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Exploring Music: Melodic--The 24 Caprices Op 1 by Nicolo Paganini

The MHS Review 388 Vol. 11 No.10, 1987

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David M. Greene


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Graphic representations of Nicolo Paganini usually show him as lanky, cadaverous, and ugly as sin. Of the famous portraits, only that by Ingres makes him look presentable--but then Ingres was given to romanticizing his subjects. The poet Heinrich Heine speaks of his "looks bizarre enough to make one shudder," though Berlioz (who owed a good deal to the Italian's generosity) offers a more temperate first impression: "a man with long hair and piercing eyes and a strange, ravaged countenance, a creature haunted by genius."

His appearance, together with his un­precedented and unparalleled violin technique, led many to a conclusion that still persists in some quarters: he was in league with, and probably possessed by, the Devil himself. Accordingly, what has passed for his biography is full of baseless tall tales and innuendos--e.g. he spent a long incarceration in a dungeon for unspeakable sins, and he was a notorious miser who used his art to satisfy his lust for gold. To be sure, he was clearly no angel. He was a notorious, if not always successful, womanizer, and he was an in­veterate gambler, but he was also generous with his money.

About his performing skills, however, there is no question. His era was, of course, an age of virtuosity when concertgoers were as much interested in what amounted to the athleticism of the performer as they were in the music he played. There had been violin virtuosi, almost from the time the instrument came into favor. Some of

them had advanced its technical possibilities; others were notorious for im­itating zoos full of animals and other non­musical sounds. But none approached Paganini in the remarkable possibilities and impossibilities he revealed.

One wonders why such talents arc ascribed to the Devil rather than to the goodness of God; but we seem to have a streak in us that dissociates the good Lord from pleasure. And the violin seems par­ticularly susceptible to diablerie. In Scan­dinavia, where it became a popular instru­ment early on, they used to have fiddle-burnings in the name of piety. And does not the Devil himself covet the soldier's violin in Stravinsky's The Soldier's Story?

These two records serve as a sort of catalog of the Paganinian technical triumphs. In fact, Paganini seems to have had some such notion in mind when he composed the 24 Caprices. The exactness of that "when" is uncertain. The set was published in 1818. Paganini himself speaks of composing technical exercises after 1800, which suggests that he may have written them in Lucca, where he worked (mostly at the court of Elise Bonaparte) from 1801 to 1809. According to the liner notes, he never played them in public, and obviously therefore intended them as workout pieces. Again according to the notes, some of the problems he poses are regarded as insoluble.

He seems to have borrowed that all­-purpose term caprices from Locatelli, who had applied it to the 24 cadenzas he includ­ed with his set of concerti called L'arte def violino. Like them, these are written for the unaccompanied instrument, though they are sometimes heard with piano ac­companiments written later by the Russian violinist Leopold Auer. Despite the technical comiderations, these pieces are quite melodic.

Salvatore Accardo, who has played the fiddle since he was three and is presently one of the master violinists, is not daunted by the difficulties. To fill out the second record (the Caprices run over an hour-and­-a-half) he has chosen three more unaccom­panied pieces. There are several versions of the variations on the air from Paisiello's La molinara (The miller girl) that Beethoven used for one of his piano varia­tions. Accardo uses the one that Frankfurt conductor Carl Guhr set down from memory; it is incredible. As noted, he uses the unaccompanied version of the "God Save the Queen" Variations, a longtime specialty of Ruggiero Ricci's. The little sonata (hitherto unknown to me), written for Princess Elise, is a charmer.

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