Pablo de Sarasate: The Prodigy from Navarra December 31 2021


Born in Pamplona (Navarra), Spain on March 10th, 1844, Martín Melitón, later renamed Pablo  de Sarasate is amongst the most influential figures in the history of Spanish classical music and  one of the greatest violin virtuosi of all time.

To this day his legacy lives, carried on by his concise but powerful oeuvre which is a staple of the violin concert repertoire and which has been championed by some of the most important performers of the twentieth century.  



Pablo De Sarasate as a Child

Pablo was born into a musical family. His father Miguel Sarasate, a military man, was a professional musician who conducted military bands. Due to being on active duty, he had to  relocate often to different regions of Spain, dragging his ever-growing family with him. This constant travelling would give Pablo the opportunity to imbue himself in the culture of the different regions of Spain in a profound way, a fact which will have a significant impact on his  musical life.  

[Image] A very young Pablo De Sarasate posing with his violin


The family was constituted by Pablo, his father Miguel, his mother Francisca and his sisters  Micaela and Francisca. The latter would become a recognized author and the dedicatee of a  piece by legendary French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.  



The great Spaniard’s musical studies began at a very early age. Although, not from the hand of  his father as might be expected, but by local musicians. By 1849, when Pablo was 5 years old and living in Galicia, a local tailor with a musical side, began instructing him in solfege. During  the same time, the young Pablo would frequently assist to his father’s rehearsals with the military band, indirectly absorbing information and becoming familiar with the musical world.  

A young Pablo De Sarasate

In 1852 an 8-year-old Pablo was officially presented in a public performance for the Spanish royalty and nobility as a child prodigy of the highest order and a budding virtuoso violinist. This  experience would prompt his first ever tour through Spain and earn him a pension to support  further studies in the country’s capital city, Madrid. 

[Image] Pablo De Sarasate as a teenager, posing with his violin


Pablo’s lifelong romance with musical composition began at this very moment when eager to  showcase his gratitude to the Countess of Espoz and Mina, the noble woman who supported  his education, the little boy dedicated his first ever original piece (a brief Mazurka) to her.  




In early 1853, Pablo, accompanied by his mother and sisters, relocated to Madrid to study in  the conservatory under the tutelage of Professor Manuel Rodríguez, a court musician and the  concertmaster of the Zarzuela theater in Madrid.  


It would be under Rodríguez that Pablo developed his musical and technical skills very rapidly. He first learned the French school of violin performance (of which Rodríguez was an expert) and  subsequently began performing, often with professional musicians.  


This time saw Pablo’s debut in Spain’s most important theater, the Teatro Real. He also performed profusely across the different halls and salons of the city, including the Conservatory  Hall and the Royal Chamber of Isabel II. This vast performance experience earned Pablo a place  in the Paris Conservatory where he would continue his studies.  



Pablo de Sarasate in his maturity

In 1856 Pablo relocated to Paris and enrolled in the same city’s legendary conservatory the Conservatoire national Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris. However, during the trip to  France, his mother contracted cholera and sadly passed away, leaving the twelve-year-old Pablo alone and heartbroken. Nevertheless, he showed resilience and with the help of the Spanish consul, continued his trip to Paris.  

[Image] Pablo De Saraste travelled successfully in his youth as a soloist


During his time there he studied under the violin professor Jean-Delphin Alard a great virtuoso  with a vastly recognized trajectory both as a pedagogue and performer of chamber music. Alard  honed Pablo’s skill and technique which was already great. So great it was that he even declared himself impotent to teach anything to the boy.  


During the three years he spent in Paris, Pablo won several competitions and awards, beginning  with the prestigious first prize of the Paris Conservatory where he was the youngest contestant  at the time. He performed across the country and earned an enormous amount of press and admiration.  



Following his initial successes and awards in Paris, Pablo embarked in tours across the U.S, South America and Europe, playing in the greatest halls and theaters of the world. However, by the 1860’s Sarasate’s fame had already spread across Europe and the leading musicians of the  day were beginning to take note of his existence and musical excellency.  


Another great achievement in his precocious career was the acquisition of a Stradivarius violin  from the hands of queen Isabel II of Spain, a historical patron of Sarasate who would accompany and help with Pablo’s career throughout her life. Later in his life Pablo would acquire a second Stradivarius which he would purchase himself.  

1861 was the year in which Pablo’s international concert career officially began. During that year, Pablo visited England and performed, with great success, at the Crystal Palace. This performance would make the businessman Ullman, who had taken great interest in the young  virtuoso’s career, present Pablo across halls in Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Romania.  



Similar to other virtuosi of his day, Pablo’s career success was measured not by the quality or scope of his compositions but by the frequency, duration and success of his tours and concerts.  This paradigm of musical life would be the dominant and most common career path for musicians of the second half of the nineteenth century and its effects are still seen to this day.  

