Work on ‘Il Cannone’

Posted on December 6th, 2009 by

Envelope containing thick gut strings used by Paganini

Envelope containing thick gut strings used by Paganini

October 20th 2014. I have been asked to write a short piece talking about the experience of performing on Paganini’s wonderful violin on Gut strings. To date, I am the only person to have done this, it seems! Here is what I wrote yesterday. 


Like many violinists, I feel as if I have known ‘Il Cannone’ for the whole of my life, but nothing could prepare for my first encounter with it, straight out of the show case, a few years ago. From the very first, I wanted to play the violin, as it were, in the purest state, with gut strings, and with no chin rest or shoulder rest. At this first ‘meeting’ I was able to play on the violin for a number of hours, and took the time to work through many of the Paganini ‘Capricci’, to explore colour and timbre. This process extended when the violin came to London the following year, and I was able to play on the violin, on gut still, with a chamber orchestra (who, by the way, were playing on modern set up). During that time, I also was given the opportunity to spend time with a microphone recording my reactions to the violin, in private. Shortly afterwards, I came to Genoa, to perform on the violin at the ‘Paganiniana’, this time on modern ‘set-up’. I think that this puts me in a good position to talk about some of the opportunities that arise from this. I should note, that I am very accustomed to performing on unfamiliar instruments, at relatively short notice, ranging from Fritz Kreisler’s ‘de Gesu’ in Washington, to Ole Bull’s Guarnerius in Bergen.
If there was one thing which I would highlight about the experience of playing on the ‘Cannon’ on Gut, with the Paganini Bridge (copy) it is that the violin works in ‘registers’. By this, I mean that they ‘zones’ of the violin-by that I don’t just mean pitches, but also the ‘hand-zones’ on the instrument (such as high on the g string, low on the d and a string) and so one, each have clearly defined colours and ‘edges’. This is much more marked playing the violin on gut (and with the bridge) than on a modern setup-where the registers are more homogenised. There are two reasons that this registral delineation is important. Firstly, it reflects Paganini’s own music; by way of example, the two voices of the ‘rondo’ material in Capriccio 9, (imitating flutes, and imitating horns), are extremely colourfully defined. This also matches the arrangement of contemporaneous fortepianos, where the registers are equally clearly defined.
I also found that the extreme colours which Paganini specialised in (such as sul ponticello and sul tasto ) result in far more colourful, even ‘haunted’ spectra with the violin in this set up, lending credence to audiences’ excited response to these timbral effects, as well as to the power of the instrument. It’s important to note that with gut strings on, the violin still ‘lives up to its name’; I did not encounter any problems of balance, playing with a modern orchestra.
If I am to refer to one other clarification which resulted from playing on this instrument set up thus, it was that the ‘non-flageoletti; illustrated in his Segreto work perfectly, and match true ‘flageoletti’ elegantly set up thus.
One not about the bridge. I had spent a lot of time working on Paganini’s postural style. I discovered that the narrow bridge, coupled with his unique posture and bow hold, and the very light touch which the violin needed, enabled me to move around the instrument quickly and easily.
These are only a couple of observations, and can be expanded at will.



Transcription of investigative session on the del Gesu ‘Il Cannone’. Royal Academy of Music, Spring 2006#

Paganini-A Major Prelude (Unpublished)
Peter Sheppard Skaerved playing Il Cannone

Gut strings, Paganini model bridge. 2006 London

Peter Sheppard Skaerved working on ‘Il Cannone’

LINK to Paganini-Capriccio ‘non cor piu’-1820 (Magdeburg MS) version



Peter with Paganini’s del Gesu ‘Il Cannone’. Rehearsing, London 2006. Photo: Richard Bram



[Unedited transcript]

As part of the agreement which I made with the City of Genoa, it was decided to carefully document my responses to the violin. Last spring, when I went to Italy for the first time to meet the violin, I was very lucky to have a number of hours to become accustomed to the instrument in the restored setup, and to take a first step towards some sort of understanding of its potential. This violin is so unique, that I have to say that there is really no way that, just by playing it for a rehearsal and a concert, that one could ever do more than scratch the surface of it s potential. It is worth remembering, that if  the story of Paganini’s acquisition on il Canone are true, then he had played on it, developed a whole world of sound, and an alter ego in dialogue with this instrument before for over two decades, before he began his international career. He remains, the only violinist to be popularly associated with only one violin, something which he encouraged, in what was ‘fed’ to the media, in conversation, and in iconography-the Minasi sketch is a powerful illustration of this.

