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Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 5 Virtuosos

Paganini and Liszt

CHAPTER 5 Virtuosos
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The enlargement and social broadening of the musical public in response to new economic, demographic, and technological conditions was the great nineteenth-century musical change. Its most immediate effect, and one with an eventually profound if sometimes indirect influence on all performing and composing activity, is often called “the democratization of taste.” Attitudes toward it vary with attitudes toward democracy itself. From the aristocratic standpoint the democratization of taste meant the debasement of taste. From the standpoint of the bourgeoisie it meant the enlivening, the enrichment, but above all the enhanced accessibility and social relevance of art.

From the point of view of artists, the democratization of taste meant a new competitiveness, as institutional or household patronage gave way to the collective patronage of a ticket-buying public. The surest road to success no longer lay in reaching high, toward a secure career-niche at the most exclusive social plane, but in reaching wide, “packing them in.” The ability to astonish as well as move became paramount. The age, in short, of the itinerant virtuoso was born. We are still living in it.

There were always itinerant musicians—“wand'ring minstrels,” vagabond players, street serenaders. The difference was that such musicians, especially the instrumentalists, had formerly subsisted at the margins of society, only remotely involved with the literate traditions we have been tracing, which were the product and preserve of the higher social echelons. The new nineteenth-century itinerants, by contrast, were the stars of the musical world, and took their place among the literate tradition's primary bearers and beneficiaries.

For our purposes, the line begins with the Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840). He was not the first of the new breed, to be sure, and came from the land that had the longest, most illustrious tradition of string virtuosity. But he made a career of unprecedented brilliance and notoriety, arousing in its wake an unprecedented degree of envy and zealous emulation that went far beyond the confines of his—or any particular—instrument. In the pithy summary of the violinist-historian Boris Schwarz, “by his development of technique, his exceptional skills and his extreme personal magnetism,” Paganini “not only contributed to the history of the violin as its most famous virtuoso, but drew the attention of Romantic composers to the significance of virtuosity as an element of art.”1

He was born in the northern coastal city of Genoa, then as now Italy's chief seaport and commercial center. As a transport hub Genoa received many foreign visitors, especially from Central Europe, for which it was the main trade outlet. And so it was that a flashy Polish violinist, August Duranowski, happened to give a concert at the Genoese church of San Filippo Neri and aroused the jealous admiration of the twelve-year-old Paganini, whose precocious talents were then just emerging, with his “multitude of technical tricks,” as Paganini later confessed to a biographer.

Chapter 5 Virtuosos

fig. 5-1 Paganini, statuette by Jean-Pierre Dantan, 1832.

The other main formative influence came directly from the “classical” tradition of Italian string virtuosity, when Paganini rediscovered L'arte del violino, a set of twelve concertos by Pietro Locatelli (1695–1764), published in Amsterdam in 1733, each sporting a pair of enormous unaccompanied cadenzas called capricci ad libitum. Paganini modeled his first published composition, 24 Caprices for unaccompanied violin, directly on Locatelli's capricci, and even incorporated a theme from one of them into the first in his own set, as if flaunting his outdone predecessor as a trophy. The technical standard Paganini set with this publication was as much on the cutting edge of virtuosity as Locatelli's had been seventy years before, incorporating not only Duranowski's bag of tricks but a whole array of which Paganini was the inventor, and which, until the Caprices were published, nobody else could duplicate. They remain a benchmark of consummate virtuosity to this day.

All twenty-four are thought to have been completed by 1805, when Paganini was serving as court soloist to the Princess Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon Bonaparte's sister, recently installed by her brother as viceroy in the Italian city-state of Lucca. By 1809, armed with the caprices, Paganini felt ready to renounce the security of a court appointment and ply his trade as a free musical entrepreneur in a style “calculated for the great masses” (as he put it to another violinist composer, Louis Spohr, for whom he declined to play in private).2

A patient, purposeful sort, Paganini confined his activities to Italy for almost twenty years before attempting the conquest of the European capitals. During this time he composed a number of concertos, which he would need for orchestral appearances in the big European centers, and, in 1820, published the caprices, with a half-deferential, half-challenging dedication Agli artisti, “to the artists,” that is, his rivals. The book was met, probably just as Paganini hoped, with scorn and disbelief, and widely pronounced unplayable. In 1828, delayed longer than he intended by several serious illnesses that left him with a cadaverous look he would later turn famously to his advantage, Paganini finally headed across the Alps.

