The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Sarasate

“A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin-land, where all is sweetness and delicacy and harmony.” ~ Arthur Conan-Doyle (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

I’m excited to share the sublime music of Pablo de Sarasate with you. He’s one of my favourite composers of 19th century romantic violin music. His tunes are so evocative of his Spanish homeland, but more than that, they are infused with virtuosic flair, memorable folk tune melodies and romantic lyricism.

Sarasate quote-a-genius-for-37-years

Every time I hear his music my heart flutters…especially when played with a colourful tone and expressiveness.

His music always transports me to another time and reality; a place filled with Mediterranean warmth, caballeros, siestas inside white washed houses topped with cinnamon coloured terracotta tiles, dramatic mountain scenery, cicada filled olive groves, dusty plains and shimmering beaches sprawling under pinky red streaked skies;  illuminating a vast land with the effulgence of a romantic Spanish sunset.  Ah, I think I got a little carried away there…

You never get the feeling that he sacrificed a good tune for the sake of showing off, he managed to seamlessly integrate technique, flair and melody.

Sarasate with his Stradivarius

He may not have written a violin concerto, but his repertoire of fifty seven brilliant compositions for violin and piano and or orchestra more than make up for it.

Pablo de Sarasate: 10 March 1844 – 20 September 1908

Born with a spectacular name entirely befitting his talents, Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navazcués, grew up in the city of Pamplona in Spain’s northern province of Navarre.

He must have imbibed the fiery atmosphere of the San Fermin Festival and the “Running of the Bulls” every summer, and somehow transmuted all that thrill, tradition and dangerous daring of nature into his music.

Bull-run monument in Pamplona

Bull-run monument in Pamplona

Famed for his own romantic and virtuosic performances, one can only marvel at his brilliance. His music is mostly for advanced violinists because that was his skill level on the instrument. No shirking for Pablo; or indeed us wannabe virtuosos for that matter!

Sarasate’s genius on the fingerboard influenced many well-known composers. The French romantic composer, Camille Saint-Saëns, wrote and dedicated his third Violin Concerto and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor for him.

Jascha Heiftez blows me away with this performance:

Other compositions written in his honour include Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto. Sarasate’s style of performing had a direct impact on how other composers of the era formed their violin solo passages.

The early days

Spain’s cherished and foremost violinist/composer began lessons at the age of five, being taught initially by his father who was a bandmaster. He gave his first concert at the age of eight, which secured him patronage to study in Madrid under Manuel Rodríguez Saez, where he became popular with Queen Isabella II of Spain.

At the age of twelve he was sent for tutelage under Jean-Delphin Alard at the Paris Conservatoire, but the journey from Pamplona to Paris proved to be a tragic one. Soon after their train had crossed the border into France, Sarasate’s mother died of a heart attack and Pablo himself was found to be suffering from Cholera. Fortunately he recovered and was able to continue his studies. In 1861 he won first prize in the prestigious Premier Prix in Paris.

Pablo-de-Sarasate-sepia-photo1

Thus began his touring soloist’s career. He was one of the early recording artists also, with a performance in 1904 that prompted a reviewer to write he had “the fleetest fingers and bow arm in the history of recorded sound”.

Not only was he popular in London and Europe, but he also toured America, South Africa and Asia.

Operatic inspiration

In his early career Sarasate performed mostly opera fantasies, including his evocative and beautiful Carmen Fantasy based on Georges Bizet’s seductive and passionate opera, Carmen.

1875 poster for Bizet's opera Carmen

1875 poster for Bizet’s opera Carmen

It’s technically very challenging and demanding (as you would expect from a violinist of his caliber), containing elements and adaptations from the Aragonaise, Habanera, an interlude, Seguidilla, and the Gypsy Dance.

Inspired by Sarasate’s work, film composer Franz Waxman wrote a similar piece, his Carmen Fantasie in 1946, which I also adore.

It would be remiss of me not include some stratospheric performances of his Opus 25!