When I first played the violin in Genoa, it seemed to me, to be very important to get a some kind of overview of the range of the instrument, as exploited by Paganini. After all, just as Viottt was the first violinist to be associated with the Stradivari’s work, Paganini was the first to be famous for his relationship with del Gesu. Despite the salient fact that this violin was not made for this player, he adjusted it to fit him-note the Sawicki fingerboard made for the instrument when he was visisting Vienna in 1829. And of course, he adjusted himself to fit it. In Genoa, I made a particular point of working through most of the Op 1 caprices on the violin.

At this point, it is important to note that there remains no tradition of performing Paganini on gut strings. The simple explanation for this is that, as of the past few decades, the exploration of 19th Century techniques, has mainly come from baroque specialists moving towards the modern day, usually lacking the technical skills to play the physically extremely demanding music of the 19th century; so the sound world of Paganini on gut strings has not been explored in more than a few exploratory sessions. To make matters worse, the initial reaction to the instrument came from two major players who had not experience whatsoever playing gut setup. Looking at the transcripts of their statements, upon playing the violin in 2004, it is clear that neither of them was responding to il Canone from the standpoint of someone versed in playing gut strings. What was clearly being documented was their reactions, which were slightly different, to playing gut strings at all…To my complete shock, One even opined that there was nothing to be learnt from the experience. This is clearly nonsensical-there would have been much to have been learnt even if the set-up was not a success.

I am standing in the York Gate Galleries at the Royal Academy of Music holding the Del Gesu violin known as il Canone. For the next hour of so, I am going to take it through some of the colours that it has, that set it aside from other instruments.

I first encountered this violin last April in Genoa. Of course, like every other violinist, I had spent much of my life wondering about what it was about this violin that made it so special. But what was amzing for me when I first ‘met’ it was the fact that, courtesy of the team in Genoa, led by Bruce Carlsson, it has been restored to the condition it was when the city of Genoa received it in 1851. This is likely to have been pretty much the state that it was in when Paganini played it. This has some very important ramifications for the performance of Paganini’s music today.

This will be quite random, a little disorganized; I am going to work my way through some aspects of that.

As is clear from all documentation, indeed all the pictures around us (Maclise, Lane etc), Paganini played on this violin without making use of the new innovation of the ‘chin rest.’ I am using a chin rest to protect the instrument, which is also why I am playing with a large piece of chamois leather; like Paganini, I play without a ‘shoulder rest’, so we want to prevent perspiration getting onto the back of the violin.

Paganini played with a slightly different position from the modern norm,/ with the instrument  long way around to the front of his body, held low, with the scroll often down as far as waist level. There are of course, good reasons for this eccentric hold, which was flying in the face of all the new pedagagoy devolving from Paris. As you will see from the painting next to us here, he also played with the bow held a long way along the stick.

This hold worked in concert with the narrow bridge which was on the instrument when it was gifted to the city of Genoa. The low hold, combined with the bridge and the high held bow, with the upper arm held close the the body, ensured a much easier access from low strings to high strings. So, if you are playing a simple cross string ricochet (plays), the fiddle is low and you don’t have to move so far to get to the strings. (Plays chain of rising diminished 7th arpeggiations.

As soon as one begins to play and listen to this violin, one notices, a lot more overtones and harmonics coming from it than I would expect to get from a ‘standard’ and ‘modern’ set-up instrument.

All of these sounds (plays high harmonics), are much more to the fore in the tone of the instrument. Even I play a quiet melody on it, such as the Lafont (Spontini), which I am going to be performing on it tonight (plays), one hears that there is a lot of texture in the sound, a unique internal sparkle.

(Plays Paganini 1838 prelude).

I find, and this is a surprise, that the set-up encourages the low hold; it pulls you down, and round to the front. I cannot help doing it.

(plays high double-stopped harmonics)

Now. I will go through the range of harmonics on each string. (Plays natural harmonics). In this setup, the harmonics on both the major and minor third (plays) speak much more readily than with the modern set-up. There is no composer for whom that is as important as Paganini, for all the chords in thirds (plays), which demand this. It is not until Ligeti, in the twentieth century, that these flageolets become so much in demand. In addition, on this violin, if you play [ a rising scale in thirds, on the a and e strings] (plays), there is a lot more ‘extra material’ in the sound, [the ‘texture’ to which I referred earlier.]

Now the ‘Bruck-Wurlitzer'[of Paganini’s segreto] manuscript in New York includes extra notes, as well as all the standard combinations that I just played, such as this; a fingered 10th (plays) with a fingered harmonic across a perfect fifth, played 1-3, at the bottom of it, played, to add difficulty, in first position on the G and D string (plays). Interestingly, that works instantly on this violin.  It is a harmonic (plays e’) and the ‘fingered’ note [the c’]. The usually problematic balance [between the normale and flageolet] is resolved on this violin [whether due to the violin it self, the set-up, or the combination I am not sure].

