24 Capriccio RealAudio
Paganini's popular reputation always rested on his phenomenal technique as a violinist coupled with a showman's ability to dominate the audience and to stupefy those who heard him with astonishing feats of virtuosity. His astoundingly innovative technical concepts inspired a new generation of virtuoso musician, setting a new standard with which instrumental virtuosity became measured. To appreciate the importance of Paganini on solo instrumentalists, this paper will focus on the various new violin techniques and their effect on musical society during the 19th century. |
From the age of five, the young Paganini was made to practice for hours at a time. Perhaps out of boredom, he often experimented with different techniques. As the boy's confidence grew, so to did his command of both the conventional and "original" technique. As Chopin later described, Paganini's playing was to develop into "absolute perfection".
Paganini's first major composition included many of these "original" techniques. Written in 1805, the 24 Caprices for solo violin are generally regarded as the finest music Paganini ever wrote. They were published in Milan in 1820 as the composer's Opus 1. Though dedicated "Agli artisti", or to "the artists", the violinists of the time declared them to be too difficult to play. However, in time Paganini would convince audiences all over Europe that they could be played. Furthermore, the techniques could be incorporated into the standard compositions of the day, as well as provide an exciting basis for many new pieces.
An interesting aspect is that the Caprices are a remarkable compendium of Paganini's technique as a performer. In them are all of the musical elements that made him the most talked about violinist of his day. Not only is each caprice a unique technical challenge, but the sheer beauty and originality of the music enables one to see why Paganini's concerts, as described by one critic, "raised furore upon furore".
This marked the first real beginning of Paganini's revolution of conventional violin technique. However, several more years would pass before the techniques become truly accepted and widespread throughout Europe. To illustrate, in the second decade of the 19th century, Paganini, although a respected virtuoso, was still not confident enough to challenge the standard and established form of the concerto. He had already composed several concertos of his own, but he still continued to include movements from concertos by Viotti and his disciples, Rode and Kreutzer, in his programs.
Nevertheless, Paganini was different from most as he almost certainly embellished these works with technical difficulties of his own devising; this was certainly true when he performed Kreutzer's Double violin concerto in F with the French virtuoso Lafont in 1816. Paganini himself recalled: "where the two violins played together, I held strictly note for note to the written text so that Lafont was ready to wager that we both belonged to the same school. But in the solo passages I gave free rein to my imagination and played in the Italian manner that is really natural to me."
Known as the father of the modern violin, almost every technique that Paganini made famous in his later compositions had been exploited through the Caprices. These included double stop harmonics, ricochet and spiccato bowing, left hand pizzicatos, fourth string harmonics, flying staccato, and extended passages of double, triple and even quadruple stops. However, not all of Paganini's devices were entirely successful to begin with. Louis Spohr, Paganini's great rival, expressed some disapproval for some of these, now trademark, techniques. In particular, the alternation of bowed notes and notes plucked with the left hand.
"...a strange mixture of consummate genius, childishness and lack of taste, so that one is alternately charmed and repelled. In my own case the total impression, especially after frequent hearings was by no means satisfying and I've no desire to hear him again." In spite of Spohr's patronizing tone, as well as the various protests of other violinists, the new techniques held, and by the end of the century were now part of the "conventional" violin technique.
In light of all the fame (and subsequent wealth) that Paganini acquired as a result, it is ironic that few of these techniques were actually original. Even the concept of the 24 Caprices was based upon the forgotten, but prodigiously innovative Pietro Locatelli. L'art del Violino was the title of Locatelli's caprices, and through them, all of the techniques had been exploited in the late 18th century by Bohemian violinist Jakob Scheller and the Polish violinist August Duranowski.
At that time, the technical feats had roused astonishment, but it was felt that such tricks were unworthy of a true artist. At the start of the 19th century, however, the time was ripe for someone who could combine technical wizardry with the more emotional musical language of Romanticism.
Paganini possessed all the necessary qualifications, not only musically, but personality wise as well. His gaunt, aquiline features and somber clothing gave rise to legends of associations with the Devil. With a characteristic understanding of the value of public relations, Paganini did not deny these stories (as it enabled him to often triple the usual price of a ticket), but instead told of an angelic visitation to his mother, foretelling his birth and his genius. As a result, he became the first major "superstar" of the 19th century, giving a certain degree of credibility to the new techniques and the new style of music which incorporated them.
