Niccolò Paganini


Born: Oct 27, 1782; Italy   Died: May 27, 1840; France   Period: Romantic
The remarkable international career of Niccolò Paganini -- regarded in legend as the greatest virtuoso violinist ever -- did not begin until relatively late in life. Born in Genoa in 1782, Paganini received his first musical instruction from his father, a devoted amateur musician. Niccolò's rapid progress on the violin, however, was such that his father (who was in fact a mandolinist, and thus little suited to train his precocious son) was soon Read more compelled to send his son to Giacomo Costa, maestro di capella of the Cathedral at San Lorenzo, for further study. Although he quickly gained some local fame and even embarked on a minor tour of Italy in 1797, it would be many years before Paganini consented to perform outside his native land.
Paganini began composing seriously after his initial tour of Italy in 1797. He performed little during the initial years of the nineteenth century, preferring instead to devote his time to composition and romance (happily combining the two when he met a Florentine noblewoman, to this day anonymous, with a passion for the guitar). In 1805 he resumed his active musical career, accepting the directorship of the orchestra at Lucca, and in 1813 he embarked on a series of concert tours throughout the Italian peninsula.
In 1825, after nearly 30 years of intensive practice and self-scrutiny, Paganini felt he had developed his skills sufficiently to put them on display for all of Europe, and he left Italy for an extensive European tour (Vienna debut 1828, Paris 1831, London 1831). His astounding technical prowess amazed audiences of the day, and many fanciful legends arose to explain his remarkable abilities (one of the more popular held that he was in league with demonic powers, a legend rather supported by his gaunt, pale features). He died in 1840 from cancer of the larynx, having all but ended his concert career in 1834.
Paganini's impact on nineteenth century music cannot be overestimated: he set an entirely new standard of technical virtuosity; he was among the first musicians to champion the music of Berlioz (having commissioned, but never performed, Harold in Italy); and the inspirational effect that his works would have on the young Franz Liszt -- who set out to duplicate Paganini's achievements on the piano -- would alter both the course of music and the life of the young Liszt forever. Paganini's own compositions, including an unidentified number of violin concertos (some six are extant) and numerous chamber works, have more or less been abandoned. The concertos are written in the Italian operatic style of the day, oscillating between lyric charm and ferocious technical display, and are the only works of his which remain in the repertory (though many of the shorter works, by comparison, are gems and deserve to be played more). Read less
Paganini: Complete Caprices For Solo Violin / Ruggiero Ricci
Release Date: 05/04/2010   Label: Musical Concepts  
Catalog: 1077   Number of Discs: 1
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Garrett vs. Paganini / David Garrett
Release Date: 01/27/2015   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 002262002   Number of Discs: 1
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Paganini: Violin Concertos No 1 & 4 / Szeryng, Gibson
Release Date: 11/20/2007   Label: Pentatone  
Catalog: 5186178   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Caprices (24) for Violin solo, Op. 1


About This Work
It is perhaps sadly ironic that the works directly inspired by the last of Niccolò Paganini's prodigiously difficult 24 Caprices for solo violin (ca. 1817) have overshadowed their source and indeed, the whole of this hugely influential set of Read more technical exercises. But unquestionably, it is the demonic theme of Caprice No. 24, which provided the impetus for composers as diverse as Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski, and Lloyd-Webber to use the theme as the basis for their own variation works, which has become Paganini's musical epitaph. This sinister, angular theme conjures up in our minds the gaunt, white face of the violinist whom many thought was in league with Lucifer himself more palpably than any other!

Paganini's music has often been slighted for its lack of profundity; he was, after all, a superstar violinist first and a composer second. Among violinists, however, mastery of the Caprices, Op. 1, represents the summit of technical attainment, and beside the solo violin works of Bach, and perhaps the much later solo sonatas by Ysaÿe, this set stands as one of the greatest volumes of music ever devised for a solo string instrument.

The Caprices were published by Ricordi in 1820, and while their musical content reflected Paganini's astounding technical brilliance, they also served another groundbreaking function. Although primarily intended as technical exercises "A gli Artisti" (dedicated "To the Artists"), the caprices are so wide-ranging in their scope that they actually transcend all expected pedagogic constraints, and thus stand out impressively as bravura miniatures endowed with genuine musical as well as instructional value. In this regard, the series inspired a new interest in compositions which were at once formidably challenging, but also musically rewarding to both players and listeners alike. One of the earliest composers to recognize and emulate this was Chopin, whose Études for piano were directly inspired by the violin caprices. Other composers, notably Berlioz (who composed his symphony Harold in Italy to display Paganini's skills on the viola), Schumann, and especially Franz Liszt, were deeply impressed.

The 24 Caprices for solo violin encompass every imaginable aspect of violin technique, and in many cases, for example in their use of complex multiple stopping, fast passagework, and imaginative bowing permutations, very few, if indeed any other violinist contemporary with Paganini himself could have actually played them! Some of the more spectacular violin pyrotechnics include the combination of bowing and pizzicato (plucking), a full exploration of the use of harmonics, double-stopped trills, and recourse to widely spaced chords based on Paganini's remarkable ability to stretch vast distances across the fingerboard.

-- Michael Jameson
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