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8.557598 - PAGANINI: Guitar Music
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Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840)
Guitar Music

Nicolò Paganini was music’s first superstar. His career as a violinist was attended by inflated concert prices, mass enthusiasm, even hysteria, rumours of supernatural powers, a pact with the devil, all supported by a superb violin technique, a capacity for daring innovation and a genuine musical gift. All very unlike the quiet life of a classical guitarist.

Yet Paganini was a guitarist too, and a very good one. He wrote: ‘I love the guitar for its harmony; it is my constant companion in all my travels’. He also said, on another occasion, ‘I do not like this instrument, but regard it simply as a way of helping me to think’. It is not a real contradiction: even the most constant of companions can be irritating at times. He chose not to exploit the guitar in the same way as he exploited the violin. Had he done so, the advances in technique the guitar has seen during the last two or three generations might have come a great deal sooner. Only recently has the full extent of Paganini’s guitar compositions been revealed. Few of them were ever published, and when the Italian government was offered the collection, they turned it down. The guitar remained out of fashion for a long time, and Paganini’s connection with it was all but forgotten. Our modern age is to a large extent concerned with discovery and revival, and it was inevitable that Paganini’s work should come under scrutiny sooner or later. Because the guitar compositions do not contain the brilliance that we find in the Caprices for violin, it is easy to dismiss them as inferior, in the sense of ‘not so good’. You might as well say that Snowdon is inferior to Mount Everest: it is true only in the literal sense of one mountain being lower than the other, but they are both mountains, the chief difference being that one can be approached for a pleasant afternoon’s walk and the other cannot.

Paganini left a large amount of chamber music that includes the guitar, still to be thoroughly explored. Meanwhile, the music for solo guitar is readily accessible, and guitarists are discovering it with pleasure. Why has it taken the best part of two centuries to bring this attractive music to light? Apart from the fact that most of the guitar pieces were never published – though it is worth noting that of his compositions that were published during his lifetime, all but the 24 Caprices for solo violin include the guitar – Paganini had built up such a huge reputation as an innovative violinist of unprecedented brilliance that it was hard to believe that he played the guitar at a similarly high level. Then, too, the guitar suffered a decline during the nineteenth century. Only recently, fuelled by the record industry’s insatiable demand for new music, has a culture of research grown up in which unheard music by old composers is dragged out of its obscurity, dusted down and found to be not only tolerable but very often good music and well worth reviving.

One of the fascinating things about Paganini is the interaction between his violin technique and his guitar technique. He frequently played both instruments during his musical sessions with friends, even (as an eyewitness has recorded) putting the violin between his knees so that he could pick up the guitar and continue playing without interrupting the flow. We may infer from this that his left hand approached each of the two fingerboards in much the same way, and the guitar music supports this idea: linear rather than vertical harmony, arpeggiated chords aiding the forward movement of the melodic line.

Both violin and guitar are integral parts of Paganini’s unique personality. It is no longer possible to think of one without thinking of the other. The links may not at first be obvious, given that the violin music was for public consumption, with all the superficial display that the public demanded, while the guitar was for music at home among friends. It remains music created by the same man, and that makes a good starting-point. Though his friend Hector Berlioz, who knew something about the guitar, paid tribute to Paganini’s guitar ability, it was his violin that people wanted to hear, and his extraordinary success with it made him a legendary figure in nineteenth-century music. Would his guitar compositions ever have aroused a paying audience to the raptures that his violin brilliance did? We can only guess what might have happened if Paganini had never discovered what he could do with a violin, if he had concentrated his efforts entirely on the guitar. It is not impossible that we would have had a set of Caprices written for the guitar and no less difficult. This is perhaps one reason why his guitar music, on a first hearing, does not glow with the fiery brilliance of those extraordinary pieces for violin, but there is plenty of good music there, as guitarists and their audiences are discovering.

The Grand Sonata originally included a violin part of extreme simplicity, because it was the custom for Paganini to exchange his violin for the guitar of Luigi Legnani at the end of one of their joint recitals. Legnani’s violin playing did not approach the level of Paganini’s guitar playing, however, and the part had to be written accordingly. Its meagre proportions often lead guitarists to dispense with it altogether, apart from incorporating a few of the violin’s notes where appropriate. The rich substance of the guitar part, requiring a virtuoso’s technique, which Paganini had on both instruments, more than makes up for the loss of the violin. The first movement, a free and flowing Allegro risoluto in sonata form, is followed by the endearingly melodic Romance in a slow 6/8 tempo. The Andantino variato is a theme and six variations that becomes more and more technically demanding as the work reaches its stirring conclusion.

The Ghiribizzi (whims, fancies or caprices) seem to have been written in or around 1819. The composer wrote in 1824 that they were for ‘a little girl in Naples’, and that he wanted to scribble (scarabocchiare) some popular tunes rather than compose something more serious. Like many such sketches, written impulsively without careful planning and construction, they have their own unique charm and freshness. No. 16 uses the aria In cor più non mi sento (In my heart I feel nothing more) from Paisiello’s opera La Molinara, No. 37 is based on a melody from La gazza ladra, with Rossini’s Allegro ingeniously remodelled into an Adagietto. Melodies by Mozart (Don Giovanni), Süssmayr and Paganini himself appear among the total of 43, an irresistible collection of melodies in a playable form not needing the highest of guitar techniques, though, as always, a high level of musical understanding. The Ghiribizzi are Paganini’s Album for the Young.

Unlike the Grand Sonata, most of Paganini’s sonatas are in two-movement form, generally a minuet followed by a waltz, an allegretto or even an allegretto scherzando, both movements in the same key. The minuets inevitably conjure up the eighteenth century from time to time, yet they never fail to convey the essence of Paganini’s essentially Romantic music.

The 24 Caprices for unaccompanied violin are Paganini’s most celebrated compositions. Exploiting the violin in daring, exciting and entirely new ways, they changed the image of the violin for ever. Yet Paganini himself never played them in public, though he dedicated them to the artists (agli artisti). It is perhaps strange that, with a few exceptions, guitarists still seem more ready to tackle the extreme technical difficulties of the violin Caprices than to investigate music that Paganini actually wrote for the guitar. That is partly because the guitar music is now virtually part of ‘Early Music’. The Caprices have never remotely approached that status, and are genuine classics, neither ancient nor modern but sublimely timeless.

Colin Cooper


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