Massimo Quarta Conjures Paganini’s Diabolical and Divine Daemon on ‘Il Cannone’

Daemon: An attendant or indwelling spirit or one’s genius. An action exhibiting superhuman or diabolical energy or skill.

It was Paganini’s 235th birthday on 27th October, and I thought it was high time I revisited some aspects of the maestro’s life and share the incredible performances of his six violin concertos by Massimo Quarta on Paganini’s beloved violin, ‘Il Cannone’.

Portrait of Niccolo Paganini with ‘Il Cannone’ by the Italian School

For me these concerto recordings are special, not only because are they performed on ‘Il Cannone’, or because of the virtuosity, sensitivity and artistic fervour they are played with, but also for the fact that they are performed and recorded using Paganini’s original autograph score, which differs in quite a few aspects from the printed 19th century versions. Truly authentic! 

This was the first time the Violin Concerto No. 1 has been recorded in the original key of E Flat-Major, with the violin tuned up a semitone as Paganini directed on his autograph score.

It’s hard to imagine the pressure that Massimo Quarta and his orchestral colleagues must have felt in performing such historic and culturally important recordings.

Massimo Quarta was a pupil of Salvatore Accardo and winner of the 1991 International Paganini Violin Competition. His performances with the Orchestra of Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice strike a passionate chord and somehow convey a spiritual affinity with Paganini.

We can listen to these romantic works exactly as Paganini conceived, composed and most likely played them!

“You can feel all the tears and pain from his terrible life, and also the joy in music.” ~ Massimo Quarta

But first, a story…

When Niccolo Paganini was five years old and began learning to play the mandolin and guitar under his father’s tutelage; his mother, Theresa had a vivid dream.

Possibly it was spurred on by knowledge of Giuseppe Tartini’s infamous dream and ensuing composition: the Devil’s Trill Violin Sonata, and it was to have a powerful effect on Paganini’s future as a violin virtuoso of the likes the world had never seen.

Theresa’s dream could well be said to have proved a self-fulfilling prophecy for Niccolo. She saw a theatre in flames, and her son, playing triumphant music and standing tall over the flames, with Tartini conducting next to a red devil with a guitar, competing for Paganini’s soul. An angel then appeared and she asked that her boy become a great violinist, whose name would be immortal in the pantheon of musicians.

It was his mother’s bizarre dream that likely inspired Paganini in his relentless pursuit of glory and gold.

Paganini believed his mother’s dream and carried her vision throughout his astonishing life. This vivid, early association with the devil no doubt contributed greatly to his supreme confidence and later his professional reputation and personal notoriety.

Being the devil’s violinist made an interesting narrative, with drama and furore following him almost everywhere he went. It is incomprehensible how he was able to play beyond the limits of his endurance as a man who constantly struggled with his health, and his energies weren’t just reserved for his music!

Portrait of Paganini by Eugene Delacroix

My first blog about the maestro goes into more detail about his life.

His personality was full of contradictions, many of which Paganini was happy to portray when it suited him. His fame and wealth far exceeded that of any previous violinists.

With an inner strength he battled his physical ailments and tilled his creative, commercial and musical soil with an alacrity possibly still unmatched by modern day soloists.

Paganini’s Violin Concerto’s No. 1 in E Flat-Major and Concerto No. 2 in B minor on Paganini’s violin, ‘Il Cannone’:

He certainly had a significant impact on the young Franz Liszt, a musician who also broke the mould of Romantic era composers and virtuosi, leaving his particular legacy on the piano.

Liszt’s amazing piano composition Grandes études de Paganini, S.14 was his impressive homage to the violinist, performed here by Daniil Trifonov:

“The excitement he caused was so unusual, the magic that he practiced upon the fantasy of his hearers so powerful that they could not satisfy themselves with a natural explanation. All tales of witches and ghosts came into their minds. They tried to explain the wonder of his playing through his past to fathom the magic of his genius by invoking the supernatural. They even suggested that he had dedicated his soul to the devil.” ~ Franz Liszt

I do feel sympathy with Paganini’s childhood. As a frail boy, he was often ill, but was made to play his violin for long hours by his father. I see shades of Mozart and Beethoven in his upbringing. If he didn’t practice enough his father would beat him and deprive him of food. Herr Beethoven wasn’t averse to beating young Ludwig…

Paganini lamented that it was ‘difficult to imagine a stricter father.’

Niccolo had composed his first violin sonata (now lost), at the age of 8, only too aware of Mozart’s achievement in writing his first piano concerto at the age of 6!!