Gil Shaham shows us how it’s done:

I also love Itzhak Perlman:

And of course, it would be rude not to feature this stunning performance by Maxim Vengerov of Waxman’s Sarasate inspired version of Carmen:

Other Operatic Fantasies

 The Magic Flute Fantasy with Gil Shaham:

Faust Fantasy, Op. 13- Pablo de Sarasate Gil Shaham:

Fantasy on Mozart’s Don Giovanni (performer unknown):

Concert Fantasy on Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Op. 5:

Gypsy Airs (Zigeunerweisen), Opus 20

Zigeunerweisen is Sarasate’s most popular composition, and was written for violin and orchestra in 1878 and premiered the same year in Leipzig. It features the themes of the Roma people, and in part also the csárdás, which was ‘borrowed’ from a theme previously used in Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13, composed in 1847.

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar by Alfred Dehodencq

A Gypsy Dance in the Gardens of the Alcázar by Alfred Dehodencq

Sarasate recorded his best loved work in 1904, but since then it has been recorded by many violinists, being a popular stalwart of the virtuoso’s repertoire.

My crumpled violin score of Zigeunerweisen (rescued from the clutches of my youngest)

My crumpled violin score of Zigeunerweisen (rescued from the clutches of my youngest)

Technical data courtesy of Wikipedia.

Zigeunerweisen is in one movement but can be divided into four sections, the first three in the key of C minor and the last in A minor, based on the tempi:

Moderato – An imposing, virtuosic introduction with slow majestic energy by the orchestra, then a little softer by the violin itself.

Lento – The violin plays in lugubrious lento 4/4. This section has an improvisational quality; the melody, which essentially consists of pairs of 4-bar phrases, is punctuated with difficult runs and other technically demanding figures, including flying spiccato and ricochet bowings.

Un poco più lento – The muted soloist plays a melancholic melody with the so-called reverse-applied dotted note (1/16 + dotted 1/8 rhythm), akin to the “Mannheim sigh” of the classical era; in 2/4 time.

Allegro molto vivace – At this point, the piece becomes extremely rapid. The challenging solo part consists mainly of long spiccato runs, along with double stops, artificial harmonics and left-hand pizzicato; in 2/4 time.

This is undoubtedly my favourite from Sarasate’s romantic oeuvre, and I love this exquisite performance by Belgian violin ace Arthur Grumiaux:

The inimitable Itzhak Perlman:

The shortened vintage version recorded by Sarasate in 1904:

I can’t forget Jascha Heifetz either!!

The Duo Toivio recorded a beautiful transcription for cello and piano:

This arrangement for double bass and guitar with Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck is lovely:

And perhaps even more impressive is the amazing duo of two violins and piano. Hyun-su Shin and Clara Jumi Kang display perfect timing and intonation in their stylistic duet:

Sarasate lived the latter part of his life in Paris, in a home that had been decorated by none other than the American Post-Impressionist artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who also painted a wonderful portrait of him at the same time.

Pablo de Sarasate - Arrangement in black by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Pablo de Sarasate – Arrangement in black by James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Now quite wealthy he purchased a holiday home, a villa in Biarritz, but would return to Pamplona for the festival every year.

It seems to me from his paintings and photographs that he dressed impeccably, and was ever the perfect gentleman. Sarasate and his music belonged to a romantic era. I’m sure he must have had no shortage of female admirers, but, for whatever reason, he remained a bachelor. No woman could have taken the place of his beloved violin…

His renown as a performer has been immortalised in print, with mentions in plots by novelists Arthur Conan-Doyle, Anthony Burgess and Edith Wharton.

The Sarasate Stradivarius

Pablo played on a 1724 Golden Period Stradivarius, which was bequeathed to the Musee de la Musique at the Paris Conservatoire after his death in 1908, and is now aptly named after their star student, the Sarasate Stradivarius.

His second violin was also a Stradivarius, the 1713 Boissier, which is now owned by Real Conservatorio Superior de Música, Madrid, where he studied as a boy.

Boissier Stradivarius in Madrid

Boissier Stradivarius in Madrid

Here’s a selection of his beautiful, Spanish themed compositions.