Pablo De Sarasate Concert Program

In 1870 Pablo received funding from Glandaz, a stockbroker, to go to the US for a tour. Max Strackosch became Sarasate’s manager and made the arrangements for the young virtuoso to embark on first American tour. The tour was extremely successful, carrying him through the most important cities in America including New York and Boston. Subsequently taking Pablo to South America where he would play in Chile, Perú, Brasil and Argentina.  

[Image] Program for a performance of maestro De Sarasate in Darmstadt, 1886


This initial transatlantic tour finally established Sarasate as both the leading violinist of his generation and a living legend. Money, fame and larger tours across Europe followed immediately and his long-lasting career was catapulted into its central and longest episode. His  ever-growing repertoire was becoming richer and richer with each subsequent tour and works  dedicated to his name were beginning to appear frequently.  



After his American lieu, Pablo embarked on the most difficult tour of his life. A tour across Germany and the Netherlands where his mission would be to earn the respect and hearts of  some of the most traditional concert goers in the world. A very hermetic concert culture and  rarely open to foreigners, much less, members of the Latin culture, Germany was Pablo’s Olympus.

PAblo De Sarasate Signed Cabinet

Through the help and encouragement of music editor Hugo Bock, Sarasate gave his first performances in Berlin, followed by concerts in Frankfurt. A location in which he would meet  one of the most important characters in his life. 


[Image] Beautiful cabinet photograph of De Sarasate playing his violin, signed and inscribed by him in 1898 


Otto Goldschmidt, a German pianist and entrepreneur met Pablo after a concert in Frankfurt  where he made him realize that his earnings where way below what they should be. After striking an important deal for Pablo, Otto became his manager for thirty two long years and  earned him a place in the hearts of German audiences.  



Like any virtuoso soloist with the exception of pianists, Pablo’s career had him partnered with many fellow musicians in performances, conductors and orchestras, string quartets and pianists. Early in his career, while still being a student in the Madrid Conservatory, Pablo paired  up with another young Spanish prodigy pianist, Enrique Campa who unfortunately passed away  at a young age.  

 De Sarasate's Zapateado performed by Simone Porter (violin) and Anton Smirnov (piano)

Several pianists collaborated with Pablo over the years and across successive tours and concert  schedules, some of the most renowned were, D’ albert, Hudolph M. Breithaupt, Alexander Mackenzie, Carlos Sobrino and of course his lifelong friend Bertha Marx. Amongst other interesting relationships we can mention Pablo’s connection with the violinist Joseph Joachim,  while the pair were never friends they dedicated works to each other and had a great deal of 
respect for one another.  


Ricardo Villa a fellow Spaniard violinist but most commonly know as a composer and conductor  was one of Sarasate’s closest friends and correspondents. The pair performed together with Villa conducting, several times across the years and most often in their native Spain. This musical pair dedicated works to one another and actively participated and fomented each other’s careers and fame.  




The year 1890 saw Pablo tour America once again, now visiting Mexico, San Francisco and the  Northeast. This tour earned him large sums of money and recognition, further cementing his  status as the Paganini of his age. This time also brought him a large number of honors both local and international.  


Pablo De Sarasate Personal Card Signed

De Sarasate's Personal Card signed by him with a short text in French


He was named a knight of the Spanish crown on several occasions and inducted into several European academies. Furthermore, he was offered posts as professor in the Paris Conservatory,  Belgium and even his native Spain, declining all of them. 


During this time, an already mature musician such as Pablo would have normally slowed down  to settle comfortably and enjoy his fame and money. However, over the course of the rest of the decade, Pablo continued to tour extensively across Europe, reaching Warsaw and Minsk, his  native Pamplona again, Lisbon, Moscow and Geneva. The strains of concert life and massive temperature  changes led his health to steadily decline while his wallet increased accordingly.  



Although Pablo’s central life purpose was music, he had several other interests. Perhaps no other as important as literature. Over the course of his life, Pablo read the greatest works of Western literature including Cervantes, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Goethe, Moliere and Heine.  He was also an avid collector of manuscripts and early editions of masterworks.  

Pablo de Sarasate signed cabinet photo dated in 1900

Another great passion of his was Spanish culture including its literature, music, celebrations, games and most importantly bull runs which he attended profusely. Amongst other interests we can mention Pablo’s collections of mechanical toys and figurines depicting bulls, horses and plazas with celebrations.  

[Image] Beautiful cabinet photograph of De Sarasate signed by him, dated in 1900


Curiously enough, regardless of his great fame and fortune Pablo never married. He was always  a bachelor and according to some biographers, celibate throughout his life. This lack of love in his life was a result of multiple issues.

