de Sarasate, Pablo
Pablo de Sarasate (1844–1908) was one of the most famous violinists of the late nineteenth century. He gave the premieres of several major works for violin and orchestra, and he composed violin music of his own that is still enthusiastically played and recorded.
Sarasate made his home base in Paris, France, and the exotic Spanish tinge he brought to French concert life helped lay the groundwork for a lasting fascination with Mediterranean sounds among composers in France and other more northerly European countries. Sarasate was also famous far beyond France. When fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson had to spend part of a day waiting for one of their plans to come to fruition (in the story "The Red-Headed League"), they decided to go to a concert by Sarasate. The choice of Sarasate's name was logical for author Arthur Conan Doyle, for Sarasate was a frequent presence on London concert bills. A prolific performer, Sarasate toured North and South America twice, and he was acclaimed in Germany in spite of the traditional German-French animosity, which extended into artistic as well as political and military affairs.
Outstripped Father's Skills
Born Martín Melitón Sarasate y Navascuéz (or Navascues) on March 10, 1844, he adopted his simpler stage name when he moved to Paris and began his career. Sarasate was a native of Pamplona in Spain's culturally distinctive and musically rich Basque region. His father, Don Miguel Sarasate, was a military bandmaster and part-time violinist who, according to one story, got a major shock when his five-year-old son picked up a violin and effortlessly played the passage that he, the father, had been struggling with. The truth of the story is hard to determine, but two facts are part of the historical record: Sarasate and his father did not get along well, and Sarasate became an exceptional child prodigy on the violin. He gave his first concert at age eight and won the admiration of the Countess Espoz y Mina, who removed any financial barrier to his studies with an annual allowance of 2,000 Spanish reales.
Spain at the time had vibrant regional traditions but was something of a backwater in terms of the main developments in European classical music. Sarasate went to Madrid and became a favorite of Spain's royal family, but even the best teachers at the Spanish court soon found that their pupil had exceeded anything they could teach him. They urged Sarasate's family to send him to Paris for further study. The 11-year-old Sarasate set off for Paris on a train, accompanied by his mother. The trip was disastrous: at the Spanish-French border, Sarasate's mother died of a heart attack, and the doctor who was called determined that Sarasate himself was suffering from cholera. Nursed back to health by a Spanish nobleman who saw what was happening, he finally arrived in Paris and was taken in by a bureaucrat at the famed Paris Conservatory.
Under the tutelage of a Mr. Alard, violin professor at the Conservatory, Sarasate continued to make rapid progress. Spaniards applauded his renown, and a grant from the Spanish Queen Isabella aided his studies. In 1857 he won the Conservatory's first prize in violin—an honor that placed him already in the top ranks of Spanish violinists. His teachers warned him not to plunge into the whirl of concert life too soon, and he won another prize, in harmony, in 1859.
By that time, Sarasate was ready to launch what would become a lifetime of concert touring. He moved into a Paris apartment, and though he returned to Spain (especially to Pamplona) for visits, he identified himself more and more as French. His home base was Paris, and when he was able to afford a more luxurious home in 1884, he hired one of the most famous artists of the day, the American-born James McNeill Whistler, to decorate it. Whistler painted a portrait of Sarasate in the process; one of the painter's best-known works, it was given the typically Whistleresque title of Arrangement in Black but remains the most familiar image of the violinist.
At the beginning of his career, Sarasate played mostly the established gems of the violin repertory. His interpretations of the concertos for violin and orchestra of Beethoven and Mendelssohn were well known, and observers generally described his tone as sweet and pure, free of any noise or friction caused by the contact of the bow with the strings. His playing was not sentimental, and he employed comparatively little vibrato. Beyond these individual characteristics of style was Sarasate's demeanor: his real trademark as a performer was that he made even very difficult music look effortless. Sarasate's fame spread with his first tour of the Western hemisphere, which began in 1867, took him from New York to Argentina, and lasted until 1871. He made a return trip in 1889 and 1890, and he also traveled to South Africa and to the Far East.
After returning to France from his first American trip, Sarasate began to attain a new level of renown with his original compositions, mostly for violin and piano. As his fame grew, however, it was often arranged for violin and orchestra when circumstances demanded. Sarasate had written music prior to the American trip, but it was the music written from the mid-1870s until the end of his life that became ensconced in repertory of violinists everywhere. Much of it had a Spanish flavor, and in an age when Spanish music was considered exotic—Georges Bizet's opera Carmen was at first rejected by the Parisian public—Sarasate's pieces helped create a vogue for Spanish folk influences that would last for decades.