(plays c’e’)

What is particularly interesting about this chord, is that the stretch required to get to it instantly puts your hand into Paganini’s [well-documented, unique] hand position., with the centrally placed thumb, or with the thumb sometimes laid flat. Because there is juist no other way to get to that stretch; Paganini’s hands were not that big. They were moderate size, like mine. But, like me, he had the ability to open the hand into an hyperextension, like this. The fingered tenth plus the fifth harmonic that features so prominently in the Bruck-Wurlitzer segreto is a good ‘primmer’ for any player to get a sense of Paganini’s hand position, and a way of experiencing its practicalilty.

Now another notable feature of the Bruck-Wurlitzer manuscript is a mixture between fingered harmonics such as this (plays b”), and ‘scratch sounds’ (plays g’, sounding g”), which is not a harmonic, but rather a ‘scratched’ g’ on the D string. (plays the two together) You absolutely cannot get that [sound] on a modern instrument with a modern set-up. (plays again-same)

And this is one of the areas that Paganini was most definitely interested in keeping secret.

In this Manuscript, which he sent to [his lawyer] Germi, he ordered Germi to destroy it as soon as he had read it. All of the players of the time knew how to play (plays) [fingered harmonic scales], that was obvious, and all of them knew about (plays c”e”) double harmonics in thirds. That had been written about in treatises for nearly a century before. There was nothing new, and nothing secret about either of these techniques.

But what it seems that he was very concerned about was about what happened when he got down to the bottom of the instrument, after you got beyond this harmonic (plays), and you need to go further.[ Here contemporary knowledge failed]. His answer was this mixture of harmonic and scratch, which produces the ‘fake’ effect. [It is highly noticeablel listening back to this recording, how particularly effective this is on his violin, in a way that would be unimaginable on a Strad].

This is why, I feel, he kept to the front of the stage, turning away from the musicians behind him. In the painting of his 1831 debut in London, ‘The Modern Orpheus’ Paganini is shown standing at the front of th stage, whilst Robert Lindley, Nicolas Mori and Dragonetti straining to see round the front, to try and see what was going on; how was he doing it? This was what, I believe, he did not want the other players on stage to find out. Interestingly, none of his contemporaries in London, and they collaborated with him extensively, seemed to fathomed this technique out. And is worth pointing out this was a distinguished list: Mori, Eliasson, Spagnoletti, Cramer, and Lindley, who worked with him extensively both on the the public stage and in more intimate chamber sessions. None of them used this technique in their works, for all their technical innovations. It was only in the late 20th century, that the technique resurfaced, in public, at any rate.

(Plays beginning of 2nd Concerto, 20th Caprice)

An important difference between the basic make up of a del Gesu and a Stradivarius, from a players standpoint, is that what is interesting about a Stradivarius is that it (picking up 1699 Crespi) it is basically even across the whole register of the instrument. (plays) You could say that, to a degree, there was a degree of anonymity between the four strings of a Strad. In stark contrast, if you take a del Gesu like this one, it is almost as if each string has its own particular character, between the G (plays), which is markedly different from this (plays D string),  and the a string, which is this very distinctive, very deep sound (plays), and this amazing, almost ghostly E-string (plays).

I am going to state the completely obvious, which is to say that, if you look at Paganini’s music, it tends to explore the differences between the characters of the four strings in a way that, to be very broad about it, Viotti’s music does not. To my way of listening, Viotti seems to be much more interesting in the unanimity of the instrument, whereas Paganini’s music, like this violin, is not about equality across the instrument at all.

Now I would like to explore the kind of attack that you can get from this instrument. (Plays opening of Nel Cor Piu Non mi Sento). What is wonderful about this little bridge, is if you want to play a four note chord such as (pays Csharp-G -Bflat-E )-it is just there. On a modern bridge, it is almost impossible to get to those notes simultaneously, withouth making the violin shout, or breaking the chord. (repeats, plus ricochet).

In addition, the real revelation of these strings has been to be to do with ‘Left-hand pizzicato’, so that if I were to play (Theme from Nel Cor Piu…). The balance is so much better than with the modern strings, as the thickness of the strings, and their free ringing quality means that it is not necessary to ‘hook’, the string away from the fingerboard.

In addition, another feature that has come to light through consideration of the violin with these particularly gut strings is as follows. (plays) Because these strings speak fo sfeelyh and are so ‘forgiving’, it is possible to bow an open string and pizzicato the same, at the same time, without the arco note being in the least bit compromised.. (plays). This is not possible on conventional strings, wound or gut, and opens up a new freedom in the execution of such pieces as this one.(repeats figure). On a metal string, this would just send the bow flying and disrupt the legato.

We really have very little evidence as to what Paganini’s left hand pizzicato fingerings were. The climax of this theme (plays), this left hand pizzicato scale up and down, is so much easier. You don’t get that bump as the bow swaps with the left fingers as you play a donwnward run in first postion.