The first city on the invader's map was Vienna. A measure of his effect there can be found in the recollection of Schubert's friend Eduard Bauernfeld that in the aftermath of his one-and-only benefit concert (described in chapter 2), Schubert insisted on treating Bauernfeld to one of Paganini's recitals, saying, “I have stacks of money now—so come on. We'll never hear his like again!”3 (Afterward, Schubert wrote to another friend, “I have heard an angel sing.”)4 After appearances in Prague, then another Austrian city, Paganini hit the German states to the north, playing eleven concerts in Berlin alone. He appeared before Goethe in Weimar (the poet's response: “I have heard something meteoric”); before Heine (who left a fictional memoir of the occasion) in Hamburg; before Robert Schumann (then a budding composer, later a powerful critic) in Frankfurt; and (taking a detour) before Tsar Nikolai I in Warsaw. By now, having had all his teeth extracted on account of jaw disease, Paganini eschewed the use of dentures during concerts, to give his face an even more frightfully sunken aspect.

The only dissenting voice on record is that of old Spohr, who finally caught Paganini's act in Kassel: “In his composition and his style there is a strange mixture of consummate genius, childishness and lack of taste that alternately charms and repels.”5 But it is not clear that Paganini's admirers would have described him any differently; in the new spirit of the time the virtuoso actively cultivated repulsion as an aspect of his charm. It is an aspect of romanticism—(mis)labeled “realism”—that we have already observed in the work of Weber and Meyerbeer, among others.

Finally, in 1831, Paganini reached Paris, where his series of ten concerts at the new opera house inspired press scandals and slander campaigns as if to prove the completeness of his triumph. The same reception greeted him the next year in London, another city with a powerful press. But Paganini knew how to exploit publicity, responding to charges of venality by playing free concerts, reaping praise for his generosity and paeans for his playing, and then, having thus created a fury of demand, charging enormously inflated prices for his remaining appearances.

In Paris, Paganini made a conquest of another composer-critic in Hector Berlioz, who thought enough of Paganini to favor him not with the viola concerto that Paganini requested of him, but rather a big programmatic symphony (Harold in Italy) based on Lord Byron's poem Childe Harold, with a viola obbligato that symbolized the romantic loner, the archetype of the age, testifying to the new role the virtuoso protagonist was assuming at the pinnacle of modern art. The most fateful—indeed prophetic—encounter in Paris, however (though Paganini was not aware of it), was with the nineteen-year-old Franz Liszt, who, sitting unnoticed and incredulous in the hall, heard the great virtuoso perform the fabled caprices in addition to his Second Concerto.

And then, in 1834, after only six years, the whirlwind was over. Continued ill-health forced Paganini, now a wealthy man, back into semiretirement in Italy, where he briefly accepted a position—for a man of his means a sinecure, really—as maestro di cappella at the ducal court of Parma. Later, like Rossini before him but less luckily, he ventured into business, sponsoring an ill-fated gambling casino in Paris over which he lost a good part of his fortune. On his deathbed he refused the ministrations of a priest, for which reason the church denied him a religious burial. For five years his body was stored in a cellar in Nice, occupying a discarded olive oil vat, until the Grand Duchess of Parma intervened to have him interred. His dark exploits thus continued even after his death.

Needless to say, and for all sorts of reasons, Paganini was a legend in his lifetime. His effective international career lasted a mere six years, but its long-term historical impact must far exceed that of any other single-handed burst of musical activity of comparable duration. It went far beyond the matter of his instrumental technique, peerless and influential though that was. With his gaunt and gangling appearance and his demoniac temperament, Paganini almost single-handedly forged the romantic mystique of virtuosity as a superhuman, even diabolical endowment. He was Faust come to life—a role model for countless geniuses, charlatans, entertainers, and adolescents ever since his first appearances abroad.

His ability to dominate and mesmerize an audience created a whole new relationship—a far more romantic relationship—between artist and collective patronage than had ever existed before. Fig. 5-2, a famous caricature (Paganini, Master-Magician) by the painter and poet L. P. A. Burmeister (alias Lyser, 1804–70), replete with cabalistic symbols, a dance of death, and a hypnotized maiden, effectively sums up his extraordinary image, and helps account for the hostility toward Paganini on the part of the church that ultimately refused him burial. That hostility, his quick burnout, and his perpetual association with wasting disease only enhanced his fiendish aura, turning him, despite the commercial nature of his career and his abundant worldly success, into one of the century's authentic poètes maudits.

Chapter 5 Virtuosos

fig. 5-2 Niccolò Paganini, in a caricature, Paganini, Master-Magician (1819), by Lyser.

