Who was the first musical superstar – the utter sensation whose novel sound, bizarre appearance, eccentric lifestyle, riveting stage presence, mammoth mass appeal and monster showmanship forever changed our culture? Little Richard? Chuck Berry? Elvis? Pop pundits can forever debate the question, but the mold was cast more than a century earlier by Niccoló Paganini.
(And yes, Paganini played the guitar, which he learned while he dropped out from the concert scene for three years. Rumors spread that he was in jail for a crime of passion, but in fact he was shacked up with a titled lady in a secluded Tuscany love nest.)
Paganini single-handedly changed the course of music by inventing the cult of the performer. Before him, even the most talented, charismatic and successful musicians were at best respected, lived merely comfortably and were quickly forgotten upon their retirement or demise. Paganini, though, was worshipped hysterically, rewarded with fabulous wealth and still is remembered in awe. With Paganini, the performer became a superstar. Indeed, although he had no pupils and few successors, the line that began with Paganini extends through every musical idol of our time.
Virtuosi often are viewed skeptically by other (jealous?) professionals. As Abraham Veinus put it in his wonderful but elitist The Concerto (Doubleday 1945), they are accused of spoiling public taste, with more sound than sense, manual dexterity than emotional depth, and trickery than technique – as if when their fingers go to work, true musicianship goes to sleep. Paganini, though, managed not only to astound but impress all the most respected musicians of his time, including Rossini, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann, who understood that his unprecedented skills vastly expanded the resources available to even the most serious composers. Liszt was so enthralled that he rededicated his life to transforming piano technique to embrace Paganini's innovations. Nor did the legend dissipate after Paganini's death in 1840 – famed composers of later generations, including Brahms and Rachmaninoff, paid him the ultimate tribute by writing major compositions using his themes and techniques.
Why all the excitement? For starters, Paganini's violin skill was sensational, perhaps the greatest ever. True, he “cheated” just a bit by flattening his bridge (to facilitate bowing from one string to another), used thin strings (to add brilliance and boost harmonics) and tuned unconventionally (to smooth the fingering of intricate passages). He owed his renown not only to raw talent, but to grueling work spurred by his parents – an overbearing father who starved him into practicing full-time, and an approving mother who viewed this cruelty as fulfilling a dream in which an angel had promised that her son would become the world's greatest violinist.
Paganini was a consummate showman. A favorite trick was to play with worn strings and then, as they broke, to complete a concert with the three, two or even one string remaining. His tickets cost up to five times the standard rate. He did little to discourage rumors that he consorted with the devil and surely looked the part, with a gaunt skeletal body, angular stiff movements, long black hair, sallow waxen complexion, dark penetrating eyes and entirely black dress (sound familiar?).
For thirty years, amid bouts of gambling, women and ill health, he stoked his legend by making only sporadic local appearances. Not until age 45 did he venture outside Italy. His first stop was Vienna where, according to Grove's authoritative Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the public became utterly enthralled, displaying Paganini portraits everywhere and naming the latest attire and recipes in his honor. He went on to conquer Germany, Eastern Europe, France and England. After six continuous years on the road, with no more worlds to conquer, he returned home and spent his final years collecting ancient instruments. Legend has it that on his last night he gathered friends, improvised the most brilliant recital of his life from his death-bed for 3 hours, and then died. He bequeathed his favorite Guarnieri violin to the city of Genoa, where it remains proudly displayed in the town hall to this day.
He knew his limitations and his appeal. At first he tried to play others' works in concert but received mediocre notices. So beginning with his first tour at age 13 (undertaken in part to escape his sadistic father), he programmed nothing but his own material, filled with technical hurdles only he could surmount.
Paganini fiercely guarded his professional secrets. He seldom practiced out loud for fear that he would be overheard and imitated. He always distributed and collected his orchestral scores at each rehearsal and concert. He rarely wrote out his solo parts and usually skipped over them in rehearsal. He made sure that the only way to hear him was to attend his infrequent and pricey concerts.
Paganini published some surprisingly nondescript guitar sonatas and quartets, which he apparently aimed toward amateurs and had no interest in performing himself. Of the violin concerti that formed the centerpieces of his concerts, two were published posthumously, four more were pieced together only recently from manuscripts and transcriptions, and at least two others appear to have been lost entirely.
Aside from one piece reconstructed by a rival from memory of several concert renditions, Paganini's only violin publication was a set of 24 solo Caprices, issued in 1820 but thought to have been written between 1801 and 1807. (Dating Paganini compositions is difficult – intended only as a personal showcase, his style never evolved or deepened from his teens through retirement.) He never performed the Caprices in public. Rather, they were dedicated “Algi artisti” (“to the artists”) and comprise his legacy, a distillation of nearly all his prized techniques in phenomenally difficult settings.
