Friday 21 July 2017

Classic talk: Niccolò Paganini - the Devil's Violinist

Whirlwind: Nicolo Paganini pushed the limits of the violin
Whirlwind: Nicolo Paganini pushed the limits of the violin

George Hamilton

As Sherlock Holmes once observed, there's nothing new under the sun. We may live in the internet age but aspects of life online have certainly been around before.

Take music piracy, for instance. Paganini, who was performing 200 years ago, knew all about it.

Niccolò Paganini was one of the first international stars of the music business - a phenomenal violinist who played like a whirlwind and astonished his audiences with an ability to extract the maximum from his instrument.

A tall, gaunt man, his appearance matched the manic nature of much of the music he played.

He was known as 'The Devil's Violinist' - also the title of a 2013 biopic. There had to be some Faustian pact behind such frenzied performances.

He wrote for himself, pushing the limits of the violin, demonstrating just how far ahead of the rest he was.

There are stories that he'd heighten the excitement, breaking strings as he performed, carrying on regardless, and offering encores when there would be one string left to play.

Just such a pose features in one contemporary portrait. Others featuring Paganini in performance depict an audience looking on open-mouthed in astonishment.

He was a man very much aware of his own worth, and he had his own way of preserving it. Very little of his music was published during his lifetime. He'd provide scores for the orchestra, but he'd play his own part from memory.

Paganini wanted to ensure that nobody else would be able to exploit his extraordinary success. Piracy was obviously on his mind. Sheet music, not audio files, was the currency back then.

Paganini earned himself a reputation as a musician motivated by money. His concerts didn't come cheap. Wherever he performed, he insisted the regular ticket prices were at least doubled.

He made a small fortune touring across Europe and, just short of his 50th birthday, he expanded his horizons to take in London.

There was certainly money to be made there - one estimate put the takings from his first series of concerts at over £10,000, a figure that would equate to around €1.2m in today's money.

Ticket prices had been hiked to a guinea (21 shillings, roughly €130 now), which caused an enormous furore.

The composer tried to explain himself, writing a letter (in French) to The Times, explaining that this was common practice throughout the Continent.

Though it did nothing to diminish his pulling power, it left his reputation somewhat tarnished. "A vampire with a violin," the German poet and critic Heinrich Heine colourfully put it: sucking the money from our wallets.

None of this particularly bothered Paganini. Audiences still thrilled at his dexterity.

The centrepiece of his output - the 24 Caprices or studies for the violin -have been dismissed by some as little more than complex technical exercises designed simply to showcase the composer's own outrageous dexterity.

But his music has always had its admirers. Brahms and Rachmaninov, to name but two, have taken Paganini as a starting point.

So, too, Chopin and Liszt, young men turning 20 when they saw him play. Both were hugely influenced by his performances.

But while Chopin was content - as the American radio series named after him put it - to be the fuse and not the firework, Liszt exploded on to the scene like the whirling Catherine wheel that was Paganini.

Where he had led, Liszt and Chopin followed - Liszt turning his piano side to the audience so they could see him better, transforming his concerts into spectaculars; Chopin preferring the simplicity of the salon.

Inspired by the manic fiddler, Chopin and Liszt between them did for the piano what he had done for the violin.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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