In addition to his rigorous practice schedule the Paganini’s first showcased their son’s talents in a public concert when he was 11 years old.  His parents’ high expectations for their son must also have had a bearing on his beliefs that his destiny was to become the greatest violinist that ever lived; thereby steering him on a path that wasn’t always to make him happy and certainly seemed to possess him.

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, M.S. 60:

At the age of 19, he had come to the attention of a government minister and was asked to play a short piece during an Easter mass in Santa Croce, Lucca. Paganini brazenly performed a 28 minute concerto!

As a young man approaching the apex of his near miraculous abilities, Paganini began composing his stunning 24 Caprices for Solo Violin.

His immense talent, (possibly overlooked as the result of blossoming skill attained throughout the many years of hard graft as a sickly youth), was a source of jealousy, envy and hostility, but also of intense admiration from his audience and peers alike.

He wrote his music to elevate his prestige as a virtuoso, which sometimes proved too much for the more sensitive listeners, and for those who could not come to terms with his startling innovations on the instrument.

From Project Gutenberg:
Paganini did occasionally play concertos by Rode and Kreutzer, though it was said that in these he was less successful than in his own. The Rev. Dr. Cox heard Paganini play the first movement of Beethoven’s Concerto—in fact it was performed for his special edification. This is what he said of it:
“Never shall I forget the smile on that sad, pale, wan, and haggard face, upon every lineament of which intense pain was written in the deepest lines, when I caught his eye, or the playing, into which a spirit and sympathy were thrown that carried one wholly away. As soon as he had concluded, and before I could rush up to him to express my thanks, he glided away. I never saw him afterwards.”

Paganini’s critics and detractors did not hold back in their efforts to malign him.

Thomas Moore going for the jugular: ‘He abuses his powers. He can play divinely and sometimes does for a minute or two, but then come his tricks and surprises, his bowing convulsions and his inharmonics like the mewling of an expiring cat.’

Wolfgang von Goethe seemed more bewildered, commenting, ‘I can find no base for this column of flame and smoke. All I know is that I heard meteoric sounds that I have not yet succeeded in interpreting.’

Karl Friedrich Zelter pronounced, ‘I find him irritating,’ and went on to describe Paganini as ‘not so much a lunatic as a poseur.’

Another reviewer in Hamburgisches Handelsblatt slated his Vienna performance: ‘I have never been so let down as by this so-called virtuoso’, accusing him of trickery and writing, ‘it was more like a twittering of sparrows than any legitimate musical sound.’

At a concert I ran a nail into my heel and came limping onto the stage, which made the audience laugh. As I was preparing to play, the candles fell out of my music desk, which produced more laughter. When I began to play the concerto, my E string broke, which again provoked laughter. But when they saw me continue on three strings, it caused a furore. ~ Niccolò Paganini

However, no-one remembers or celebrates his harsh critics. Fortunately Paganini also had his ardent fans…

“There was nothing wanting to the greatness of Paganini, not even the failure of his contemporaries to understand him.”  ~ Albert Jarosy
“His never-erring execution is beyond conception. You ask too much if you expect me to give a description of his playing. It would take up the whole letter; for he is so original, so unique, that it would require an exhaustive analysis to convey an impression of his style.” ~ Felix Mendelssohn
“On Easter Sunday in the evening I heard Paganini. What ecstasy. In his hands the driest exercises flame up like pithy pronouncements.” ~ Robert Schumann
“In Paganini’s Adagio I heard the singing of angels. We will not see this fellow’s like again.” ~ Franz Schubert
“Never has an artist caused such a sensation within our walls as this god of the violin. Never has the public so gladly carried its money to a concert, and never in my memory has the fame of a virtuoso so penetrated to the lowest classes of the population. When we say that in his hands the violin sounds more beautiful and more moving than any human voice, that his glowing sound kindly warmth in every heart, that every singer could learn from him, one has still said nothing that illuminates his playing – that is Paganini.
Anyone who has not heard him can have no idea of it. One must hear him, and hear him again – only then can it be believed.” ~ Ignaz Castelli
“It was a divine, a diabolic enthusiasm; I never saw or heard anything to equal it in all my life. People have all gone crazy. But you should see how awkward he was. He is the most magnificent lout that nature ever invented.” ~ Ludwig Boerne
“In a dream, Tartini saw a devil playing a diabolic sonata. That devil was surely Paganini.” ~ Francois Castil-Blaze
What a man! What a violin! What an artist! What suffering, what anguish, what torment those four strings can express! ~ Franz Liszt

One of the supporters firmly on the side of Team Paganini was Carl Guhr, the German violinist, composer and conductor based in Frankfurt. According to Guhr, there were six differences and innovations that set Paganini above the rest of the violin pack:

