Pablo Martín Melitón de Sarasate y Navazcués was a Spanish composer and virtuoso violinist who contributed on both counts to the creative life of late 19th-century Paris. To name just the pieces dedicated to him that are still current – the Third Violin Concerto and the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso by Saint-Saëns, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Wieniawski’s Second Concerto – is to indicate the leverage effect of his genius, but it went further than a queue of composers wanting him to play their music: his technical advice as well as his personal performing style often helped to shape other composers’ solo parts.
Nowadays, except to violinists and their followers who have seen a recent revival of interest, Sarasate himself is the author of Zigeunerweisen and the ‘Carmen’ Fantasy. He wrote many more pieces for violin with piano or orchestra, which were popular with players as well as audiences in his day as they embodied a way of playing that he understood better than anybody else.
Overwhelmingly, Sarasate the performer was the historic figure. He was born on 10 March 1844 in Pamplona, where his father, a bandmaster, taught him from the age of 5. Within three years he had given a concert that secured him patronage for study in Madrid.
At 11 he travelled to Paris, a journey that saw his mother dying of a heart attack and himself suffering cholera, but he made it to the Conservatoire. By his late teens he had begun the life of a touring recitalist. Fine tone, direct expression with little vibrato, and easy delivery were his distinctive traits. He was recorded in 1904 demonstrating what a later reviewer called ‘the fleetest fingers and bow arm in the history of recorded sound’.
It was a degree of accomplishment that surpassed all contemporaries except, perhaps, Joseph Joachim, whose supporters stirred up an atmosphere of rivalry apparently not shared by the violinists themselves – on the contrary, they swapped dedications of pieces. He continued to play chamber music as he rose to stardom. As his tours took him around Europe, across the Atlantic and to South Africa and Asia, he made Paris his base and had his home there decorated by Whistler, who painted his portrait at the same time, though he would return to Pamplona to play at an annual festival. Suffering increasingly from lung problems, he died of bronchitis in Biarritz on 20 September 1908.
Profile © Robert Maycock