Born in Genoa in October of 1782, Paganini was to become one of the most celebrated violinists of his age. Encouraged and taught as a young boy to play the violin by his Father Paganini soon developed a reputation as a formidable performer. He toured with his Father in his younger years, before striking out on his own. Like so many musicians before him, this gave him the valuable chance to be noticed and to eventually become heralded as one the best violinists of all time.
Rumour and mystery surrounded Paganini throughout his life. Some attributed his gifts to be as a result of a pack with the devil, perpetuated perhaps by his curious appearance. It is speculated that Paganini suffered from two rare syndromes called Marfan’s and Ehlers-Danlos that would have made his limbs and fingers unusually long that almost certainly contributed to his astonishing virtuosity on the violin.
Alongside his reputation as a performer, Paganini was also credited with being a composer of note. Many of his works are composed for his own purposes and performance. Paganini’s regime of study and practice was ridged and strenuous, often up to fifteen hours a day. His compositions demonstrate great compositional fluency and clearly an astonishing grasp of the capabilities of the violin.
The Best of Niccolò Paganini
- 24 Caprices for Solo Violin (Op. 1)
Many consider these works not to be amongst the better compositions by Paganini, but what they are is a testament to his extraordinary technique. The 24th Caprice, in particular, has become an iconic piece that has been arranged in many different forms by composers like Liszt, Rachmaninov and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The Caprices were composed between 1802-1817 and are really a set of studies with each Caprice dedicated to a certain technical aspect of violin playing. This includes specialisms like double trills, rapid string changes, and ricochet bowing. At the time these must have dazzled audiences although these days they have become pieces that are common to many violinists’ repertoires. Of all of the 24 caprices, there are some that have gained their own reputation alongside the 24th.
The 6th in G minor is nicknamed the ‘trill’; the 9th, “The Hunt”; and the 13th “The Devil’s Laughter” in which Paganini uses furiously fast runs and intensely challenging passages of double-stopping. Interestingly Paganini dedicated these pieces to “all artists”, perhaps inviting others to arrange and develop them in their own way.
2. The Guitar Quartets
It is not as well recognised but Paganini was a consummate guitarist. During his lifetime, Paganini wrote fifteen quartets for strings and guitar that gave him the opportunity to explore this richly diverse ensemble (guitar, violin, viola, cello). It is thought that these works may have been inspired by Paganini’s Father who was reportedly a fine mandolin player. In each of the fifteen quartets, Paganini delights with unexpected twists and turns of texture and form.
They highlight the diverse personality of the man who is capable of blunt vulgarity and angelic melodic writing. This gives the quartets a real appeal and another valuable window into the work of this mysterious man.
3. The Violin Concertos
Paganini composed six Concertos for Violin and orchestra during his lifetime. The first concerto (op.6), was composed in the unlikely key of E flat major. This is not an attractive key for violinists as it often requires awkward movements around the strings and does not allow for the natural resonance of the instruments open strings.
Paganini employs a technique known as ‘scordatura’. This requires the violinist to alter the tuning of their instrument to more easily facilitate their performance. For this concerto, Paganini instructs the soloist to raise the tuning of each of the four strings by a semi-tone making some of the technical demands of the concerto far more approachable.
The structure of the concerto is in three movements marked Allegro maestoso; Adagio and Rondo: Allegro spirituso. There are perhaps overtones of Rossini in this piece, especially in the stylistic violin writing. It is a worthy introduction to the music of this composer.
The Second Violin Concerto (Op.7) is perhaps the most celebrated of all six concertos. It is written in the darker key of B minor and in the anticipated three-movement form. Completed in 1826, the concerto gained its popularity because of the third movement nicknamed “La Campanella” or little bell. This is the theme for the rondo and calls for the soloist to mimic the tones of the bell using harmonics. The concerto perhaps does not deserve mention for its originality but for the sheer demonstration of virtuosity.
Concerto number three was completed around 1826 but remained largely unperformed with the exception of its premiere in 1828. The manuscript of the work apparently vanished only to be rediscovered in the 1960s when it was recorded and enjoyed a brief period in the musical spotlight. The work is in E major and in three movements. There are not any extravagant deviations from Paganini’s usual concerto style although the first movement contains a delightful introduction before the march-like Allegro.
The Fourth Concerto was completed in 1829 whilst Paganini was on tour in Germany. Paganini never stopped touring until right at the very end of his life, exploiting every concert opportunity to promote himself and his music. This concerto, in D minor, was greeted with mixed reviews, some branding it vulgar others a delight. The opening movement is dark with noticeable overtones of Beethoven. Paganini demands much of the soloist in this movement although the virtuosic display for its own sake does not dominate to the same extent as in previous works. The slow movement is deeply moving followed by a lively Rondo finale.
The Fifth Concerto is in the key of A minor and comprises of three movements. This concerto has been one of Paganini’s most popular works although it is reportedly only the violin part that exists in manuscript form. The orchestration was completed posthumously. Paganini employs sonata form for the initial movement allowing for more extensive development of the material. In the finale, there is more than a hint of the 24th Caprice.
The Sixth Concerto like the fifth was posthumously orchestrated based on the only part that existed; that of the solo violin. The key is E minor and the form of the familiar fast-slow-fast movements. Curiously, this Concerto was actually composed before the first concerto but remained in relative obscurity until its resurrection many years later.