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Gelukkige verjaardag! Eugène Ysaÿe at 155

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On June 16, 1858, the great Belgian violinist, composer and conductor Eugène Ysaÿe was born. A well-known icon to most violinists, he was a major transitional figure in the development of modern violin performance practice.

In addition to his compositional work, Ysaÿe was also an advocate of transcription, and made interesting forays into that world. The Library of Congress possesses a relatively unknown manuscript of one of these arrangements—Ysaÿe’s version for violin and piano of Frédéric Chopin’s first Ballade, op. 23.

Transcription is a creative endeavor that presents practical, ontological problems for the arranger. There is the question of fidelity to the musical text vs. the musical idea; which is more respectful and successful? For the performer/composer like Ysaÿe, the goal tends to be to create a different “version” of the original that is compelling and “natural” in its new medium.

A look at the very opening of Chopin’s Ballade provides an excellent example of the practical problem of making a highly characteristic piano gesture make sense in a violin/piano duo context. In Chopin’s original, the first five measures of the piece are played with both hands playing a single line in octaves. If the arranger wants the violin to be involved in this passage, as Ysaÿe did, the fact that the opening line is out of the violin’s range must be overcome. Ysaÿe’s solution is to have the piano play only the lower octave, add a “filler” chord for the pianist’s right hand, and have the violin enter at an appropriate moment to ultimately take over the entire line. As a result, a nod is made to Chopin’s original octave presentation of the musical idea, but the arrangement possesses its own internal musical logic that renders it effective in performance.

You can page through a high quality scan of Ysaÿe’s manuscript on the Library’s website by clicking here. A fun aspect about this manuscript is that you can easily see how Ysaÿe’s ideas developed; many of the ideas (especially in the piano part) are scratched out in the manuscript, displaying his ability to adapt to the balance considerations of a chamber setting of Chopin’s work. Transcriptions and arrangements offer a fun way to take a fresh look at music you already know—often one gains new insights about the original.

Ysaye Chopin transcription
Image from manuscript of Ysaÿe’s arrangement for violin and piano of Chopin’s first Ballade, op. 23. Held at the Library of Congress.

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