When Sarasate was 12, he and his mother set out for Paris on a journey meant to advance his skills on the violin. But the mother expired of a heart attack on the train en route, and Sarasate himself was diagnosed with cholera. Upon recovery, Sarasate was sent on to Paris; finally he auditioned successfully for Jean-Delphin Alard, violin instructor at the Paris Conservatoire. After five years of study with Alard, Sarasate won the Conservatoire's annual first prize. Thus was launched one of the most exciting and enduring violin careers of the nineteenth century.
Beginning in 1859, Sarasate embarked on a world tour that ran, more or less continuously, for three decades. During a tour of the United States, American artist James McNeill Whistler painted a famous portrait of Sarasate entitled Arrangements in Black. His first appearance in Britain was received with indifference, but a return visit in 1874 yielded better results, and composer Alexander Mackenzie composed a violin concerto for Sarasate that was heard at the Birmingham Festival of 1885. He even became a star in Germany and Austria, where his easy virtuosity might have seemed out of step with German music's more cerebral mainstream. Several of the works written for Sarasate have become staples of violin repertoire, including Lalo's Symphonie espagnole and F minor Concerto, Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and his First and Third Violin Concerti, Bruch's Second Violin Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy. Of Sarasate's 57 known compositions, many of which served him well in his own concerts, the majority have been forgotten; they were fashioned in a style that reached little beyond its own time. The Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, remain an indispensable item in the violinist's repertory, however, and his splashy Spanish Dances, Opp. 21-23 and 26, still furnish enjoyable diversions in the course of many a violin recital. Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25 is likewise a violin standard, and suggests Sarasate's role in transmitting Spanish idioms to greater Europe. Sarasate was not a mainstream Romantic virtuoso in the mold of Joseph Joachim and did not play the Brahms concerto; he played with a lighter touch, and preferred lighter fare.
Sarasate made nine phonograph records in 1904, when he was 60. It is easy to hear from them what made Sarasate such an exciting performer; four decades as a touring concert artist had dimmed his powers very little. Though Sarasate had basically retired to a villa in the seacoast town of Biarritz, France, by 1890, he continued keep his chops up, and performed at the Fiesta de San Fermín every year in his hometown of Pamplona. At his death from bronchitis in 1908 at age 64, Sarasate was in possession of two Stradivarius violins; one was bequeathed to the Paris Conservatoire, and the other the Conservatory of Madrid. The remainder of Sarasate's possessions was left to Pamplona, which has erected a museum in his memory.