A disease or a deal with the devil?
By Gary Barton
The chances are good that you first heard Niccolò Paganini's music clothed in the music of another composer, most likely Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Rachmaninoff was neither the first nor last composer to be entranced by Paganini's writing, itself an expression of the virtuosity with which he played the violin.
Paganini's popularity in his day in Europe was comparable to the Beatles in our own time. He evoked hysterical admiration by dint of his skill as a violinist and his charismatic personality. (He played mandolin and guitar too, also viola, many say with comparable skill.) His legend preceded him wherever he played, whether exclusively in his native Italy-he was born October 27, 1782 in Genoa-or the other music capitals of Europe.
Niccolò's father, Antonio, an amateur violinist in the shipping business, knew early on that his son was musically gifted. When Antonio had taught his son everything he knew, he found abler teachers. By age 11 he played his first public recital and so impressed some wealthy city fathers of Genoa that they pooled some funds together to have him sent to study with Allesandro Rolla in Parma. Rolla, a highly respected teacher and an honest man, heard Paganini sight-read one of Rolla's compositions and quickly realized that there was nothing he could teach Niccolò.
Paganini began touring in 1805, and his reputation preceded him. Princess Elisa Baciocchi, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, hired Paganini as a court musician (in the second violin section!), but within months he was running the show. The orchestra was disbanded in 1808, and Paganini was given leave to conduct concerts in Genoa. In December of 1809 he was once again a "free artist."
Paganini premiered his Second Concerto in Naples in 1827, having completed it and the Third Concerto the year before. He also became involved with Antonia Bianchi, who would bear him his only child, his son Achille. In the same year, Pope Leo XII awarded Paganini a "Knight of the Golden Spur," which Paganini considered a great honor.
In 1828 he traveled for the first time to Vienna (a ten-day journey over the Alps) where he gave 14 concerts and was idolized by the public. He toured Germany from 1829 to 1831, meeting Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Heinrich Heine and Robert Schumann along the way. His reception in Paris in 1831 was mixed, and the English press, led by the Times, further criticized his greed on the grounds of high ticket prices. Paganini received 10,000 Pounds Sterling for 18 concerts in London.
Paganini's early independence nearly ruined him, however. His gambling debts were so great that he was forced to pawn his first valuable instrument. Already of fragile health, he pursued a life of drinking, gambling, and womanizing. (Rossini, a composer with shared interests, was a life-long friend.) His health failed steadily, and he died on May 27, 1840. He owned 22 valuable instruments at the time of his death, including 11 Stradaveri instruments, two Amati violins and four violins made by the Guarneri family. He left his favorite violin, his Guarneri del Gesu called "The Cannon" for its powerful and clear tone, to his hometown, the city of Genoa, where it is kept today in the Palazzo Civico (town hall).
Niccolò Paganini's legendary technical wizardry and wild lifestyle morphed into legend. His mastery of technical "tricks," known by several virtuosos who preceded him, were ascribed to a pact he had made with the devil while in prison, serving a sentence for murdering his wife or mistress. (The gossip varied.) Paganini, alone in his cell with a battered old violin, did little but practice. As he languished in prison, the strings on his fiddle broke one by one, forcing him to learn new and exotic fingerings to play his music.
Of course, in his youth Paganini was forced to practice as much as 15 hours a day, and Paganini did have the astonishing ability to play whatever he wanted on only one string, the G string, supposedly the last string remaining on his prison fiddle. Later Paganini would astonish audiences by snipping his violin strings until all that was left was the G string, upon which he would miraculously conclude the piece he was playing. He is said to be able to produce 4 octaves on the single string.
There are some explanations for his skill beyond his supreme technique. Modern concert audiences are accustomed to seeing a soloist play his or her part from memory, but virtually everyone played with the sheet music in front of them in Paganini's day. Ergo, part of Paganini's secret was an acute memory. People just couldn't believe a soloist could memorize a 25-30 minute piece.
But even more interesting is what Philip Sandblom wrote in his book Creativity and Disease. Sandblom, after careful analysis of Paganini's chronic illnesses postulates that Paganini suffered from Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. According to WebMD, "EDS symptoms and findings include abnormally flexible, loose joints (articular hypermobility) that may easily become dislocated; unusually loose, thin, stretchy (elastic) skin; and excessive fragility of the skin, blood vessels, and other bodily tissues and membranes."
It seems that a canny young man parlayed congenital disease giving him seemingly impossible dexterity into a career which would make him a true legend. He was described as "weird" looking, and you can just imagine what he could do on the neck of a violin. It is said that the upper part of his bow arm remained static at his side, and that he played "from the elbow to the wrist and fingers." It is no wonder that with incredible amounts of practice he was able to play the violin like no one before or after him.
Paganini's skin has been described as waxen in color and appearance. Later in his life, a medical condition necessitated the extraction of all of his teeth along with part of his jaw, which no doubt contributed further to the demonic rumors and gossip, for Paganini's face thereafter appeared sunken and skeletal.