First of all, Pablo wanted to wait till later in life and dedicate himself to his art during his best years. Second and most importantly, his love interests  never stimulated his intellect enough to separate him from his own art even for a second.  



Pablo’s final two decades saw him get an increasingly poor health with pulmonary episodes being regular. Furthermore, his extremely occupied and strenuous concert life allowed for little  rest which only made his condition worse.  


After his final performances in Paris in 1908, Pablo relocated to his Villa Navarra in Biarriz, France. He rested there for a while as usual, but something was wrong, and he could feel it. Great fatigue and a lack of sleep due to the uncomfortable lack of breath weakened Pablo.  

After cancelling some performances and playing for the last time in front of some friends, Pablo passed away during the night of September 20th in 1908 peacefully and amongst his friends.  


The days after his death saw the world of music revolt with homages being paid all across the world by the finest interpreters. His remains were carried to his native Pamplona and a military  group paid the proper respects due to his status as an official member of the Legion of honor. 



Sarasate’s musical language as a composer represents a perfect appropriation of the Spanish Folklore with a special emphasis on the bittersweet musical mood of the Navarra region.

Amongst his “Folkloristic” pieces we can find several Jotas Navarras, Zortzicos Vascos, Fandangos and Malagueñas amongst other Spanish dances and chants. This influence would greatly reflect Pablo’s highly nationalistic thoughts and it will explain his relevance as a Spanish  cultural icon.  


Pablo De Sarasate Autograph Music Quote

Pablo De Sarasate Autograph Music Quote Signed in 1902


Another major genre in his production is the fantasy on Opera themes amongst which we can  name the Op.1 fantasy on Verdi’s La forza del destino, the Op.14 fantasy on Weber’s Der Freischütz and the Op.5 fantasy on Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. This repertoire showcases the type of compositions that Pablo usually produced perfectly. Melodically rich, lyrical, rhythmically piquant and most importantly, technically brilliant.  


   Pablo De Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen Gypsy Airs by Rusanda Panfili (violin) & Donka Angatscheva (piano)


Amongst Sarasate’s most salient features as a performer and musician was his prodigious memory and exceptional resilience to adversity. Furthermore, his name and virtuosity made  him receive several dedications by mayor composers including Édouard Lalo’s Sinfonie Spagnole, Camille Saint-saëns’ Introduction and rondo capriccioso Op.28 and Max Bruch’s second violin concerto Op.44.  



Pablo de Sarasate toured extensively over the course of his long career. France, U.K, and his  native Spain saw the great virtuoso perform massive tours where he even got to play 29 concerts in a month, meaning, a daily performance.  


His chamber programs usually consisted of classic and romantic repertoire with works like Beethoven’s Sonatas being ubiquitous in performance. He also played several small works and  arrangements by masters of miniature forms like Schubert, Mendelssohn, Weber and Chopin.  Furthermore, he normally intercalated his own works between pieces by the great masters.  


On the concert stage Pablo usually performed orchestral works as a soloist, favorites of his included Max Bruch’s first violin concerto Op.26, Beethoven’s Concerto Op.61 and perhaps the  cornerstone of his repertoire, the Mendelssohn concerto in E minor, a work which he knew so  well that he allegedly could play without warming up at all.  



Pablo De Sarasate in his eldest years

Pablo’s legacy is not only a musical one. Following his death, his testament stated that his Stradivarius violin and the sum of 25.000 francs were to be donated to the Madrid Conservatory for the creation of a violin competition which should carry his name. Out of this generous donation came what to this day is still one of Spain’s most significant musical  competitions.  


[Image] Maestro De Sarasate in his eldest years


Perhaps the most important part of his legacy, his musical oeuvre, can still be widely heard amongst concert audiences today. Several of his works like Zapateado, Zigeunerweisen Op.20  and the Carmen Fantasy are staples of the concert repertoire which violin virtuosi across the  world perform alongside the works of fellow giants such as Wieniawski, Paganini and Eugene  Ysaÿe.  


Sarasate’s influence as a Spanish musician can also be seen in the large amount of music schools, Conservatories and even streets which proudly carry his name. Furthermore, his remains which were laid to rest in the Cementerio Municipal de San Jose in Pamplona are to this day paid homage every November 1st with a procession, prayer and flowers.  



Plantón Meilán, C., 2000. Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908). 1st Edition ed. Navarra: Eunsa (Ediciones  Universidad de Navarra).  



Pablo De Sarasate Photograph with Violin Signed 1895

- Pablo De Sarasate Signed Photograph

- Pablo De Sarasate Concert Program Vienna 1897

- Pablo De Sarasate Autograph Letter 1885 

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- Concert Programs Signed by Violinists and Cellists



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