(b Pamplona, 10 March 1844; d Biarritz, 20 Sept 1908). Spanish violinist and composer. The son of a military bandmaster, he began to play the violin at the age of five and gave his first public performance when he was eight. His precocity aroused such interest that he received sponsorship from the Condesa Espoz y Mina to study in Madrid with M.R. Sáez. Aided by Queen Isabella, he commenced studies with Delphin Alard at the Paris Conservatoire in 1856, winning the premier prix in violin and solfège the following year and a prize for harmony in 1859. He then began the concert tours which made his name famous in every country of Europe as well as in North and South America (1867–71 and 1889–90). His first appearance in London in 1861 failed to attract much attention, but he returned in 1874, playing at a Philharmonic Society concert and at the Musical Union; other visits followed in 1877 (Crystal Palace) and 1878 (Philharmonic) and frequently afterwards. In 1885 and 1886 he performed at orchestral concerts conducted by Cusins, and at the Birmingham Festival of 1885 he played the concerto written for him by Alexander Mackenzie. Sarasate attracted the admiration and friendship of many other famous composers who dedicated their works to him, including Bruch (Violin Concerto no.2 and Scottish Fantasy), Saint-Saëns (Concertos nos.1 and 3; Introduction et Rondo capriccioso), Lalo (Concerto in F minor and Symphonie espagnole), Joachim (Variations for violin and orchestra), Wieniawski (Concerto no.2) and Dvořák (Mazurek op.49). Sarasate incorporated all these works into his repertory and played them superbly. His success in the German-speaking countries, which began with his début in Vienna in 1876, was all the more remarkable since his style differed so radically from that of Joachim, Germany’s undisputed master violinist. Occasionally, Sarasate’s interpretation of the Beethoven concerto was compared unflatteringly with Joachim’s (as in Berlin in the 1880s), which angered him greatly. In spite of his virtuoso inclinations, he was also a keen string quartet player, both privately and in public chamber music performances. He particularly enjoyed playing Brahms’s string quartets but declined to perform his Violin Concerto.
Sarasate was the ideal embodiment of the salon virtuoso. His nine recordings (1904; available complete on Pearl Opal CD 9851) confirm critical opinion of his playing, which was distinguished by sweetness and purity of tone, produced with a ‘frictionless’ bowstroke and coloured by a shallow, fast vibrato, less sparingly employed than was customary at that time. At his best in his own compositions, his tone had little power or dynamic shading. His technique was assured, his intonation was precise, especially in high positions, his use of portamento was varied and frequent, and his whole manner of playing was so effortless as to appear casual. In his Memoirs, Carl Flesch characterized Sarasate’s playing by ‘aesthetic moderation, euphony, and technical perfection … he represented a completely new type of violinist’, though he might be criticized for a certain lack of musical insight and emotional involvement, particularly in the more classical violin repertory. Sarasate also achieved some fame as a composer of virtuoso violin music. Best known among his 54 opus numbers are the Zigeunerweisen op.20, still an indispensable item in the virtuoso repertory, and the four books of Spanische Tänze (opp.21, 22, 23, 26) which make use of folktunes in elegant arrangements. His fantasy on Carmen op.25 is ingenious and technically difficult, but his limits as an original composer are shown in such superficial pieces as the Introduction et tarantelle op.43. Sarasate bequeathed his two Stradivari violins to museums: his favourite (dated 1724) to the Paris Conservatoire and the other, the so-called ‘Boissier’ (1713), to the Madrid Conservatory.