Over the last few years Philippe Graffin has been on a voyage of discovery researching little-known works for the violin by well-known masters. March of this year saw the release of his particularly well-received disc of, and this month we release a disc of works for violin and piano that also emerged from his investigations. These pieces have been uncovered in private collections and various libraries, including the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
These are fascinating transcriptions by Saint-Saëns, one of the most celebrated pianists of his time, and the equally celebrated violinist Ysaÿe. Having assisted in bringing them to light, Graffin performs them here with his customary virtuosity and grace, accompanied by the equally deft French pianist, Pascal Devoyon, on a disc that will educate, delight and amaze.
Although often circumstantial, Saint-SaŽns had a very personal relationship with the violin throughout his life. Inspired by friendship, the works presented here are an intimate counterpoint to his more ambitious output for the instrument. His earliest transcription, the Fantaisie on motifs from Carl Maria von Weberís Oberon, was composed in 1850 when he was fifteen. It was in fact officially co-written with his friend, the violinist Achille Dien. While it is clear that both these young musicians were already virtuosos on their respective instruments, one suspects that the young pianist already challenged his violinist. Even though Saint-SaŽnsís mature style is not yet evident, his enthusiasm for Weberís work is palpable, as is the workís second-degree humour, having fun not only with but also about the work.
A few years later, in 1859, it was also for a newly acquainted friendóthe precocious Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasateóthat Saint SaŽns wrote his Caprice brillant, while they were both studying at the Paris Conservatoire. It constitutes a significant step forward from his attempts the previous year at writing a violin concerto. The original Caprice brillant had been thought lost by its author, who some twenty years later transformed and orchestrated it, with some interesting changes, into the third movement of the famous, also written for Sarasate. Yet Saint-SaŽns had not forgotten its origins, and subsequently re-edited the finale of the third Violin Concerto, once again as a separate piece for violin and piano, the Allegro de concert.
The Caprice brillant is a true duo where the pianist is an equal partner to the violinist. Its Lisztian piano part is a testament to Saint-SaŽnsís phenomenal keyboard technique. Besides the curiosity of rediscovering the previous guise of a familiar piece, this setting also gives a hint about the spirit in which it was written: the Spanish character of the theme, a private tribute to Sarasate, the virtuosity as a game to be shared, and the visit to the very serious Wagner in the central episode only to be teased away naughtily.
As transcriptions often originate from an artistís frustration at not being able to play something loved deeply, it is all the more fascinating that Saint-SaŽns, one of the most celebrated pianists of his time, chose to transcribe Chopinís music for the violin. One of the greatest regrets in his life was not having heard Chopin play during his youth, and these two intimate nocturnes are a testimony to his love of Chopin the composer. Sarasate had already paved the way from Chopin to the violin with his transcription of the famous Nocturne in E flat major Op 9 No 2. But where a violinist would tend to emphasize Chopinís melody by simply having the violin play the thematic line and leaving what is left to the keyboard, a pianist knows all too well that it is the harmony that is the essence of the music. With Saint-SaŽns, the two instruments are more integrated and interact with one another: the violin seems an extension of the world of the piano.
Saint-SaŽns later befriended the great Belgian violinist EugŤne Ysaˇe, whose inclination for chamber music made him a central figure in the renewal of French music. Saint-SaŽns dedicated to him his first string quartet and the double concerto La muse et le poŤte (Op 132). Ysaˇeís choice of the word Ďadaptationí instead of Ďtranscriptioní applied to his treatment of Chopinís E minor Waltz tells us what he intended. With its added middle section making it sound almost like an original violin piece ŗ la Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps, it was written for his own use. Adapting piano repertoire for the violin was, for Ysaˇe, a sort of Ďpostgraduateí way to improve his technique, pianistic virtuosity challenging any violinistic habit or comfort. It is a practice that he passed on to his students.
A more surprising and audacious enterprise in that domain is Ysaˇeís adaptation of Chopinís Ballade No 1 in G minor Op 23. This forgotten manuscript, written in London while Ysaˇe was in exile during the First World War, bears witness to an intimate struggle to find solutions to amazingly complicated physical problems. He sometimes wrote so many fingerings on top of each other that one can barely see the notes. Ysaˇeís adaptation is a masterly violin lesson, not only for its extraordinary and imaginative use of the fingerboard (which makes up for the lack of the range given by a whole keyboard), but also for its sensitivity to colour, especially in response to Chopinís music. As a result, there is much artistic licence. In fact the words on the front pageóĎinterpreted and fingered by Ysaˇeíóreveal his stance. From the idiosyncratic technical means, such as the final scale in thirds gliding into a glissando, or the Impressionistic harmonics at the end, these pages are a testament to Ysaˇeís own interpretative art.
This score was never published. It was nevertheless an inspiration for Ysaˇe to write a Ballade of his own a few years later, the third Sonata for solo violin Op 27, which remains his best-known work. At one point in the manuscript of the Chopin transcription, Ysaˇe has scribbled the word Ďorchestra?í, which suggests that he may also have intended to write a version with orchestra, as was the case for his Caprice díaprŤs lí…tude en forme de valse. Saint-SaŽns was so pleased with this arrangement of his …tude en forme de valse, that he saw it fit for his own publisher, Durand, to include it in his catalogue. On hearing the first performance, Debussy reported: ĎM. Ysaˇe followed with a performance of his own transcription of an …tude en forme de valse by Mr C. Saint-SaŽns, written by the latter for the piano Ö there are some people who will never understand a joke; why would it be forbidden for Mr C. Saint-SaŽns to have some humour?í However caustic these words may seem, Debussy nevertheless had to concede that Saint-SaŽnsís music has a rare quality that is often overlooked: its wit.
Another example is his little piece Líair de la pendule. The front page of the manuscript explains the inspiration for the piece: ĎIn memory of my sojourn at the King and Queen of Belgium, in September 1918. This air was copied from an ancient pendulum [which could be seen from their residence] representing Cupid holding a lyre, and next to him was a music stand whereupon lay a sheet along which was written the air that follows.í The choice of the violin here is again for practical reasons: Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was a good violinist, a student and close friend of Ysaˇe. She was a patron of music and a muse for many musicians. Saint-SaŽns had often accompanied her at the piano privately.
The few pizzicati of Cupidís lyre lead us to another work, the Fantaisie Op 124 for violin and harp (1907) that belongs to the later period of Saint-SaŽnsís creative life. Even though dedicated and especially written for two sisters, Marianne and Clara Eisler, it really belongs to Sarasate, who died soon after it was written. A remembrance of things past, the various delicate shades of the Fantaisieís texture and harmonies, where Saint-SaŽnsís piano is transcended into the more ephemeral sound of an imaginary guitar, and the Spanish ostinato suggest a farewell to their youth, and makes for a rare metaphysical touch in his music. The works of Faurť, early Ravel and Debussy, whose Sonata for violin (1917) interestingly also contains a longing reference to Spain, are all echoed here in a joint attempt for an imaginary new ĎFrench musicí.
I wish to thank Hugh MacDonald and Steven Isserlis for bringing the Caprice brillant to our attention, as well as the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and Jennifer Morsches for their invaluable help.
Philippe Graffin © 2002