Airs Espagnols – great feisty interpretation, but the performers are unknown as they are not mentioned:

Habanera by Itzhak Perlman:

Malagueña Op. 21, No. 1 (Spanish Dances) by Yehudi Menuhin:

Introduction and Tarantelle, Heifetz:

Spanish Dances Op. 22, No. 1 Romanza Andaluza, Leonid Kogan:

Caprice Basque, Op. 24, Itzhak Perlman:

¡Viva Sevilla! Op. 38 (performer unknown):

‘Navarra’ for 2 Violins. Husband and wife team Gil Shaham & Adele Anthony:

Zapateado performed by Henryk Szeryng:

Zortzico Op. 39 with David Oistrakh:

El Canto del Ruiseñor, (song of the nightingale) Ruggiero Ricci:

Nocturnes:

Les Adieux, Op. 9 Tianwa Yang:

George Bernard Shaw once said that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music. But of Sarasate’s talents, both as performer and composer, he said that he “left criticism gasping miles behind him.”

Hasta la próxima vez amigos. ¡Felices Pascuas!

Dancing to Death’s Tune: The ‘Danse Macabre’

“Venite ad me, qui onerati estis.” (Come to me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden.)

Death lingers in the air at this time of year. Ghastly ghouls, wicked witches and spooky skeletons decorate shops, costumes and cakes, as everything occult fascinates society at Halloween. Perhaps it’s our way of confronting the inevitable, the journey of life towards the grave that no one particularly wants to talk about.

Frans Francken the Younger - Detail of Danse Macabre

Frans Francken the Younger – Detail of Danse Macabre

Halloween decorates death with a mostly comical slant; ergo it becomes more acceptable, slicing and dicing the edges from the fear and disgust of the decomposed, emaciated body, the dissolution of earthly life. We are reminded in a joking atmosphere that Death has become light hearted, transforming some people into what I would describe as necromaniacs!

Necromancy, dancing spirits and ghostly stories abound at this time of year, but underneath this creepy consumerism and fun there’s a deeper message lurking for anyone who dares to look harder.  Could it be modern society’s memento mori minus the seriousness of Christian theology?

Totentanz - Danse Macabre at St. Nicholas Church Tallin

Totentanz – Danse Macabre at St. Nicholas Church Tallin

It’s a subject people are loath to ponder, why would one meditate on one’s own demise? Yet the transience of life, the fragility of physical existence is all around us, we have all been touched by death’s tendrils in one form or another. Our ongoing mortality is grounds for practising gratitude, for no matter how bad things get, we are at least still breathing! It’s a stark reminder not to take our existence for granted.

Origins

Musically, culturally and artistically, the dance of death has its origins in medieval France. Dancing and death went hand in hand – the allegory of the longest sleep.

Hans Holbein - Nuremburg Chronicle c. 1493

Hans Holbein – Nuremburg Chronicle c. 1493

The Danse Macabre was designed to show us that no matter our station in life, whether lowly or exalted, death is the harbinger of equality; it eventually comes for us all, and one should consider one’s earthly activities in order to earn a spiritual meritocracy – aka eternal salvation, entrance into heaven/immortality.

Throughout medieval France and Europe the Danse Macabre/Totentanz was a serious message about the inevitability of death, packaged as entertainment (life was pretty grim for the ordinary folks), and was expressed in poetry, church murals, paintings, Hans Holbein’s woodcuttings and in religious hymns.

The Hundred Years War

The poor souls that inhabited Paris throughout the cruel and bitter civil war between the Armagnacs (those loyal to the French Royal Family and the Orléanist Lords) and the Burgundians (those loyal to the English Royal Family and Anglo-allied Burgundian Lords), experienced the intense suffering of a late Middle Ages power struggle, namely: famine, sieges, plagues, disease and extreme weather conditions, thus life expectancy was short. Very short.

The English Regent, John Duke of Bedford, ruled a stricken Paris in the years that followed the deaths of his ambitious brother, King Henry V of England and the mentally unstable Armagnac King Charles VI of France, (only seven weeks apart), when the Anglo-Burgundian alliance sought to rule over all of France.

