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Paganini’s Compositional Style Its Impact and Challenge

This benefit concert marks only the second time in history that the legendary violin, made by Joseph Guarneri del Gesu (pronounced “Jezu”) (1705? – 1744) in 1743, which belonged to Nicolo Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) will be played in a full recital on the American continent. Eugene Fodor will perform. The first time it was heard in the U.S. was in 1982, in New York, as part of Paganini’s bicentennial celebration, when his 24 Caprices for unaccompanied violin were played on it.

Paganini’s genius extended the technical, emotional and artistic expression of performance art to such a degree that it could be argued it flung open the portals of the Romantic era. His influence extended to nearly every form of art and literature. All of Europe was galvanized by this “Modern Orpheus” — as he was known — in his works of masterful classical compositional precision, beautiful original themes and operatic flavour.

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These were performed with Paganini’s electrifyingly faultless playing of whole passages of new innovations, which included ravishing multiple stopping at dazzling speed, astonishing bow technique, dozens of consecutive rapid plucked notes (left-hand pizzicato), fiendishly difficult double harmonics, and expressive, the dramatic variation of tonal colours in all registers.

His concerts always included a full composition performed entirely on one string — the fourth, with its mesmerizing silver-wound richness, thus fully accomplishing his intent to present violin playing as an extension of the human voice, but with technical resources far beyond vocal imagining.

His fame will never be equalled and his gift to creative imagination can hardly be fully appreciated. His compositions provided technical solutions that were utilized in nearly every great successive violin concerto. His presence changed the lives and destinies of countless artists, including Chopin, Berlioz and Schumann, and served as a starburst of wonder and upliftment to the masses in times of prosperity as well as during oppression and plague. He played many concerts for charity, several times braving exposure to Bubonic plague. His influence is felt to this day by every serious musician who strives to reach his or her true potential.

Schubert, who sold his silver and china in order to buy tickets for his friends to hear Paganini, said “I heard an angel sing when Paganini played his Adagio” and “An artistic comet of this magnitude will never again cross the heavens”. Paganini’s impression on the 20-year-old Franz Liszt was so great that after hearing him, Liszt exclaimed, “What a man! What a violin! What an artist!” He then confined himself to his apartment for over two years to do nothing but practice and compose.

Paganini was given the greatest Guarneri del Gesu violin of all at the age of 15, after gambling away his previous instrument. He never again visited a gaming table. His love for the instrument was unreserved. He referred to its beautiful, booming sound as “the cannon violin” and “the voice of the law”. It remained Paganini’s only concert instrument for the rest of his life. Once, after it was slightly damaged in a fall — the result of entrusting it to two friends for only a few hours — he seated himself next to the famous luthier, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume as it was repaired, much as an agitated father would attend a sick child.

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At a recent Guarneri del Gesu exhibition, 25 of the greatest del Gesus were compared. The “Cannon” reigned supreme for power and quality by a virtually unanimous vote of experts. Its condition can be described as perfect, remaining as Paganini left it, with his fingerboard and its original neck!

Its rich tone and amazing power are truly legendary. Its value far eclipses any other violin in existence and to the discriminating eye it conveys the strongest character and most spine-tingling mystique of any musical instrument on Earth. That the greatest instrument made by the most celebrated maker would fall into the hands of the greatest performer in history, is true justice of destiny. At the time of his death, Paganini generously bequeathed his beloved “Cannon” to his native city of Genoa and specified, “It should be played by serious artists from time to time”.

In using the experience of playing Paganini’s compositions, and analyzing the many accurate sketches of his left hand in playing position, one can readily see that it cannot be considered that his technique, in any way involved a “thumb position”. This erroneous theory, reported recently to explain the slight groove next to the fingerboard on the “Cannon”, states that Paganini’s thumb was the cause by rubbing the top.

The true cause was from the bow rubbing the fiddle in this spot, in a case with no bow holder, (the only kind available in those times) when it travelled for countless weeks and months. This type of wear is typical in many old instruments, including my own del Gesu, but is perhaps more in evidence on Paganini’s violin because it must have been “on tour” at that time, in that type of case, more than we can probably imagine.

A word about Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737): This maker excelled at creating exquisite instruments, with a balance of elegant beauty and sweet tone — several with stunning inlay and carved designs. His output was staggering. His creative techniques were more sophisticated than any maker in history, and owing to this aspect, as well as to their sweet tone, his instruments command the utmost respect (and vast sums).

Although many players and members of royalty have owned and played Stradivari violins, it is del Gesus, brought to world attention by Paganini, that are most sought after by the greatest soloists because of their stunning tonal complexity and power of sound. When their thickness has not been reduced (to ease the player in the emission of sound) they invariably possess the thickest plates of any important maker’s fiddles. This fact, the amount and manner they have been played, and the flair of del Gesu’s inexplicable genius, combine to produce the great magic of these amazing violins.

About 725 Strads still exist, whereas in the case of del Gesu, who was a pall-bearer at Stradivari’s funeral, only about 80 of his instruments survive. Of these numbers, due to condition and period, only about 30 percent are truly magnificent solo instruments — a sad fact — but this is the reason they command millions for the top Strads and up to 20 percent more for the late period del Gesus. Figures for both never stop rising, and Paganini’s Guarneri del Gesu will travel to San Francisco with a $40 million insurance policy!

Paganini often spoke of his keen desire to perform in America. I feel greatly honoured to find it in my destiny to be chosen by the city fathers of Genoa, Italy, to play, in America, a full program selected from Paganini’s personally favored and most famous compositions, on “Il Cannone violino”.

