Niccolò Paganini

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by

Niccolò Paganini


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On the 13th May 1831, the young singer and pianist, John Orlando Parry wrote in his Journal, ‘Remarks on things in general’: /“That wonder of wonders, viz “Paganni” , arrived in the Country! He does the most inconceivable things on the Violin-He is going to give a Concert on the 21st-all the world will be there.”

The vital part of Niccolo Paganini’s rise was for private for audiences. Whilst the public saw his vaudevillian appearances in theatres and halls, he gave revelatory, improvisatory performances in the drawing rooms of doctors, amateurs, and enthusiasts.

It was reported that, Napoleon’s sister,  Elisa Bacciochi was in the habit of lying on her couch listening to Paganini play, much as she had listened to the Vicomte Réné de Chateaubriand; she was in the habit of fanning herself coquettishly as her poets and musicians declaimed and performed. Under the rule of Elisa, the Court of Lucca became a musical centre, driven by the enthusiasm of Felix Bacciocchi for the violin, and that of his wife for the company of musicians, which made her the subject of much gossip. Paganini played for Elisa, and gave violin lessons and played duets with her somewhat feckless husband.Elisa Bacciochi, was born Marie Anne Elisa Bonaparte. In 1797, she married Felice Bacciochi, a captain in the French Army. When Bonaparte unified Piombino and Lucca into a principality, he conferred the responsibilities of government upon her. In 1809 she became the Grand-Duchess of Tuscany, at which time her court transferred to Florence, which made Paganini hopeful that he was still in favour and could benefit from the move. This, however, was not the case. Her Kapellmeister was Antonino Puccini, who was the second generation of Puccinis to direct the Capello Palatino.   His great-grandson Giacomo, also born in Lucca, would later bring true lustre to the family name.

Perhaps advised by Rossini, himself an accomplished self-publicist, Paganini was careful to curry favour with the establishment and to play variations on the most popular melodies. He paid homage to the Emperor Franz by composing his Maestoso Suonata Sentimentale shortly after his arriving. This was based on Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, better known as Haydn‘s ‘Emperor’s Hymn’. There was method in this careful dedication. Paganini was seeking out a rare and useful appellation, that of k.k. Kammervirtuoso. Achieving this rank would give him a vital bill of safe passage all over Europe, as it announced that the bearer was considered a subject “of the Austrian Emperor in all countries and always under the protection of the Austrian envoys.”

Niccolo Paganini demonstrated an almost unequalled appetite for touring, and when on tour, to perform everywhere, however small the venue. I was very moved to discover, that on at least one occasion, he refunded his fee to promoters when audience was too small to justify playing. He came to resent his celebrity in London.

“Although the curiosity to see me had long been satisfied, although I have played in public more than 30 times, and although my portrait has been published in every conceivable style and pose,  I cannot leave my rooms without collecting a crowd, which is content to follow or accompany me, they walk beside me, ahead of me, they speak to me in English, of which I do not understand a word, they touch me as though as to make sure that I am real flesh and blood. And this does not apply merely to the ordinary crowd, but to the better class of people”.

Paganini’s visits to London irrevocably changed the expectations of audiences, both of the nature of the concert experience, and the standard of soloists. This can be seen both in his imitators, such as Isaac Collins, who immediately tried to capitalize on both the financial possibilities of this new style of concert giving, and the new cult of ‘celebrity’ which Paganini represented.

In 1835, four years after Paganini’s first appearance in London, Madame Tussaud opened her museum as part of the ‘Baker Street Bazaar’, where historical figures were mixed with celebrities of the stage, first amongst them, Paganini himself prima inter pares amongst the waxwork stars.

Madame Tussaud wrote: ‘celebrities strictly up to date should be continually added to every part of the exhibition.’

Of course, the new style and standards of concert giving, were not comfortable for many of the touring artists accustomed to the London stage before Paganini. In 1830, the pianist Johan Nepomuk Hummel had given triumphant concerts in London, but when he returned, hard on the heels, of Paganini in 1831, his concerts failed to sell; the pianistic style which had aroused the admiration of Beethoven and Mozart was now passé.

Paganini invited the young Mendelssohn to play Beethoven sonatas with him. Nothing, however, came of this because the great virtuoso fell ill; but apparently Mendelssohn and Moscheles had already come to the conclusion that Paganini ‘no longer exercised the old charm over us. That eternal mawkishness’, Moscheles had written a year before, ‘becomes at last too much of a good thing.’ Paganini had made strenuous efforts to purchase all of Beethoven’s quartets, including the late ones, before he first arrived in Vienna in 1828.

Our all but complete ignorance of what took place behind the closed doors of exclusive drawing rooms has prevented any record of Paganini’s dedication to Beethoven’s chamber music. For various reasons, the centrality of chamber music to Paganini’s life has escaped popular and critical attention. This is much to do with a perceived dichotomy between his apparently vaudevillian public face and ‘serious’ music. This does not reflect the actuality. Paganini made a point of seeking out, and performing Viennese chamber music, for the whole of his working life. The simple reason that this has escaped from our notice is that the majority of these performances did not take place in concert halls or opera theatres, but behind the closed door of the salon. The notion of ‘performing’ chamber music, as opposed to concertante or orchestral music, to a listening audience was almost completely alien to both musicians and audiences until the 1830’s. Chamber music was seen as being a communal art, whether in playing it, or experiencing it in the relaxed conviviality of the salon, the drawing room or even the parlour.

‘Paganini on Beethoven, 1832:   “Se (sic) Beethoven non fosse morto, gli avrei dato il piano per comporne un opera grande fra me a lui, che avrebbe vissuto all’immortalitàI’ (If Beethoven had no died, I would have suggested to him a plan for the composition of a grand opera between us, which should have lasted to immortality)

The Sculptor Pierre David d’Angers described a conversation which he had with Paganini whilst excuting a portrait bust of him in Paris in 1831:

‘It appears that the feeble soul exercises a tyrannical power over this feeble body-he never laughs, he has too much genius…when I told him that I wanted to ask him to move his head forward and to the side, like a man playing the violin, he said to me: “Yes, because I draw upon my inner self for my outer self.”’.

Joseph Joachim would gain fame as the antithesis of Paganini, and publicly stated his aversion to his music. However, he wrote the following to Clara Schumann in 1855.

To Clara Schumann­, HANOVER, Wednesday, 4pm. ‘I am not sure of date. [April 4, 1855]- I have begun to practise hard so that we can play the Paganini Studies, which I am dying to hear, in the summer. I hope to play them at Endenich with Johannes some time.’

Dantan 'charge' of Paganini ca. 1831 (photo PSS 220211)