Danse Macabre on the Charnier at Holy Innocent's Cemetery

Danse Macabre on the Charnier at Holy Innocent’s Cemetery

In the spring of 1425 the weary citizens of Paris witnessed the unveiling of a painting of the ‘Danse Macabre’ along the cloister walls of the city’s massive cemetery of the Holy Innocent’s, which depicted the grotesque figure of death leading a carnival of king, beggar, pope and peasant, mocking the pomp and power of earthly life in the face of certain death. It showed the people that the vanity of earthly riches and a sybaritic lifestyle was no protector from death’s grasp. They all marched towards the inevitable one-way door as equals, united in death’s all encompassing dark cloak…

That very first Danse Macabre mural was destroyed in 1669 when the wall was demolished. The copious corpses of medieval Paris were eventually relocated in a mass exhumation to the city’s catacombs due to the unsanitary conditions of the Holy Innocent’s in the late 18th century, and the church was also destroyed around this time.

The Holy Innocent's in Paris c. 1550 by Hoffbauer

The Holy Innocent’s in Paris c. 1550 by Hoffbauer

All that remains today is the original Fountain of Innocents, moved and rebuilt in the centre of the new market, now known as the Place Joachim-du-Bellay.

The music of La Danse Macabre

As music is the universal language; transcending time, religion and race, it has power over words alone in conveying a feeling, thought or message, hence ‘La Danse Macabre’ prises its fiendish way into the imagination…

The most famous of all is Camille Saint-Saëns’ richly evocative eponymous tone poem, Opus 40. First performed in 1875, the composition is based on the text of French poet Henri Cazalis:

Henri Cazalis - Danse Macabre

The opening chords of the solo violin are meant to put you on edge, and so it’s hardly surprising the work wasn’t as popular in the 19th century as it is today. I personally think those first startling, dissonant and jarring notes are pure genius when taken in the context of the subject matter. It also has a surprisingly jaunty and devilishly good melody that makes you want to dance death’s jig… I love to play it at home on my violin.

From Wikipedia:

According to legend, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin). His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year. The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The solo violin enters playing the tritone consisting of an A and an E-flat—in an example of scordatura tuning, the violinist’s E string has actually been tuned down to an E-flat to create the dissonant tritone.

The first theme is heard on a solo flute, followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The first and second themes, or fragments of them, are then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra. The piece becomes more energetic and at its midpoint, right after a contrapuntal section based on the second theme, there is a direct quote played by the woodwinds of the Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem that is melodically related to the work’s second theme. The Dies Irae is presented unusually in a major key. After this section the piece returns to the first and second themes and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Then there is an abrupt break in the texture and the coda represents the dawn breaking (a cockerel’s crow, played by the oboe) and the skeletons returning to their graves.

Clara Cernat and Thierry Huillet give a fantastic performance on Violin and Piano:

I also love this orchestral version by Leopold Stokowski and the National Philharmonic Orchestra:

The Gromoglasova sisters do a chilling job on two pianos!

An inventive and lively arrangement for four violas by members of the Taiwan Viola Chamber Orchestra:

The Dance of Death is also portrayed in the 4th movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E minor, Opus 67.  A fine performance from Richter, Kagan and Gutman:

Dance of Death based on Mussorgsky:

Totentanz

Composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt had something of an obsession with death, it featured in quite a few of his compositions, but Totentanz is the most well-known.

Valentina Lisitsa gives a spine tingling rendition of Franz List’s Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra, Paraphrase on Dies irae:

Liszt’s arrangement for two pianos:

Sylvia Plath’s Poem Danse Macabre:

Down among the strict roots and rocks,

Eclipsed beneath blind lid of land

Goes the grass-embroidered box.

 

Arranged in sheets of ice, the fond

Skeleton still craves to have

Fever from the world behind.

 

Hands reach back to relics of

Nippled moons, extinct and cold,

Frozen in designs of love.

 

At twelve each skull is aureoled

With recollection’s tickling thorns

Winding up the ravelled mold.

 

Needles nag like unicorns,

Assault a sleeping virgin’s shroud

Till her stubborn body burns.

 

Lured by brigands in the blood,

Shanks of bone now resurrect,

Inveigled to forsake the sod.

 

Eloping from their slabs, abstract

Couples court by milk of moon:

Sheer silver blurs their phantom act.

 

Luminous, the town of stone

Anticipates the warning sound

Of cockcrow crying up the dawn.

 

With kiss of cinders, ghosts descend,

Compelled to deadlock underground.

I’d like to thank you for visiting my blog and wish you a happy Halloween!