Addendum: Paganini’s Compositional Style — Its Impact and Challenge

It has been said that the glowing reports of Paganini’s artistry in composition and performance were tinted by “rose-colored memories”. There is nothing “rose-colored” in the genius of such contemporaries of Paganini as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Berlioz and others, whose reports claim his total mastery as a composer and genius as a performer in absolute terms.

It is important to understand Paganini’s music in the context of his cultural heritage and his enthusiastic adherence to traditional compositional values. His studies, in addition to violin, included guitar, counterpoint, music history, theory, harmony, and orchestration. His compositional gifts were widely recognized from an early age, as is reflected by the many commissions for chamber music and concertos he received from well-known string and wind players.

Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin alone and his Concerti represent a quintessential accomplishment, presenting the violin solo artist with enough technical and musical challenges to inspire a lifetime of dedication to the highest level of mastery. Beneath the mere notes lies a most profound vehicle for the evocation of mysteries that potentially define the human spirit. Thus is the sublime mystery of the violin as Paganini knew it, like no other — that most noble, powerful, yet intimate of solo instruments. Through the medium of these works, the artist, in dedicating a life to the mastery of the instrument, has the opportunity of revealing mesmerizing musical wizardry through contrapuntal harmonies of visceral power set in dramatic thematic material of the highest order.

Utilizing extended passages in double and multiple stopping, Paganini has provided complete support for expressing the unique, heartfelt reflection of his deep musical inspiration. The stunning inventiveness of the Caprices and Concerti goes so far beyond mere technical display, that one cannot overstate their merit. How were these miraculous pieces devised? I believe these works were the products of Paganini’s life-defining genius — discipline, complete dedication to expanding the boundaries of violin playing, immersion in the company of great musicians, musicianship and fiery passion for his art.

In his Caprices, Paganini’s countless unprecedented, ingenious effects are revealed and remain the ultimate challenge in violin playing. Among these are rapid, arpeggiated passages with ricochet bowing, presenting thematic modulation; themes and counterpoint in continuous intervals of between one and three octaves, requiring continuous rapid string crossings, complete with double-stopping; extended octave playing of beautiful themes and double trills; an entire Caprice in double stop trilling; usage of thirds, sixths, fingered and normal octaves, and tenths, in every conceivable combination. In total, an incalculable contribution to the scope and advancement of violin playing as well as to musical inspiration.

Paganini’s Concerti for violin and orchestra can be eerily mesmerizing in their wonderful complexity, mystery, beautiful themes and counterpoint. Their iridescent beauty is complemented by the amazing originality and harmonic appeal of the musical ideas, such as the Rondo “La Clochette”, the Adagio inspired by a tragic Italian stage play, and the nobility of the large scale “Maestoso” first movements.

One additional and remarkable effect in his concerti is in the development section of the first movements, combining a beautiful cantilena or recitative, building and leading to a chordal, highly charged rhythmic figure of extreme virtuosity, at first giving the impression of merely technical acrobatics, but quickly and magically transforming itself into high musical merit, while climaxing to even more technically dazzling heights.

The double harmonics and left hand pizzicati present an incredible effect, impossible to describe, but their difficulty limits their success to only a chosen few artists able to play them. This is also true for many passages for the G string in his concerti. I believe firmly in playing all these notes solid, with vibrato, instead of using the much easier open harmonics in many of the upper notes on this string. I addition, I am compelled to play significant notes on the upper G string (as I am sure Paganini did) for the rich sound it produces, rather than the commonly accepted manner of using the upper strings in first, second or third position.

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One must recognize the powerful effect that Beethoven had on Paganini’s works, especially so in the continuity of rhythm. Just as in Beethoven’s music and for that matter, the works of any great composer, an indulgence in rhythmic aberration for technical convenience renders the music ineffective.

The human body has to feel a continuing pulse in thematic and developmental presentation for true satisfaction. The obvious exception to this, of course, lies in certain recitative passages and in cadenzas of many works. But in general, the most inexperienced listener will completely enjoy (provided it is played in tune, with good tone) or psychologically reject great music based on the stability of rhythm, often not knowing why.

Paganini’s music has often been erroneously criticized for a lack of depth. I believe this is so because of the manner in which it is sometimes played. Without a rock-solid basis of rhythmic consistency, it does indeed fall flat. the tremendous variety of figuration gives way to the impression of technical display only when passages are not unified with precisely the same tempo. I have heard this often, especially in orchestral tuttis, performed by qualified and even major orchestras, rushed by unsympathetic conductors. Even Mozart’s music becomes cheap if subjected to excessive tempos in order to speed things along or in an effort to impress.

For the sake of the soloist’s convenience, the type of distortion most often occurring is in themes being played faster in tempo (beats per minute) than rapid passages in double and multiple stopping, extended fast runs and arpeggios as well as double harmonics. The slower tempi make these passages more playable but degrade their integrity to a less than exciting level. This distortion is sadly, seldom recognized by the public or critics, but all music’s effectiveness is dependent on rhythmic stability more than any other single factor.

The works of Nicolo Paganini provide a standard by which all other solo violin music can be measured in terms of difficulty and integrity of virtuosity. Instead of being shallow, as some critics ignorantly characterize Paganini’s compositions, these works can be recognized, when played with technical mastery, rhythmic precision, enthusiasm and musical maturity, as powerful resources of inspiration for better interpreting the other great masterpieces of the solo violin repertoire — the great architecture of Bach, the vast warmth of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the glorious charm of Mendelssohn, the Latin fire of Lalo, the invincible solidity of Beethoven or the glowing intensity of Sibelius, Nielsen and Bartok.

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