Saturday, 11 April 2015


“I am not handsome, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet.” -  Nicolò Paganini

Nicolò Paganini (1782 - 1840) was the greatest violinist of his age, exercising a strong influence on the developing technique of violin playing and, through his virtuosity on the instrument, on the ambitions of performers on other instruments.

Born in Genoa in 1782, he studied there, at first with his father. He spent eight years from 1801 at Lucca, later as solo violinist to the court of Napoleon’s sister, who was installed there as ruler by her brother. From 1810 he travelled as a virtuoso, at first in Italy and then, from 1828, abroad, causing a sensation wherever he went, his phenomenal technique giving rise to rumours of diabolical assistance.

In 1836, Paganini returned to Paris to set up a casino. Its immediate failure left him in financial ruin, and he auctioned off his personal effects, including his musical instruments, to recoup his losses. At Christmas of 1838, he left Paris for Marseilles and, after a brief stay, travelled to Nice where his health condition worsened. In May 1840, the Bishop of Nice sent Paganini a local parish priest to perform the last rites. Paganini assumed the sacrament was premature, and refused.

A week later, on 27 May 1840, Paganini died from internal haemorrhaging before a priest could be summoned. Because of this, and his widely rumoured association with the devil, the Church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took four years and an appeal to the Pope before the Church let his body be transported to Genoa, but it was still not buried. His remains were finally laid to rest in 1876, in a cemetery in Parma. In 1893, the Czech violinist, František Ondříček, persuaded Paganini’s grandson, Attila, to allow a viewing of the violinist's body. After this bizarre episode, Paganini’s body was finally reinterred in a new cemetery in Parma in 1896.

Paganini wrote a number of works for violin and orchestra for his own concert use. These include five numbered concertos, the second of which, the Concerto in B minor, contains the movement ‘La campanella’, borrowed later by Liszt. Sets of variations for violin and orchestra include ‘I palpiti’, based on an operatic aria by Rossini, and ‘Le streghe’, based on a theme from an opera by Mozart’s pupil Süssmayr.

Music of another kind is provided in the works for violin and guitar written by Paganini, who also had a considerable interest in the second instrument. These compositions include groups of sonatas and a set of quartets for guitar and string trio. Paganini’s 24 caprices for unaccompanied violin provide a compendium of violin technique and vehicles for dazzling virtuosic display. The last of the caprices was used by Brahms for two books of piano variations on the theme, and by Rachmaninov in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra.

The Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 6, was composed by Niccolò Paganini in Italy, probably between 1817 and 1818. The concerto reveals that Paganini’s technical wizardry was fully developed. Contemporary audiences gasped at the extended passages of double-stop thirds, both chromatic and in harmonics. Paganini intended the Concerto to be heard in E-flat major: the orchestral parts were written in E-flat, and the solo part was written in D major with instructions for the violin to be tuned a semitone high (a technique known as scordatura) so that it would therefore sound in E-flat. This enables the soloist to achieve effects sounding in E-flat, which would not be possible with a normal D tuning.

Paganini’s original published scoring was for 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 trombone, and strings. In the years following the original publication of the work, Paganini occasionally expanded his orchestration, writing out some odd parts to add from time to time in performance: 2nd flute, 2nd bassoon, doubled the horns, added trombones 1 & 2 (moving the existing trombone part to trombone 3 basso), timpani, and banda turca (bass drum, crash cymbals, and suspended cymbal). He never added these into the one and only manuscript score.

Here is the Concerto No 1 op. 6 of Niccolò Paganini. Shlomo Mintz (violin solo) Limburg Symphony Orchestra Maastricht directed by Yoel Levi. Mintz plays a violin that belonged to Paganini made by Guarnieri del Gesù in 1743, known as the “Cannone”.
The concerto is in three movements:
Allegro maestoso – Tempo giusto
Rondo. Allegro spirituoso – Un poco più presto

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes the Church got it totally wrong! Because Paganini died before a priest could be summoned, the Church denied his body a Catholic burial in Genoa? . And I wonder what it meant about his "widely rumoured association with the devil". After all, we are talking about the middle of the 19th century, not the medieval era.