  1. His method of tuning. Paganini raised the pitch of all strings by a semitone and altered his G string alone when needed to a minor third higher.
  2. His method of bowing. ‘Paganini’s unique bowing gives his playing the greatest vitality and variety. His subtle nuances give his singing melodies a sweetness that words cannot express. But the chief difference is his astonishing staccato. He throws his bow on the strings with a whipping action and plays scale passages with incredible rapidity while the sounds of his violin roll off as smooth as pearls.’
  3. His practise of combining bold notes with left hand pizzicato. This was a device used traditionally by the Italian School, especially in the time of violinist Niccolò Mestrino, and neglected by the French and German Schools. ‘Today only Paganini uses the technique and with the greatest success.’
  4. His use of harmonics. ‘One can say with certainty that much of Paganini’s security and clarity on the violin is directly related to his complete mastery and extended use of harmonics. This enables him to play with astonishing ease phrases that would otherwise be quite impossible on the instrument.
  5. His compositions for the G string alone. ‘In these the G string is tuned a minor third high, sometimes even a major third high, while using a much thinner string, and they have won him the greatest celebrity.’
  6. Paganini’s Tour de Force. ‘I cannot be expected to describe them all, almost everyone who hears him for the first time is astonished and excited by so much that is new and surprising. Paganini can touch the deepest levels of the soul and perform unprecedented feats with dazzling perfection. The effect is far beyond description.

Paganini Violin Concerto No. 3 in E Major and Concerto No. 5 in A minor:

It seemed that public opinion of him went up and down according to whatever rumours and stories were circulating about him at any given time, but despite the vicissitudes of his popularity throughout his career, Paganini had the innate gift of being able to surprise his audience.

Everyone says that such a triumph here (London) is unprecedented. I played, and all the malignant slander changed to ineffable praise. ~ Niccolò Paganini

Even Paganini’s appearance fed the myths and legend of his association with the devil. Heinrich Heine wrote of his physical attributes:

He wore a frock coat of dark grey which reached to his heels and gave him an appearance of great height. His long, dark hair fell to his shoulders in twisted locks and formed a black frame for his pale, cadaverous face, on which sorrow, genius and hell had left their ineffaceable stigmata.

La Comtesse de Lamothe-Langdon described him as ‘a figure that looked almost twisted. His nose and mouth matched the rest of his appearance as did his deep set eyes that burned with a dark fire. All of this gave a look of the Satanic to his whole person.’ However, she goes to state that when he spoke of the violin and when he began to play, she no longer thought him ugly.

In Paris, in the spring of 1831 Paganini put on a gala concert at the Opera House with the help of Rossini, (having declined to give a private performance for King Louis Philippe I on health grounds), where ticket prices were selling at double their normal price.

The refined French School was more concerned with artistic expression than pure technique and blazing virtuosity, but Paganini had both in abundance – plus a generous helping of showmanship.

Paganini by Richard James Lane

In the audience were the musical, literary and artistic icons of the day: George Sand, Eugene Delacroix, Cherubini, Heinrich Heine and Franz Liszt.

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 6 (aka. No. 0) in E Minor, MS 75, Massimo Quarta:

“Although this work carries the number 6 it is actually the earliest of Paganini’s surviving concertos. For a long time only a version for violin and guitar was available and Federico Mompellio and Francesco Fiore provided the orchestral accompaniment (published in 1973).
Paganini wrote this concerto to flaunt his violinistic virtuosity as no other music of his time could. In and around melodies that are ardently if not profoundly expressive the soloist gets to show off lines in the violin’s highest compass, wide leaps of register, dashing scales and arpeggios, strings of trills, saltando bowing, and passages in double stops . The orchestra accompanies discretely and sometimes speaks up in tutti passages of its own. Much of the music recalls opera, and the tone is predominantly plaintive.” ~ Aaron Rabushka

After 8 concerts in 11 weeks Paganini was 158,000 francs richer, an incredible sum of money for a soloist to earn at that time. Following his stint in Paris he went to London and 151 concerts later made five times his weight in gold, even though his concerts sold at normal ticket prices.

Paganini’s grand tour of Europe made him wealthy beyond all imagining, but sadly, towards the end of his life he made a disastrous investment in a casino that failed and ultimately cost him a fortune in excessive fines.

