Obituary: Robert Soetens
Friday 05 December 1997
The death of the French violinist Robert Soetens breaks one of the last links with the breathtaking flowering of musical life in Paris in the first half of this century.
Soetens was an early prodigy, playing in public for the first time at the age of seven. His father had been one of the first pupils of the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye and, at the age of 11, Robert followed in his father's footsteps, studying with Ysaye for two years before being admitted to the Paris Conservatoire. Soetens' teachers there included the composer Vincent d'Indy (who swiftly made the young virtuoso the leader of the student orchestra), Camille Chevillard for chamber music, and Lucien Capet, leader of the famous Capet Quartet, for violin.
Paris was then at the forefront of the modern: Soetens saw Nijinsky dance Petrushka, attended the first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, played at the age of 16 in the premiere of the First Quartet of Darius Milhaud, a fellow student at the Conservatoire; and he remembered seeing Picassos in the gallery windows at 20 francs and Utrillos at a quarter of that price.
In 1915 Soetens left the Conservatoire to enrol in the army; on his return he was booked as leader-soloist of the orchestra of the summer season at Aix-les-Bains, after which he went to Cannes with the same duties, for a season directed by Andre Messager. It was there that Soetens met the soprano Maud Laury, and they were soon married, though the relationship was short-lived; he never married again.
Soetens next moved to Deauville, again as leader-soloist of a seasonal orchestra, and then to Angers. But he was also now playing regularly in Paris, where through Milhaud he got to know the other members of the group of musicians dubbed "Les Six", particularly Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre and Francis Poulenc.
In 1925 Soetens gave the first performance of Ravel's Tzigane (in the version for violin and piano), which brought him close to Ravel, and together they went on a Scandinavian tour. (At one point Ravel was upset when he accidentally skipped a couple of his lines in his own Sonatine; Soetens consoled him by pointing out that the composer was not in the audience.)
Soetens now began to travel abroad, beginning the career of travelling virtuoso that was the stuff of his existence for the next 60 years. He went first to Belgium, where one of the most important friendships of his life was born, when he was booked for a recital in Brussels with Sergei Prokofiev. Their mutual respect was sealed in 1932 when Soetens played, with Samuel Dushkin, in the first performance of Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins. Prokofiev was so pleased that he said he wanted to "write something" for Soetens. That "something", to its recipient's astonishment, was the Second Violin Concerto.
Prokofiev gave the first performance with Soetens in Madrid in December 1935. The two of them then undertook a 40-concert tour in Europe and northern Africa - the first time that Prokofiev, as pianist, had ever shared a platform with another soloist. Soetens was true to this friendship as long as he was able: he continued to play "his" concerto until 1972, when he gave the first performance in South Africa, and in 1983, when he was 85, he performed the Sonata for Two Violins in a concert to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Prokofiev's death; it was 51 years since he had played in the premiere.
In 1925, out of the blue, Soetens, then 28, had been offered the post of leader of the Oslo Philharmonic, and his European career was launched. From Oslo he began to play across Scandinavia, and then in Finland, which served as a beachhead from which to begin giving concerts in the Baltic Counties and in Central and Eastern Europe.
The next distinguished composer to be associated with Soetens in France was Albert Roussel. After his first stay in Norway, Soetens had accepted a summer season at Dieppe; Roussel had a summer house just down the coast, at Varengeville. They worked closely together, Soetens playing in the premiere of the Second Violin Sonata. With Soetens in mind, Roussel had decided to write a Fantaisie for violin and orchestra, and wrote to him in 1937 that he now finally intended to start work on it that September; he died on 23 August.
Soetens played frequently in London in the later 1920s and 1930s and gave a number of broadcasts on the BBC, including the first two British performances of the Prokofiev Second Concerto, under Sir Henry Wood in 1936 and under the composer himself in 1938 (from the Queen's Hall); he also played Mozart under Barbirolli in Hastings and, with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, toured Scotland with Karl Rankl and the Mendelssohn Concerto.
In 1940, having regained France from Italy just before Mussolini closed the border, Soetens had intended to come to Britain to fulfil concert engagements, but delays with his visa meant that he missed the last boat out of France. And so, taking a bicycle, Soetens strapped his violins over the back wheel and a suitcase between the handlebars and, with Suzanne Roche, his accompanist and companion, he set off to cycle the 350km south to Montlucon, where he had been born (of Belgian parents) and where his ageing mother still lived. He and Roche decided to stay and concertise in free France, returning to occupied Paris in 1942.
At that point Soetens accepted the chance of a tour in Spain, also acting as a sleeping agent for the free French; only when he was there did he realise that he would not be allowed to return to France without official permission from Berlin. He had no choice but to eke out a living from what concerts he could find in Spain, Portugal and North Africa - where he played in concerts organised by de Gaulle's sister-in-law to raise money for the Resistance.
After the war, to escape from the chaos of liberated Paris, Soetens and Roche played in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey, making the journey back through Soviet-occupied Bulgaria. Soetens' characteristic restlessness had not abated in middle age: he spent the years 1947-50 touring the length of Africa, appearing in Britain again in 1952-53 for a tour with the Scottish National Orchestra, and once more in 1957.
He now spent three years (1960-62) giving concerts in South America, another three in Asia, where he taught extensively in Japan, and five in North America, all the while playing concertos with orchestras across Europe. In 1967-68 Soetens taught at Oberlin College in Ohio. With the Bulgarian pianist Minka Roustcheva, his concert partner from 1966 until 1995, Soetens' perpetual touring continued: in his seventies he played in South Africa, the Azores, Mauritius and Iran; and he thought nothing of travelling - on his own - to Trondheim, in northern Norway, to give a masterclass two months before his 95th birthday. In 1982 he returned to London to give masterclasses at the Guildhall and the Royal Academy of Music, and while there also gave a number of concerts in London and in Oxford.
He gave his last public concert at the age of 95 - probably the only violinist ever to perform so late in life.
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