Another feature of these gut strings, is that in addition to the expected closeness in sound between open and fingered strings when playing pizzicato, there is a natural flow between pizzicato harmonics and normale playing.

It strikes me as interesting (tuning violin) that Paganini was one of the few violinists to be depicted in the act of tuning his instrument.

Earlier on this sessions, I played the unpublished 1838 Prelude which is a reminder of his love of contrapuntal music, something which has received precious little attention over the years. Whilst I was playing it, I noticed that the violin is particularly strong between the A and D strings, round about here (plays double stops on these strings, between  4th and 2nd positions). Many commentators commentated on the beauty and ease of his two part playing. They frequently remarked on the almost choral, or as Leigh Hunt had it, organlike quality of his two part writing in the middle of the instrument. Perhaps this might have been inspired by how uniquely good this instrument is there. On many violins, even great ones, this is an area of weakness. I will just make sure that we have a nice clean version of the Prelude. For the record, as it were (plays Prelude).

Again, this is very obsious, but it is always very exciting to bring a piece back to an instrument that it has not seen or heard, so to speak, for 150 years. These are always inspiring reunions. (plays Lafont).

Interestingly, when Paganini encounted Lafont’s 1699 Stradivarius (Now know as the Lady Tennant), he was tempted to get a similar one for himself. It was reported that he felt that Lafont’s instrument was better than his. I am tempted to suggest that this is a misunderstanding, partially arising from the number of violins with which Pagnaini was accustomed to traveling, and clearly, if he was using the range of scordaturae his pieces demanded, he would have been accustomed to playing multiple violins in one concert. I feel that what is most likely is that he realized that Lafont’s instrument was particularly suited to a certain kind of violin playing, particularly the highly agile, deftly coloured music of his French rival, which was, certainly in 1816, somewhat in advance of his tendency to a certain heavy handedness.

I would like to draw attention to another practical feature of this unusual bridge. If I play the beginning of Paganini’s 16th Caprice, slowly, the advantage of the bridge become clear. This caprice, which is almost Bach like in quality, demands an ease of string crossing, devoid of strain, which is very difficult to attain with the modern bridge, the high modern hold and the weight of the Tourte bow. Yet again, I must emphasis that the advantages of this bridge, this bow hold and the apparently hunched posture only become truly apparent in combination.

Plays Caprice No 6

I asked Alberto Giordano if the stop length on the violin was normal, as it does not seem unusual to me. He reassured me that yes, the string length on the violin was ‘quite normal’. There is a short neck, and a long stop, which balances out that the string length is normal. This means that you will feel the difference when you get to 4th position.’

Plays the Paganini Chromatic 1231234 etc

One thing that was raised by Maestro Gaccetta when I spoke to him last year was that Paganini’s chromatic system eschewed open strings. (plays the scale slowly). This clearly works perfectly on this violin, set up as it is. It is interesting how often Paganini gave people album leaves simply showing scales. This is one of them, and it seems as if this was also what he gave to Clara Schumann, when they met in 1833 [check].

Harmonics at the top of this instrument feel much firmer than a traditionally set up instrument. (Plays e”” flageolet). Interestingly, although this is a normal length fingerboard,  there seems to be a visual clue that violinists use her, as to where the top usable harmonics lie (play); if you look at it from the playing position, the top e”’ flageolet appears to lie about 1cm from the end of the fingerboard. Here it is notably further down. This is the shortening stop length that Alberto Giordano was talking about earlier. This is a bit of a shock because, within violin lore, this is a known to be a very difficult violin to play, because of its long stop length, and because it was a very big violin. But Alberto Giordano rapidly put me right on this:’ It is not a big violin. We have two different lengths, 35.4. and 35. 3mm, on the belly and the back . The back is shorter. This is a cute violin.’ So its apparent size is an illusion, a myth; the scroll is similarly deceptive; it looks big, and even chunky, but it is not a big scroll at all. Alberto Gioradano: ‘The first mistake that most violin makers make is to make this scroll so broad, and it is not. Of course, we cannot say that it is delicate, but the appearance of size, is at most, an illusion.’ In the past couple of days, we have been discussing the idea that del Gesu was using a trick with the light, almost exaggerating the chiaroscuro of the scroll, to make it look, in the true sense, look hefty.

(plays rapid upbow staccato from Paganini15th Caprice) It is interesting that one has to use a much lighter bow stroke to get this to work.

(Plays Locatelli-il laberinto armonico) This piece is perfect on this setup. The string crossings, with the violin held low, are so much easier here. (Paganini 1st Caprice). We have talked extensively about how much easier it becomes to play this, with this set-up, with the violin held low, as he is shown there-on the Maclise (sic) portrait.

Paganini's Bridge from 'il Cannone' (note multiple notches)