In continuation of one of my graduate papers, this is Part 2 of 4, Niccolò Paganini: The Virtuoso, and His Impact on Romantic Era Instrumentalists and Composers.
In 1795, he spent a year studying in Parma with the concertmaster of the Royal Orchestra, Allesandro Rolla. He was still accompanied by his father at this point and put on a successful benefit concert in order to raise the funds necessary for the trip. Rolla, upon hearing him play at his home in Parma, immediately referred him to the director of the Parma Conservatory, Ferdinand Paer, who then referred him to the conductor Gasparo Ghiretti. For six months Paganini received several lessons a week in counterpoint. Paer then met with Paganini twice a day for composition lessons. This intense time of composition study brought the young Paganini much satisfaction.
The next four years were unsettled for Paganini and his family. He had to return home to Genoa because of an illness, only to leave again with his family under the threat of Napoleon’s army for Ramirone, Italy. Here he took up the guitar with ease and composed several works for guitar and violin. He continued to perform in small halls and venues. Then, in 1801, at the age of eighteen, he finally left the auspices of his demanding father and was appointed leader of the orchestra, and then solo violinist to the court, in Lucca.
The following year, he acquired an important violin:
Once finding myself in Leghorn without a violin, a Monsier Livron lent me
an instrument to play a Viotti concerto and then made me a present of it…
The wealthy businessman and music lover, Monsier Livron, lent me a
Guarneri because I had no violin with me. However, when I finished playing
he refused to take it back.
This incredible violin was just one of several that Paganini owned over his career, but it’s significance remains today. Nicknamed the “Cannon”, Paganini’s use of this remarkable instrument has secured eternal value for Guarneri instruments.
The years in Lucca were filled with many performances, large and small. He dazzled audiences with his extraordinary style and gusto. He was challenged at one of his court concerts to perform a piece using only the G string, the lowest, and the E string, the highest. He did not disappoint as he portrayed an elaborate “love scene” with two characters taking the voices of the two strings utilized. The voice of Adonis took the low G string, and Venus the high E string. The Princess Elise Baciocchi, who was the hereditary ruler of the court, and Napoleon’s sister, was pleased and challenged him further by urging him to play an entire piece on one string. She said, “You have just performed impossibilities on two strings; would not a single string suffice for your talent?” He then wrote the “Napoleon” Sonata which is performed entirely on the G string, an amazing feat for the violin. It covers three octaves and is a profound technical achievement. For Paganini now, the musicianship was second to the virtuosity he could display. Toby Faber writes,
String-breaking stunts, scordatura (deliberate mistuning of strings), and raising the pitch of the violin by a semi-tone for increased brilliance: all were part of Paganini’s dramatic stock in trade.”
Part 3 and 4 will continue with Paganini’s traveling and influence on other musicians and composers.
I would be very interested to know of violinists now who also use such “stunts” as string breaking, scordatura, and raising the pitch of the strings by a semitone for brilliance. I am unaware of how this would be received in the strictly classical musician world, even when performing Paganini, as I have never witnessed it myself.