For an idea—probably only a dim idea—of what the shouting was all about, we can turn to Paganini's written legacy. There we will see technical innovation galore, but what is more important, we will see it allied to a new poetic idea of virtuosity and its role in musical expression. That poetic idea comes across best not in Paganini's concertos but in his shorter pieces. The five concertos, underneath the fireworks rather ordinary works from the formal or craftsmanly point of view, are proof of the composer's traditional schooling and competence. (In his teens Paganini had studied composition quite seriously, eventually with Ferdinando Paer, the composer of the first Leonora opera.) The only glimmer they contain of Paganini's uniqueness is the finale of the Second (1826), a rondo based—typically for the day—on a folk tune, a popular Neapolitan tarantella called La campanella (“The church bell”).

That finale, while full of bravura (“show-offery”), remains well within the bounds of the style brillant or “sparkling style,” the ingratiatingly decorative or ornamental virtuosity well known to the eighteenth century and valued by aristocratic audiences as evidence of their investment, so to speak, in quality goods. The First Concerto (1817), still a popular concert piece, shows how far a composer could go in an effort to “sparkle” in this way. The orchestral parts are written in E♭ but the solo part is written in D major for a violin tuned a half step sharp. In this way, not only will the timbre take on extra brilliance, but all the open-string resonance and multiple stoppings available in D major will remain available at the higher pitch.

Nowadays, possibly because concerto-quality violins have become so inordinately valuable on the art market, because modernized instruments are already under so much greater tension than in Paganini's day, and because concert pitch has actually risen in the twentieth century, no violinist is willing to risk damaging a Strad by tuning it high, and the concerto is performed “honestly,” with all instruments written and sounding in D major. Paganini did not need to worry so; at the time of his death (in relatively straitened circumstances) he owned seven Stradivarius violins, two by Amati, and four (including his favorite) by Guarneri del Gesù. He could afford to be casual about his charlatanry.

The caprices and the variation sets were the pieces in which Paganini turned virtuosity into something new and frightening, in the tradition of romantic realism (“black romanticism”). He made it the vehicle for “thinking new thoughts”—that is, projecting aggressively novel, sometimes grotesquely novel musical ideas—and in so doing inspired generations of artists to do the same. His signature piece, Le streghe (“The witches,” 1813), a set of variations on a theme from a comic opera by Franz Xaver Süssmayr (the Mozart pupil who completed his teacher's requiem), played heavily into the demoniac image Paganini was cultivating. The violinistic technical novelties were now motivated by a shocking poetic idea.

A good example of such grotesquerie is the motive on which the Caprice no. 13 is based (Ex. 5-1a). Basically a study in parallel thirds featuring Paganini's trademark device of playing whole melodies on single strings (or, as here, a pair of strings) with spectacular swooping shifts, the caprice quickly acquired the nickname “Le rire du diable” (“The devil's laugh”) owing to the chilling chromatic descent with portato bowings. Caprice no. 17 (Ex. 5-1b) is another combination of weirdly striking ideas—diatonic and later chromatic runs often involving complicated “downshifting” on a single string (one of the most difficult violinistic tricks to bring off cleanly) juxtaposed with ascending double stops in a contrasting register—that startle and astonish as much as they “please.” The middle section (Ex. 5-1c) is played entirely in octaves: another Paganini specialty of which he was, if not the originator, the chief popularizer, making its emulation a must for all competitors (and in so doing, “advancing” the normal technique of the instrument).

Caprice no. 24, the most famous of the Caprices, combines the genres of technical study and bravura variations. For fairly obvious reasons, variations make an ideal showcase for virtuosity. Here, successive variations on the brief and businesslike binary tema (Ex. 5-1d) feature in turn the “thrown” (jeté) bow stroke, legato string-crossings, octaves, downshifting, broken octaves, parallel thirds and sixths, and so on. Variation 9 (Ex. 5-1e) was the shocker. It introduced a technique of which Paganini was indeed the inventor, the so-called left-hand pizzicato, in which (at the spots marked “+”) the fingers of the left hand are drawn sharply off the strings they stop, thus plucking the pitch prepared by the next lower finger. (This effect, obviously, can be executed only on descending scales or arpeggios or on open strings) The best measure of Paganini's spell on later generations of composers, by the way, is the number of major figures who wrote their own sets of bravura variations on the theme of Caprice no. 24. Besides Liszt, whose transcription we will be viewing shortly, they include Robert Schumann (1810–56), Johannes Brahms (1833–97), Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), Boris Blacher (1903–75), and Witold Lutos?awski (1913–94).