There is a touching story about his enduring friendship with French composer, Hector Berlioz, and the origins of Berlioz’s Piece for Viola and Orchestra, Harold in Italy (via Gutenberg Press, by Stephen S. Stratton):

It was sometime in January, 1834, that Paganini called upon Berlioz and said he had a wonderful viola, a Stradivari, upon which he should much like to play in public, but he had no music for it. Would Berlioz write a solo for him? Berlioz was flattered by the proposal, but replied that in order to produce a composition sufficiently brilliant to suit such a virtuoso, he—Berlioz—ought to be able to play the viola, and that he could not do. So he thought Paganini alone could meet his own wishes. Paganini, however, pressed his own point, adding that he himself was too unwell to compose anything. Berlioz then set to work. To quote his own words: “In order to please the illustrious virtuoso, I then endeavoured to write a solo for the viola, but so combined with the orchestra as not to diminish the importance of the latter, feeling sure that Paganini’s incomparable execution would enable him to give the solo instrument all its due prominence. The proposition was a new one. A happy idea soon occurred to me, and I became intensely eager to carry it out.”
Paganini was impatient to see the music, and as soon as the first movement was finished, it was shown to him. He did not like the long silences. “That is not at all what I want,” he said; “I must be playing the whole time.” “You really want a concerto for the tenor,” Berlioz replied, “and you are the only man who can write it.” Paganini said no more, and soon afterwards left for Nice.
Berlioz then gave free play to his fancy, and wrote the series of scenes for the orchestra, the background formed from the recollections of his wanderings in the Abruzzi, the viola introduced as a sort of melancholy dreamer, in the style of Byron’s “Childe Harold.” Hence the title “Harold in Italy.” Now, this is the point: “Harold” was inspired by Paganini, who indirectly gave a new art-form to the world. The piece was produced on November 23rd, 1834, but Paganini was then in Italy, and he did not hear it until four years later.
Berlioz: “The concert was just over; I was in a profuse perspiration, and trembling with exhaustion, when Paganini, followed by his son Achilles, came up to me at the orchestra door, gesticulating violently. Owing to the throat affection of which he ultimately died, he had already completely lost his voice, and unless everything was perfectly quiet, no one but his son could hear or even guess what he was saying. He made a sign to the child, who got up on a chair, put his ear close to his father’s mouth and listened attentively. Achilles then got down, and turning to me, said, ‘My father desires me to assure you, sir, that he has never in his life been so powerfully impressed at a concert; that your music has quite upset him, and that if he did not restrain himself he should go down on his knees to thank you for it.’
I made a movement of incredulous embarrassment at these strange words, but Paganini seizing my arm, and rattling out ‘Yes, yes!’ with the little voice he had left, dragged me up on the stage, where there were still a good many of the performers, knelt down, and kissed my hand. I need not describe my stupefaction; I relate the facts, that is all.”

Paganini paying homage to Berlioz after Harold in Italy

In his frenzied state Berlioz went out into the bitter cold, met Armand Bertin on the boulevard, told him what had occurred, caught a chill, and again had to keep his bed.
Two days later, the little Achilles called, the bearer of a letter, and of a message to the effect that his father would himself have paid the visit, but was too ill to do so. The letter ran as follows:
“My Dear Friend,
Beethoven dead, only Berlioz now can revive him; and I, who have enjoyed your divine compositions, worthy of the genius which you are, entreat you to accept, in token of my homage, twenty thousand francs, which will be remitted you by the Baron de Rothschild on presentation of the enclosed. Believe me always your most affectionate friend,
Nicolo Paganini.”

His powerful story became a legend, even in his own lifetime; fuelled by his incredible performances and quirky persona so that it took on a life of its own. Paganini’s legend has not simply endured, it has burgeoned into a mythical tale of tempestuous talent, suffering, greatness and infamy.

It seems Paganini was possessed by his Daemon at the expense of all else, so despite his shortcomings and irrepressible ego, his musical greatness will never be forgotten.

Portrait of Paganini by Maurin

An interesting documentary about the first performance of Paganini’s first violin concerto on ‘Il Cannone’ (not from the original autograph score), by Shlomo Mintz. He gets acquainted with Paganini’s favourite violin at its home in Genoa, before travelling to the Netherlands for his performance in Maastricht. There is plenty of footage of the violin in action:

The recordings with Massimo Quarta and Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova are possibly the closest thing that we will ever hear to what Paganini may have sounded like when performing his violin concertos.

The combination of the original music score, Massimo’s reverent virtuosity and the projection power of Guarneri del Gesù’s 1742 ‘Il Cannone’ is one to be savoured…

The greatness of this genius, unequalled, unsurpassed, precludes even the idea of a successor. No one will be able to follow in his footsteps; no name will equal in his glory. ~ Franz Liszt

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