One of Sarasate's better-known works for violin and piano, the Caprice basque was published in 1881. Constructed in two sections, the first lyrical and coquettish, the second highly virtuosic, the Caprice basque is a popular piece that tests the technique of the violinist to his/her limits. In fact, in many places it's difficult to believe there's only one violinist playing!
Pablo (Martín Melitón) de Sarasate (y Navascuéz) was born in Pamplona, in the Spanish province of Navarre, on 10 March 1844. The son of a military bandmaster, he began studying violin at the age of five and gave his first public performance at just eight years old at La Caruña. Such precocity resulted in the Condesa Espoz y Mina sponsoring him to study in Madrid with Manuel Rodríguez Saez. While there he became a favourite performer at the court of Queen Isabel II. It was she who in 1856, when Sarasate was only twelve, aided his parents in sending him to Paris to study with the famous teacher Delphin Alard, at the Paris Conservatoire. Just one year later he won the premier prix in violin and solfège, and he went on to be awarded a prize for harmony in 1859.
That year he 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). While an early appearance in London in 1861 attracted little attention, later visits (between 1874 and 1878), playing at Philharmonic concerts and at such venues as Crystal Palace, resulted in his increasing popularity and led to many, more frequent, appearances. Indeed he began to attract the admiration and friendship of many famous composers, who began to dedicate works to him; at the Birmingham Festival of 1885 he played the concerto written for him by Alexander Mackenzie. Other works that were dedicated to him include Bruch 's Violin Concerto no.2 and his Scottish Fantasy, Saint-Saëns ' Concertos nos.1 and 3, and Introduction et Rondo capriccioso, Lalo 's Concerto in F minor and Symphonie espagnole, Joachim 's Variations for violin and orchestra, Wieniawski 's Concerto no.2 and Dvorák 's Mazurek (op.49). Many of these compositions have a Spanish 'flavour' attributable to the influence of Sarasate, who helped to popularise Spanish music throughout Europe through his playing, and his own compositions.
Sarasate's performances were noted for the unsurpassed sweetness and purity of tone, superb technique and perfect intonation. Writing about Sarasate's playing, Carl Flesch said that by ‘aesthetic moderation, euphony, and technical perfection … he represented a completely new type of violinist’, though he also criticized him for lacking some musical insight and emotional involvement, particularly in the more classical violin repertory. In spite of his virtuoso inclinations, Sarasate was also a keen string quartet player, both in private and in public chamber music performances.
Sarasate also achieved some fame as a composer of virtuoso violin music, creating more than fifty works, many with a strong Spanish heritage. Most well known amongst these are his Zigeunerweisen (1878), still a concert standard in the violin repertory, and the four books of Spanische Tänze for violin and piano (1878-1882) in which folk tunes are arranged.
When Sarasate died of chronic bronchitis at his Biarritz home in 1908, he bequeathed his two Stradivari violins to museums: his favourite,dated 1724, to the Paris Conservatoire and the so-called ‘Boissier’, dated 1713, to the Madrid Conservatory.