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ex. 5-1a Niccolò Paganini, Caprice, Op. 1, no. 13 (“Rire du diable”)

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ex. 5-1b Niccolò Paganini, Caprice, Op. 1, no. 17 (Andante)

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ex. 5-1c Niccolò Paganini, Caprice, Op. 1, no. 17, middle section

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ex. 5-1d Niccolò Paganini, Caprice, Op. 1, no. 24, Tema

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ex. 5-1e Niccolò Paganini, Caprice, Op. 1, no. 24, Variation 9

The only aspect of Paganiniana that the Caprices do not illustrate is the violinist's pioneering use of harmonics, both natural and (to an extent previously unattempted) “artificial,” in which a lower left-hand finger stops a note that will serve as fundamental to a harmonic produced by a higher finger. It is altogether possible that Paganini performed the Caprices with harmonics that he deliberately held back (as a “trade secret”) from publishing. All of the concert pieces (concertos and variation sets) that were finally published from manuscript after Paganini's death are liberally strewn with them, and all reviewers mention “flageolet tones” as Paganini's pièce de résistance.

Most striking of all is an autograph document that has happened to survive, headed “Segreto comunicato e raccomandato da Paganini al suo caro amico L. G. Germi: Armonici a doppie corde di terza” (Secret passed along and recommended by Paganini to his dear friend L. G. Germi: Harmonics in double stops at the interval of a third), in which the complicated fingerings he had worked out for playing whole scales of parallel thirds in artificial harmonics are divulged to a comrade violinist, who is implored in a note at the foot of the page “to tear up the present paper as soon as you have read it, and not to let yourself be seen performing it, because they will steal the secret from you” (Fig. 5-3).

Chapter 5 Virtuosos

fig. 5-3Segreto comunicato daPaganini.

For Paganini at full strength, then, only a variation set will do. There are many spectacular items from which to choose, from the set on the French revolutionary hymn La carmagnole (1795), composed during his year of study with Paer, to the sets on God Save the King and St. Patrick's Day, composed (perhaps needless to say) for his British tour, to the most famous one of all, the Introduction and Variations on “Dal tuo stellato soglio” (“From thy starry throne”) from Rossini's biblical opera Mosè, played entirely on the low G string (1819). For us, however, the most resonant choice will be the set simply titled I palpiti (“Heart throbs,” 1819), based on the celebrated aria from Rossini's Tancredi at which we took a long look in chapter 1. Like the first concerto, it is composed for a scordatura (“mistuned”) violin, notated in A major but sounding a half step higher, in B♭.

An operatic scena in its own right, it begins with a slow introduction marked larghetto e cantabile to stand in for the obligatory cantabile with which any Rossini cavatina started up. Then comes a section marked Recit.: con grande espress. (Ex. 5-2a) to function as transition, in pure operatic style, to the famous cabaletta, “Di tanti palpiti,” on which the variations will finally be played. By so elaborately evoking the operatic context, Paganini is in effect declaring equal rights for instrumental virtuosity, challenging on their home turf the laurels of the declining castrati and the ascendant musici (sopranos and altos in trousers), for centuries the undefeated international champions of musical Europe. Paganini's ultimate triumph, in fact, was to earn concert fees that equaled and finally exceeded those of opera stars.

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ex. 5-2a Niccolò Paganini, I palpiti, Recitativo

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ex. 5-2b Niccolò Paganini, I palpiti, Theme

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ex. 5-2c Niccolò Paganini, I palpiti, Variation II, mm. 1–12

Since a cabaletta is always cast in strophic form, one could say that Paganini's variations represent a four-stanza aria. The first stanza (Ex. 5-2b) is more or less what Rossini wrote. The second and fourth will remind us of the devices already encountered in the caprices. The third, however, is unique—the longest spate of (practically) uninterrupted armonici a doppie corde di terza Paganini ever committed to paper (Ex. 5-2c). Even here, though, and characteristically, Paganini did not commit the “secret” itself to paper. All he notated was the result, not the means of achieving it. For that, an edited part for the soloist (Ex. 5-2d) has to be supplied, by a violinist familiar with the technique that Paganini guarded so closely during his lifetime, confiding it only once, to Germi. (In 1831, however, a German violinist named Karl Guhr, who had figured it out after hearing Paganini in Frankfurt, spilled the beans: he published a book, Über Paganinis Kunst die Violine zu spielen [On Paganini's Art of Violin Playing] containing tables similar to the one shown in Fig. 5-3.)


(1) Boris Schwarz, “Paganini,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XIV (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 86.

(2) Louis Spohr's Autobiography, Vol. I (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1865), p. 283.

(3) O. E. Deutsch, ed., Schubert: Die Erinnerungen seiner Freunde (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1966), p. 261.

(4) O. E. Deutsch, The Schubert Reader (New York: Norton, 1947), p. 773.

(5) Louis Spohr's Autobiography, Vol. II, p. 168.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Virtuosos." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Virtuosos. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Virtuosos." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-005.xml