In the 20th century, the techniques that Paganini developed are now commonplace in the standard violin repertoire. However, to audiences, critics and musicians alike that were hearing Paganini for the first time, the usual reaction was a combination of shock, veneration and astonishment. For instance, after a performance, a dazed Viennese critic wrote: "Never has an artist caused such a terrific sensation within our walls as this god of the violin.".
After Paganini had performed at a concert in Genoa on the 21st of May, 1824, a reviewer wrote ecstatically: "whoever has not heard him, has no idea of how he is totally in command of every aspect of the instrument. Through his absolutely original and brilliant playing, which implies somewhat towards melancholy but is at the same time boisterous and witty, he irresistibly carried the orchestra and audience along with him." Others were less florid in their descriptions: a Viennese critic concluded perfectly by calling Paganini (and in turn his developments of violin technique) "simply the greatest instrumentalist the world of music has ever known."
In reference to the orchestra, after Paganini's premiere performance with the London Symphony the principle violinist offered to sell his violin to anyone for 18 pence. Furthermore, many highly respected musicians were also impressed. In Berlin, Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his friend, the pianist Ignaz Moscheles, "His never-erring execution is beyond conception. You ask too much if you expect me to give a description of his playing. It would take up the whole letter; for he is so original, so unique, that it would require an exhaustive analysis to convey an impression of his style."
During his "Conquest of Europe", Paganini and the new techniques became increasingly written about. After a concert in London, England on June 3rd, 1831, The Times wrote: "...he forms a class by himself, and produces effects which he has been the first to discover, and in which few, if any, imitators will be able to follow him". This statement was actually quite flawed, but it does serve to quantify the excitement that Paganini and the "effects" caused.
Even the image of the violin was changing. No longer was the violin gracious, and beautiful instrument of the Classical era. Of course, it still could be, but the new style that Paganini popularized allowed players to explore the darker side of the instrument. The London paper, The Courier, described Paganini's violin as "a wild animal which he is endeavoring to quiet in his bosom, and which he occasionally, fiend-like, lashes with his bow".
Additional praise was given from Rossini, Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, Donizetti, Liszt, Auber, Heine, De Musset, Delacroix and George Sand; all of whom attended Paganini's sensational Paris debut in 1831. Paganini himself was not above stating the wonder of his brilliant new style, as in 1818 he had been quoted as saying "...there emanates from my playing a certain magic which I cannot describe to you".
In regard to the Caprices, almost all emphasize one or more of Paganini's "magical" techniques. Caprice no. 1 is a display of balzato (leaping) bowing, in arpeggiated figuration. Out of all the 24 Caprices, the first is actually one of the most unoriginal. This technique had been used in the Baroque era, especially by Vivaldi in some of his Violin concertos (Concerto RV 332, movement three). However, Paganini managed to incorporate a modern, Romantic sound, due in part to the extremes in range, as well as the use of double and triple stops at various key places in the Caprice.
In contrast to Vivaldi and the Baroque and Classical eras, the left hand became much more important to the violin. Vivaldi's various concertos for violin relied primarily upon a very firm and fluid right bowing hand. While the right hand was obviously still important, Paganini's works for violin made further use of the left hand, as exemplified by left hand pizzicato (tenth variation of the 24th Caprice), extreme range and flexibility. The second and third Caprices, for example, demand wide stretches and extensions in left-hand technique.
Unlike what some of Paganini's compositions have been criticized for, the effect is musical, not merely showy. From beginning to end, this piece has structure, rhythm, melody and style. Most of the Caprices are similarly endowed, with scarcely one exclusively an exercise in technical dexterity. In musical terms, the 24 Caprices have meaning.
It is not known if Paganini ever performed the 24 Caprices in public, but it is likely that they would have caused as much excitement as the other well known pieces of his, such as the violin concertos, Moto Perpetuo, Perpetuola, Le Streghe and the Napoleon Sonata. Without the 24 Caprices, violin technique could quite possibly have remained stagnant for many years. Instead, Paganini's finest composition enabled modern violinists to fully exploit all of the possibilities of the instrument, enhancing a new musical language that influenced instrumental virtuosity throughout the 19th and subsequently, 20th centuries.