Regarded as “King or Tzar of the violin”. Was also a composer and conductor. His brother also became a well-known musician, Theo Ysaye (1865-1918)
“The most outstanding and individual violinist I have ever heard in my life." ~ Carl Flesch
Pablo Casals claimed never to have heard a violinist play in tune before Ysaÿe.
Eugene Ysaye was born in Liège, Belgium and began violin lessons at age five with his father. He went on to study with great masters, but always felt like his father's teaching had given him the fundamentals that were the most important. At seven he entered the Conservatoire at Liège though soon afterwards he was asked to leave the conservatory because of lack of progress. To support his family, young Eugène played in two local orchestras, one conducted by his father. Eugène played in these ensembles and studied by himself, learning the repertoire of the violin. By the time he was twelve, he was playing so well that one day he when he was practicing, the legendary Henri Vieuxtemps, passing by heard him and was so impressed that he arranged for Ysaÿe to be re-admitted to the conservatory studying with his assistant,Henryk Wieniawski. Ysaÿe would eventually study with Vieuxtemps, and both "master and disciple" were very fond of each other. In his last years, Vieuxtemps asked Ysaÿe to come to the countryside to play for him.
Studying with these teachers meant that he was part of the so-called Franco-Belgian school of violin playing, which dates back to the development of the modern violin bow by François Tourte. Qualities of this "École" included elegance, a full tone with a sense of drawing a "long" bow with no jerks, precise left hand techniques, and bowing using the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm quiet (as opposed toJoachim's German school of wrist bowing andAuer's concept of using the whole arm.)
After graduation from the Royal Conservatory of Liège, Ysaÿe was the principal violin of the Berlin Philharmonic. Many musicians of note and influence came regularly to hear this orchestra and Ysaÿe in particular, among whom figured Joseph Joachim,Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann, and Anton Rubinstein, who asked that Ysaÿe be released from his contract to accompany him on tour.
When Ysaÿe was twenty-seven years old, he was recommended as a soloist for one of the Concerts Colonne in Paris, which was the start of his great success as a concert artist. The next year, Ysaÿe received a professorship at the Brussels Conservatoire in his native Belgium. This began his career as a teacher, which was to remain one of his main occupations after leaving the Conservatoire in 1898 and into his last years. Among his more respected pupils are Josef Gingold,William Primrose, Nathan Milstein (who primarily studied with Pyotr Stolyarsky), Louis Persinger, Alberto Bachmann, Mathieu Crickboom, Jonny Heykens, Charles Houdret,Jascha Brodsky, and Aldo Ferraresi.
During his tenure as professor at the Conservatoire, Ysaÿe continued to tour the world, including Europe, Russia, and the United States. As a performer, Ysaÿe was compelling and highly original. Despite health concerns, regarding his hands, Ysaÿe was at his best when performing, and many prominent composers dedicated major works to him, including Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck, and Ernest Chausson. In particular, mention should be made of Franck's Violin Sonata in A, written as a wedding present for Ysaÿe in 1886, which Ysaÿe played for the rest of his life.
Ysaÿe was also a friend of Claude Debussy and would sometimes correspond to him by letter. The two had great respect for each other and Ysaÿe was a significant supporter of the younger composer's early career. Debussy dedicated his only string quartet to the violinist who took great care in studying the score. The quartet received its premiere on December 29, 1893 by the Ysaÿe Quartet at the Société Nationale in Paris but to mixed reviews. The virtuoso and the composer also corresponded during the writing of Debussy's Nocturnes.
In 1886 he established the Ysaÿe Quartet, which premiered Debussy's String Quartet.
As his physical ailments grew more prohibitive, Ysaÿe turned more to teaching, conducting and an early love, composition. Among his most famous works are the six Sonatas for Solo Violin op. 27, the unaccompanied Sonata for Cello, op. 28, one Sonata for Two Violins, eight Poèmes for various instruments (one or two violins, violin and cello, string quartet) and orchestra (Poème élégiaque, Poème de l'Extase, Chant d'hiver, Poème nocturne, among others), pieces for string orchestra without basses (including Poème de l'Exil), two string trios, a quintet, and an opera, Peter the Miner, written near the end of his life in the Walloondialect.
Ysaÿe had been offered the post of music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1898, but declined it due to his busy solo performance schedule. In 1918, he accepted the music director's position with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 1922 and with which he made several recordings.
Finally, in 1931, suffering from the extreme ravages of diabetes that had necessitated the amputation of his left foot, Eugène Ysaÿe died in his house in Brussels and was interred in the Ixelles Cemetery in Brussels.
An international violin competition in Brussels was created in his memory: in 1951, this became the violin section of the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition.