever he posed for me he played the Mendelssohn. And now I cannot listen to it any more. I shall never again hear it as he played it. All the warmth and generosity of his nature was in his music. For he loved all the earthy and sensual things: good food, the sun, children, beautiful women, rain, physical love (Portraits with Backgrounds, 1947, pp. 127-129).
Here is a 1912 recording of Ysaÿe playing the Mendelssohn Concerto.

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