To stretch himself, Paganini often wrote pieces even he couldn't play and then spent months mastering them. Even for today's luminaries, their challenges are formidable. Among their terrors are widely spaced notes (gliding between the outside strings without sounding the inner ones), a “skipping bow” (divided into up to l8 distinct notes without changing direction), sustaining a lush melody on one string while playing trills or rapid harmony on another, bowing to imitate the sound of flutes and horns, wildly chromatic runs, trilled octaves and arpeggiated guitar-like chords, all to be played with the seemingly impossible combination of furious speed and consummate grace. The work ends with a theme and 11 variations that not only sum up the other techniques but add two more dazzlers – a brisk section played only with the downward bow-stroke and another alternating dizzyingly fast bowed and plucked notes.
The only one of Paganini's skills not included in the Caprices is artificial harmonics (produced by partially stopping strings and/or bowing lightly near the bridge), but these can be heard abundantly in nearly every other of his works. Perhaps the most amazing is a set of variations on Rossini's Moses in Egypt, which exploits most of the three-octave range of the violin but is played only on the lowest string (tuned upward by a third), with the stratospheric high tones fingered only millimeters apart.
While all this may sound like a blend of silly acrobatics and the type of dry exercises students love to hate, Paganini infuses each piece with fine melody, captivating harmony and a distinctive sound. Many are far harder to execute than they sound – playing simultaneous lines on different strings is elementary for an ensemble but cruelly challenging for a single player on a lone instrument. They're also exhausting – many of the skills already were familiar as brief flourishes, but require extraordinary focus and energy to sustain without error for several minutes – somewhat like cramming dozens of non-stop stunts into a figure-skating routine.
Few violinists dare to play Paganini nowadays, and even fewer seem willing to risk recording him. The first to rise to the challenge of the complete Caprices was Ruggerio Ricci in 1947; forty years later he topped his feat with a new novelty – a recording on Paganini's own instrument, on which startlingly vivid attacks relieve somewhat his relentless metronomic precision (Biddulph 016). His 1960 Decca set boasts fiery technique and a vivid recording.
Another Paganini pioneer is Salvatore Accardo. While his stylish 1976 set of all the extant concerti was a huge contribution toward reviving Paganini's popularity, his Caprices (DG 29714), while technically impeccable, lack much spark or inspiration. Caution works well nestled within an orchestral setting, but bare solos demand a personal touch.
For that, we can turn to the Caprices of three of today's superstar fiddlers. Iztak Perlman (EMI 547171) is dramatic, stormy, heartfelt and headstrong, while Midori (a mere 17 at the time, CBS 49944) is meltingly poetic, shaping every phrase with exquisite care and awesome atmosphere. Shlomo Mintz (DG 415 043) steers a middle course but, appropriately for Paganini, adds lots of personal interpretive touches of his own.
The most acclaimed set of all is by Michael Rabin, whose career was nearly as bizarre as Paganini's. Widely hailed as the most promising violinist of his generation, Rabin's record debut was a spectacular 1950 LP (now on Sony Heritage MHK 60894) in which he tackled 11 Caprices three weeks after his 14th birthday! Rabin solidified his fame with an integral set in 1958 (EMI 67462) that combines his earlier technical assurance with intense emotion and tangible personality. But within a few years his career faltered, as personal problems led to waning interest and lackluster performances. In 1972, he died, possibly a suicide. Perlman dedicated his own album of the Caprices to Rabin's memory.
Of Paganini's other works, the most popular is his first concerto, but most recordings are disappointingly bland, excepting the earliest (1934, on Biddulph 102) in which 16-year old Yehudi Menuhin nails the solos with a rough, thrilling spontaneity while Pierre Monteux and the Paris Symphony tear through the accompaniment as if to get out of his way. (Of strictly historical interest is a 1936 Fritz Kreisler record (Pearl 9362 or Biddulph 051) that's really more of a fantasy on themes from the first movement, with syrupy solos seeped in saccharine accompaniment – a fascinating artifact but a far cry from the original.)
Speaking of authenticity, Veinus offers a cogent warning – no matter how much you may enjoy them, records or concerts of Paganini's music barely suggest his true artistry. Veinus speculates that Paganini, an irrepressible improviser, never bothered to write out his solo parts in full, since he had no intention of following them anyway, and that Paganini's scores were mere ground plans for musical edifices which he built up extemporaneously during actual performance. We can only imagine the creative fires with which Paganini set the music world ablaze and which have ignited awesome performances ever since.
Copyright 2003 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.