The perfect PR man, Paganini took to wearing only black, arriving at his performances in a black carriage pulled by a black horse. He cloaked himself in mystery, refused to tune his instrument in anyone's presence and kept his own compositions unpublished for decades so that only he could play them. He used a technique called "scordatura" (Italian for mis-tuning, usually by a semitone), helping the soloist seemingly shine more in orchestral passages of concerti. He was also famous for his "ricochet" bow technique, a number of bouncing notes on one bow stroke, which he used extensively in his 24 Caprices, Perpetual Motion and the last movement of the First Concerto.
Of Paganini, Boris Schwarz, wrote in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "…it cannot be questioned that he accomplished his life's ambition: to extract every possible secret from the violin, which he loved more dearly than anything else."
The Essential Paganini
Caprices for Solo Violin
I purchased several complete sets of the Caprices. Itzhak Perlman performs a flinty and dazzling set on EMI #67257. Perlman was 26 when the recording was made in 1972. His tempi are remarkably fast, but a little hard-edged. I think I prefer Midori's 1988 recording, when she was 21, Sony #44944. Her approach is more lyrical and sinuous than Perlman's, and she seems less intent on proving how fast she can play each Caprice. A cursory look at the timings on the CDs reveals that Perlman plays all but a few in greater velocity than Midori-a difference of 45 seconds in a piece running less than five minutes is significant. For the most famous of the set, #24, it's Midori in 4:43 and Perlman in 4:25. Pyrotechnics aside, the Caprices are more than horse races.
Quite by accident, I discovered a remarkable boxed presentation titled Paganini's Violin focusing on the Guarneri del Gesu that Paganini bequeathed to Genoa. Along with the CD and a full-sized color poster of the instrument comes a book, which is an important and thorough document of Paganini's violin, co-authored by Edward Neill and a luthier named Alberto Giordano. Neill takes you through the history of the violin (including the several times it literally fell to pieces), from the moment it was made by the famous Cremonese luthier Giuseppe Bartolomeo Guarneri in 1742 through many events and anecdotes, and explains in easily understood language why its sound was preferred by Paganini over all instruments he'd played. Salvatore Accardo plays a recital showing off the instrument's qualities, including violinist Nathan Milstein's Paganiniana for solo violin and Karol Szymanowski's settings of three of Paganini's Caprices for violin and piano. The CD is on the Dynamic label, #137.
Concertos for Violin
Next you'll want all six Violin Concertos. For example, DG #437210 is a three disc set with Salvatore Accardo (sounding much more comfortable than he does playing the loaned Genoa Guarneri) and the London Philharmonic, Charles Dutoit conducting. All the Concertos are a delight. I particularly enjoy #2 in b minor, Op. 7 "La Campanella" ("The Little Bell"). Hilary Hahn has recorded the Violin Concerto #1 for future release on a DG Hybrid SACD.
Works Influenced by Paganini
Most of the composers who wrote works based on Paganini's creations have been attracted to the last of the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin.
Robert Schumann was so impressed by the Caprices that he composed Etudes (or Studies) on 12 of them for solo piano, Op. 3 & Op. 10. You can hear Schumann's responses, as played by Mi-Joo Lee on Dabringhaus & Grimm #6040941.
Sergei Rachmaninoff's response to the 24th Caprice was his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43. Pick your favorite pianist, and they probably have recorded it. I have Rafael Orozco, piano, with the Royal Philharmonic, Edo de Waart conducting on Philips #438383.
Boris Blacher's Variations on a Theme of Paganini is imaginative and witty. Decca #452853 is performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti conducting. Also of note is Dutton #9718, with violinist Alfredo Campoli playing Fritz Kreisler's arrangement of Paganini's D Major Violin Concerto into one movement. The same disc presents Kreisler's arrangement for Violin and Piano of "La Campanella" in one movement. Eduard Van Beinum conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra here.
Paganini also inspired Franz Liszt as well as a Frederic Chopin set of variations for keyboard titled Souvenir de Paganini.
My personal favorite Variations on a Theme by Paganini (on the 24th Caprice) are by contemporary Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, written for duo pianists. They are almost naughty at times. The performance featuring Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire, Philips #446557, is titled "Duo Piano Extravaganza".
A fine orchestral work by Alfredo Casella commissioned for the one-hundredth anniversary of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1942 depicts four aspects of Paganini's personality. Paganiniana is available on Sony #53280, with the La Scala Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti conducting.
Two final recommendations featuring guitar and violin, for the intimate Paganini. (Paganini for some time had a relationship with a mysterious Tuscan woman who was an adept guitarist.) I recommend both DG #437837, with violinist Gil Shaham and guitarist Goran Sollscher, and Sony #34508, with Itzhak Perlman, violin and John Williams, guitar. There is some duplication of works between the two CD's, but it's well worth owning both of them.