By the mid-1870s, the only gap in Sarasate's international fame was Germany, where he had never performed. France and Germany had fought a war in the early 1870s, and the musical world, too, was polarized into French and German camps, with partisans of heavier, more intricate German operatic and symphonic works facing off against lovers of the clarity and balance prized by the French. Sarasate's first tour of Germany in 1876, to the temperamental violinist's consternation, received mixed reviews at first; Sarasate was unfavorably compared to Germany's top violinist, Joseph Joachim, and Sarasate was on the point of boarding a train and returning to Paris. He was talked out of leaving by a promoter, however, and when he appeared at the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, one of the temples of German concert life, a thunderous ovation brought the house down. Any rivalry between Sarasate and Joachim was purely in the minds of their backers; the two artists admired and dedicated compositions to each other.
Many of Sarasate's most famous compositions were originally published in Germany, and a few bore German titles as a result. His Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Tunes) of 1878 was his first major work to draw successfully on his Spanish musical heritage, and he followed that up with four sets of Spanish Dances issued in Berlin between 1878 and 1882. Sarasate also specialized in medley-like arrangements of tunes from famous operas; the best known among them was his Concert Fantasies on Carmen of 1883. All of Sarasate's compositions are technically difficult, but that one poses special challenges for the violinist.
Charmed Women but Never Married
Sarasate never married; early in life he was cast off by a young woman who agreed to take part in an arranged marriage, and he never got over the rejection. The charismatic violinist, who was a sharp dresser and always paid close attention to his public image, charmed women by presenting them with Spanish fans but then spurned their romantic advances. Large amounts of mail from women piled up in Sarasate's Paris apartment, and one married woman kept a diary consisting of love letters to Sarasate that stretched over a period of 18 years. In his infrequent periods of relaxation from the rigors of touring, Sarasate liked to spend time at a home he owned in the French seaside resort of Biarritz.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Sarasate was one of the most famous musicians in the world. Top composers competed to have him give the first performances of their works for violin. The list of works premiered by Sarasate includes the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 by Camille Saint-Saëns and the Violin Concerto No. 2 and Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. Sometimes Sarasate took an active hand in works written for him, advising the composers about the capabilities and quirks of the violin. Saint-Saëns, quoted by Grange Woolley in a Music and Letters article, felt that in the case of one of his concertos "he [Sarasate] gave me valuable advice to which is due, certainly to some extent, the considerable success of this piece."
Unlike many violin stars, Sarasate enjoyed playing what is known as chamber music—classical music for small ensembles. He continued to perform and compose into the twentieth century, and before his death he became one of the first violinists to record; he made nine cylinder recordings in 1904. Those recordings, which have been reissued on compact discs, confirm the observations made by Sarasate's contemporaries about the lightness and seeming effortlessness of his playing, and he had plainly lost none of his power even as he entered his seventh decade. In the words of an American Record Guide reviewer, "Sarasate had a style that was emotionally low-key, glib even, and that presented its extreme virtuosity to the listener as though it were nothing remarkable—no drama, no histrionics, but the fleetest fingers and bow arm in the history of recorded sound.
Sarasate was slowed only by chronic breathing problems, to which he succumbed at his home in Biarritz on September 20, 1908. For much of the twentieth century, he was little more than a name in music history books. As composers tried to outdo each other in devising modern innovations, the tuneful and showy music of Sarasate's era fell out of fashion. Violinists studied the Spanish Dances but performed them as encores, if at all.
Young violinists, however, began to rediscover Sarasate's music in the 1990s as classical musicians in general sought to rediscover the direct appeal held by the great performers of the past. American violinists Joshua Bell and Leila Josefowicz, both performers with an interest in crossing the boundary between classical and pop music, recorded Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, and Rachel Barton Pine recorded an entire Homage to Sarasate CD as well as recording Sarasate's works on other releases. Once again, Sarasate's name has become known beyond the communities of violin students and Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Schirmer, 2001.
American Record Guide, November-December 1994; March-April 2005.
Music & Letters, July 1955.
"Pablo Sarasate, Biography, http://www.pablosarasate.com (January 29, 2006).