The great Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate was born in Pamplona in 1844, the son of a military bandmaster. After study in Madrid with Manuel Rodríguez Saez, a pupil of Jules Armingaud, the leader of the quartet of which Edouard Lalo was a member, he entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of twelve, with the aid of a scholarship from Queen Isabella and the Province of Navarre. Here he became a pupil of Jean-Delphin Alard and also embarked on the study of composition.
He won first prize for violin in 1857 and the following year for solfege, and in 1859 for harmony as a pupil of Henri Reber. By the age of fifteen, however, Sarasate had launched himself on a concert career, at first winning a reputation in Spain and France, before more extended tours to North and South America and throughout the rest of Europe. Composers who wrote for him included Saint-Saëns, Bruch, Lalo, Wieniawski and Dvorak, and he remained distinguished for the purity and beauty of his tone, perfection of technique and musical command. He refused, however, to play Brahms’s Violin Concerto, claiming that the only proper melody in the work was given to the oboe. His playing was in contrast to that of his older contemporary Joseph Joachim, who represented a more characteristically German attitude to performance.
For his own use Sarasate wrote a number of works for violin and piano or violin and orchestra, including, as might be expected, compositions based on Spanish themes and rhythms. Following the common practice of his time, he also wrote concert fantasies based on themes from popular operas and compositions based on Spanish themes and rhythms. Among these one of the best known is his Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), together with his Spanish Dances of which the best known remains his ‘Carmen Fantasy’.
As a composer, Sarasate was prolific. His works can be divided into five general groups. The first group contains compositions in the folk idiom, the second consists of opera fantasies, the third group are ‘original’ compositions and the fourth group are some excellent transcriptions, with the last group consisting of a few cadenzas to violin concertos.